Fact or Fiction? Housing on TV
Published by webmaster for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Featured
Fact or Fiction? Housing on TV
Following Channel 4’s week of shows devoted to George Clarke, I mean the UK housing crisis, we delve into the archives to remind you of some of housing’s greatest – and most embarrassing - television moments. But which one contains more lies than an episode of Question Time?
1. The Great British Property Scandal
Realising it had inadvertently created the country’s housing crisis with a glut of prime-time property porn that helped to drive up prices and turn housing into an investment opportunity rather than somewhere to live, Channel 4 attempted to redress the balance with a week of ‘serious’ documentaries presented by ‘serious’ housing experts including Jon Snow, Kevin McCloud and, erm, Phil Spencer. As one wag on Twitter declared, having Spencer on board was “like getting King Herod to present a programme on childcare.” The undoubted star of the week, however, was Geordie architect George Clarke whose two shows on the scandal of Britain’s empty homes led to a 100,000-signature petition being sent to Downing Street. It just goes to show that saying the same thing over and over in a forceful manner for 120 minutes is an effective way of getting your point across.
2. Tower Block of Commons
It seemed like the perfect opportunity for long-time council housing champion Austin Mitchell to underline his credentials by living with a tenant on a council estate for a week. Unfortunately for him, and for the viewer, it didn’t turn out that way. Mitchell was one of five MPs invited by Channel 4 to take part in the show and amazingly, given the fact that there were Tories involved, he still managed to come across as the most disinterested, aloof, patronising and, astonishingly, unsympathetic of the lot of them. Throughout the series, Mitchell managed to alienate himself from viewers by failing to embrace the programme’s concept. Instead of sharing a tower block flat with a tenant as he was supposed to, he insisted on having a flat to himself. In addition, he was the only MP to be joined by his partner and he was the only participant to leave the estate to have dinner with friends. The public backlash was inevitable but rather than take it on the chin, Mitchell decided the best course of action was to attack Channel 4 and the series producers, branding them ‘a disgrace’.
3. Basil Brush in Rachman spoof
During the first series of the Basil Brush Show aired in 1968, the hilarious gap-toothed fox puppet featured in a famous sketch in which he played a Peter Rachman-esque landlord who tormented a family of badgers over their unpaid rent. The fact that the badgers lived in a hole, with no natural light and dodgy electrics, was symbolic of the type of homes Rachman rented out at exorbitant rates in North London. It later emerged that the Basil Brush’s creator Peter Firmin was one of Rachman’s tenants in the late 1950s.
4. The Choir: Unsung Town
Television’s favourite (and only?) choirmaster Gareth Malone first made a name for himself back in 2008 with an uplifting BBC2 series imaginatively titled The Choir. In 2009, he repeated the trick with a follow-up series that focused on the creation of a community choir in the Hertfordshire ‘town’ of South Oxhey. Created as a new suburb after the Second World War to help alleviate the housing shortage in London, South Oxhey had something of a dubious reputation even before it was built. Essentially a huge housing estate with one central shopping precinct, the area and its people had long been written off as a lost cause before Gareth arrived to try and instil some pride. While not specifically about housing, what was fascinating about The Choir was the way it set about transforming the stereotypical image of South Oxhey residents by making them feel good about themselves and changing the perceptions of people in neighbouring towns.
5. The Duchess on the Estate
Widely regarded as one of the worst shows ever to be broadcast on British television, this complete abomination of a documentary featured the Duchess of York’s attempts to understand the concept of ‘broken Britain’ by visiting Northern Moor in Wythenshawe, which was quite blatantly portrayed as a crime-riddled, drug-addled s*ithole with little attempt to redress the balance in the way of looking for positives. Predictably, the end result when the series aired was righteous anger from residents furious that they had been misrepresented. Sadly for the housing sector, of all the shows listed here this easily picked up the highest viewing figures as it appeared in a prime-time slot on ITV.
6. Neighbourhood Watched
The only TV series ever broadcast dedicated entirely to the work of housing associations, the BBC’s Neighbourhood Watched portrayed the average day in the life of a housing officer in the north of England. Its success was largely down to the fact it wasn’t really about housing at all, it was more about real people living real lives and the opportunities and challenges that are presented on a daily basis. It was also funny and heart-warming in a way that Heartbeat tried to be but never was. Its popularity - 2.5 million viewers on average watched each episode – ensured it returned for a second series.
7. Cathy Come Home
Originally shown as part of the BBC’s Wednesday Play series in 1966, and watched by more than 12 million people, Cathy Come Home remains the single most important programme about housing ever to be broadcast on television. The play followed the lives of young lovers Cathy and Reg from the optimism of their early married days through a spiral of misfortune involving separation, eviction and ultimately Cathy having her children forcibly taken away. Written by Jeremy Sandford, it was Ken Loach’s ‘social realist’ style of direction that helped to underline the key themes and the housing issues it raised. It led to public and political outrage over the ‘hidden’ housing crisis the country faced and gave a welcome boost to the (coincidental) launch of the homelessness charity Shelter.
8. The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House
A serious documentary about housing that aired on a serious television channel. This BBC4 film, written and presented by Michael Collins, was a hard-hitting but heart-warming history of council housing, which it described as one of Britain’s greatest social revolutions. A genuinely fascinating hour of television, Collins visits Britain’s first council estate, the groundbreaking flats that made inter-war Liverpool the envy of Europe and the much-maligned, monolithic high rises of the 1960s and ‘70s, including Park Hill in Sheffield, the world’s largest listed building. What makes the documentary so special, however, is that it’s about the people who live in the properties as much as the homes.
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ANSWER: Number three is the work of fiction. Sadly, Basil Brush never appeared in a Peter Rachman parody featuring a family of badgers nor was Peter Firmin one of Rachman’s tenants.