The British Working Class, Channel 4

by | Jul 15, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

Journalist Michael Collins defends the beleaguered white working classes, a division of society who have been misrepresented and left to rust in the cold like an abandoned bicycle.

What to say if you didn’t like it

When a white person starts bleating about how badly they fare compared to (black) immigrants is a time for concern.

What was good about it

• Collins’s point that multicultural Britain was mainly brought about by the working class, who were the first to form relationships with immigrants that arrived in the 1950s and settled in traditional working class areas.

What was bad about it

• Collins’s early and ill-advised use of the murder of Stephen Lawrence as a base from which to build his case. Using nothing more than a couple of snippets from newspapers (read in deliberately pompous tones), he casually claimed that the media continually inferred that all white working class people in south London were racists. We followed that case very carefully, and it never once crossed our minds that south London was full of racists. Like most places, it has its share, only that share was brought sharply into focus by the despicable racist murder. You have to wonder why and how Collins came to this conclusion. The swaggering, shades-wearing suspect who paraded for the cameras in the archive footage no more represented all the whites of south London than Lawrence did of all black people in south London.

• The pointless and rather irritating use of black and white but with certain parts of the shot still left in colour (the Elephant & Castle tube sign, for example). Let’s stop these stupid tricks and subtle inferences and just concentrate on the subject at hand.

• Collins’s claim: “the once celebrated and now scorned white working classes.” Collins needs some victim counselling, or at least he should stop reading so many newspaper columnists. Most people in public life nowadays are queuing up to present their working class credentials, from Frank Skinner to Johnny Vaughan to just about anyone involved in music. The middle classes, while they have little to complain about, are surely the most unfashionable and disliked group of people in Britain.

• Collins too often became confused by his own argument. On the one hand he’d bemoan the higher classes imposing on the working class unsuitable living habitats and claim no one bothered to find out what would be good for them (pretty much, he seemed to suggest, to be left alone); on the other he bemoaned that multiculturalism was embraced and as a result the higher classes ‘forgot’ about the white working classes.

On the one hand he dislikes the patronising tone higher classes over the years have used towards the white working classes; on the other his nostalgic memories of his Nan and evocation of white working class pastimes like music hall and pearly kings and queens seemed pretty patronising in itself – as if white working class ‘culture’ was just songs about Muvver Brown and waving Union Jacks about.

He claimed the white working classes had gone from salt of the earth to scum of the earth within 100 years while inferring little had changed except for attitudes by others, yet the story his Gran told about heavy looting during the blitz in World War II passed without comment by Collins himself.

• Collins’s criticism of the Peckham housing estate, where walkways had been constructed so no one had to get to ground level until they reached Elephant & Castle was understandable. The walkways became notorious for muggings. But all we were given was Collins’s disgust and no constructive criticism. Why were the walkways havens for muggers? Would it be right to say that the muggers wouldn’t have existed without the walkways? Do walkways cause muggings or do muggings just thrive there? There was little insight into the psychology of the buildings and how they might affect people, just an acceptance that they were badly designed.

• Collins’s claim that the white working class only get to come out into the city at big state events – Diana’s funeral, big football matches. Yet the idea that only the working classes loved Diana is preposterous. What was Collins really getting at? That all the white working classes are really guilty of is loving their country?

• Collins’ decision to boil much of the programme down to race and to that extent immigration. His late rant about a Southwark promotional pamphlet which he claimed ‘erased’ white working class history from the record was particularly unsettling. The pamphlet highlighted the long history of multiculturalism in the area – dating back to the 15th century. Not enough people realise how long immigration has taken place in this country (believing it to be a modern phenomenon) and when Collins said “This is what winds people up,” you had to wonder what on earth he meant – the pamphlet was stating a fact that the community has been diverse for 500 years. Why would this “wind people up”? Did he not accept this was the case? Or did he want a sentence about how it was predominantly white people that lived in Southwark?

• This documentary once again showed that when people comment on immigration it almost always concerns the colour of skin rather than simple nationality. Enoch Powell was briefly dealt with and of course there were pictures of West Indians arriving in the country (with commendably positive noises from the newsreel commentary). But here are a few facts – the 1991 census showed that more Americans have emigrated to Britain than Jamaicans. 234,000 Pakistanis had emigrated to Britain, yet so had 216,000 Germans. No mention at all of these ‘white’ communities in this programme though.

Collins was only concerned with colour, he had a need to separate ‘white’ culture from ‘black’ culture in south London when in truth ‘culture’ is something that is always changing, always moving, always evolving. This show was not about the white working class being forgotten about or scorned, it was a nostalgia trip back to the ‘good old days’ that Collins’s Nan would talk about where times were hard but at least you had your neighbours to rely on.

This hasn’t changed because of immigration, this has changed partly because of rose-tinted spectacles for the past and partly because of a regrettable change in British attitudes throughout the nation (of all colours). But most of all, this programme disappointed because of it’s extreme one-sidedness – Collins’s voice was pretty much the only one we heard, instructing us in his beliefs yet rarely giving us facts or arguments.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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