Neither Caroline nor her work will mean a great deal to people outside the UK I don’t suppose but here for a while, in the nineties and noughties, she was something of a force of nature and brought a type of writing to television that we don’t really see any more and that, right at the moment, we really need.
What Caroline did was to write about the mass of ordinary, everyday people who are not usually acknowledged in fiction. In the UK we tend to refer to these people as the working class – though that can be a bit of a misnomer. The type of work people in this class traditionally did has more or less faded into history. They are people from shipbuilding towns, like the one where I was born, or coal or steel towns. People whose fathers had jobs in heavy engineering but who now find such industries to be a thing of the past.
There are large areas of the UK in this ‘post-industrial’ position, particularly in the north. Now the majority of people in these towns have found other work of course, but some have not.
So the people in Caroline’s stories, like her sitcom The Royle Family, often didn’t work, or at least not officially, they lived on state benefits. They were a kind of underclass here in the UK.
Why would it be important to write about such people? Because politically, the UK seems to have arrived at a place where it is looking for a scapegoat to blame for its woes. And that is a very dangerous place to be if you are the one getting the blame and have nobody to speak for you.
Recently I watched the movie The Big Short about the genesis of the financial crisis in 2008 and the worldwide recession which followed. The movie spelled out exactly how crooked mismanagement of the banking system had led to the crash, then, toward the end, one character offered the opinion that the bankers would not shoulder the responsibility for the disaster they had caused. Instead, he said:
Pretty soon everyone will blame it on minorities and the poor.
And in the UK, that is exactly what has happened.
The loudest, most strident public voices in the UK are those of the tabloid press and they are incredibly right-wing. There is an endless bashing of immigrants, an endless blaming of the poor. The European Union is another Aunt Sally blamed by the tabloids for all the ills of the world and the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU is partly due to the fact that we have all been exposed to years of ceaseless negativity about the EU as an institution and particularly about citizens from other European countries who come to work here.
These hard-working visitors had nobody in the popular culture to stand up for them and nor do the poor. And my guess is, once the tabloids can no longer blame European immigrants for the failures of the UK economy, then the poor will become the new target. They will be portrayed as worthless, cheats and criminals – scum.
And sadly they will not have Caroline Aherne and The Royle Family to put them on our TV screens and make them seem warm and human and part of our society.
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