Channel 5's Poor People


For the longest time I was unaware of Channel 5’s generous policy of not showing ads on its Demand 5 streaming service. Because of this, it has now usurped Channel 4 as my go-to source for trashy shit aimed at simultaneously shaming the working class subjects of its scrutiny and the working class me wot watches it all.

I’d long assumed as much, but Channel 5 programming really is as scruffy as we all think it is. Forget the immigrants, manual workers and addicts who litter its documentary output, the real scrubbers are the people who commission the stuff. I recently watched an hour long special on Roma Gypsies in Britain that felt the need to incessantly remind me of how much financial support they were receiving. ‘Eugene is coming to London in a week, but not for work—he wants your hard earned tax money’, the narrator said for the fifth time that scene. Every sentence he spoke ended in some kind of barbed attack. ‘That amounts to £1300 a month in handouts. Handouts = YOUR MONEY.’ ‘He’s bringing over his kids next week—they’ll take your money too. And then wee in your mouth, the little delinquents.’

The lambastings came thick and fast, the poor voiceover man having been instructed to admonish the Roma and the limp wristed tax paying audience with every breath. I kind of felt sorry for him after a while. Here he was, sat in a nice studio earning not a terrible hourly wage to read out this vitriol. It became a bit much to stomach really. I kept wondering if it was all an elaborate satire of our horrible media landscape, but then I remembered this sort of straight face, hyperbolic scaremongering happens all the time on the Internet and in Luton. It was bound to catch up to the fair television programme at some point, and who else if not Channel 5 would push the boundaries of conceptual sanity?

Another I watched was all about a dole hotel. A doletel if you will—except it was more of a holetel, really. It’s the sort of place local authorities put people when there aren't one of the 18 council houses free. The proprietor, a ghoulishly smug Toby jug of a man, had the gall to sit, looking straight into the camera—into you, dear viewer—look us all in the eye and tell us he was providing a valuable service. He also mentioned that nobody wanted to stay in a hotel in Axminster as well, but insisted he was philanthropist first, opportunist second.

The hotel itself was a shithole. I’ve visited some ropey abodes in my time, and am always surprised at how little self respect some of the people I’ve worked or been friends with possess. But that’s their choice. The doletel was different, because the people staying in it had no say in the matter. Steve, or John, or Bob, or whatever he was called, he had a choice. And he chose to keep his hotel like a massive squat. There were holes in the walls, grubby furnishings and, ironically enough for the ‘once mighty Axminster’, lots and lots of rubbish carpets.

I can appreciate that a place designed to house transient guests has to be functional and easy to maintain. I can also appreciate that some of Steve’s visitors have so much on their plate that domestic chores and fire safety don’t come as priorities. But really? Fag-stained ceilings? Bathrooms not much better than crusty buckets? Cookers next to beds? Right next to beds?

Speaking of cookers, actually: turns out Steve has a great relationship with the local food bank, to the point where they know and cater for the needs of each guest. Steve and the food bank man were very proud of that. ‘We get to know them, so we put them together something a bit special’, they said. There wasn’t a mention of the poor bugger with only a microwave to cook with they sent a pair of Frey Bentos pies. A PAIR of oven-only pies! Talk about insult to injury. Sadistic.

And that sort of sums us the spirit of the show. Gawp at those down at the heel, pretend to care and/or raise awareness of their plight in some way, but really just have a laugh at their expense. You could say the show’s subjects had found their way out of the frying pan and into the fire of cruel public opinion. But of course most of them only had a microwave, so that metaphor wouldn’t be in any way applicable.

There is a glimmer of hope for Demand 5, though, something that might just save its soul from the fires reserved for broadcasters who abuse their powers. Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away is a smorgasbord of genuine emotion and humanity. It doesn’t look like that to begin with, mind, what with its glib title, excitable narrator, artificially-generated high stakes and dramatic soundtrack. It looks like a programme made expressly to reinforce the middle class smugness that surrounds the accidental and arbitrary chain of events that led to its audience’s comfortable position in life. It looks like a programme made by horrible people for horrible people to watch in a horrible way. But it isn’t.

Can’t Pay? is full of cuddles. Each story starts out really hard-line: ‘Sonia, a single mother from Streatham, is about to get kicked out on her arse because she’s a single mother. She’ll have an hour to pack her things, then she’ll be homeless—just like she and her children deserve. (Don’t ever have children, and if you do, don’t ever get divorced).’ It’s all very obvious and class divide-baiting in the way most tacky TV is these days. But then a magical thing happens. The High Court Enforcement Agents we’re following, Steve and Paul, take pity on Sonia. They connect with her on an emotional level. They make her a tea. They give her way more time than the allotted hour. They ring the council on her behalf to sort out temporary accommodation. They share their scathing opinions of this country’s social housing, social care and general niceness provision. They go to the council. They say the council is ineffectual and disgraceful. And they put Sonia up in a hotel, off their own backs, when the state can’t do anything.

I’m not an idiot. By being different Can’t Pay? is simply patronising me in a different way. I get that, don’t worry. But I’m on Demand 5, right, so I’m wholly signing up for it to begin with. What I appreciate is that this wonderful bailiff soap opera dared to deviate from the recent past’s preoccupation with telling me the poor have it coming. They do, of course, because poverty clearly breeds poverty, and to escape that gravitational field is markedly more difficult than going to a grammar school and getting really good grades like I did.

Can’t Pay, in its own superficial way, wants to lay the cruelty of life’s dice rolls bare. In doing so it is both tender and entertaining, and eminently more watchable than a financially comfortable voiceover artist pithily talking over images of abject misery. Nice one, Channel 5.

(Also, Paul says shithole on occasion, and delivers it with such entertaining disdain that I now have the phrase as both my phone’s ringtone and notification alert. He tends not to help out the people who live in a shithole, because, like the rest of us, you have to know where to draw the line. The undeserving poor do still exist, Paul tells me, and they don’t deserve sympathy because they let their houses turn into shitholes.)