Sunday, 17 February 2013

People Like Us: Old ladies pee in bins but is the show burdened by the 'reality' tag?

Watching grainy CCTV footage of a woman in a launderette weeing into a large black bin, accompanied by the dry commentary of the launderette's owner ("Then she has to the cheek to wipe her hands!"), is both a funny and a shocking moment, but it's not suggesting everyone who visits Wishy Washy launderette uses the bin as a toilet - not least because the launderette would soon run out of customers, and the bin is not in possession of a flush.

Karen, the launderette's owner, is playing back the footage for the tv cameras, and she says she's never met so many weirdos since she started running the launderette six years ago.

You can easily believe it, but at least the mystery urinator had the relative decency to use the bin rather than the floor.

Karen and her family feature in People Like Us, BBC Three's 'reality' show following the lives of a group of people said to be living in the Harpurhay area of Manchester.

They are working class, many appear to struggle for money, and several of them enjoy watching Jeremy Kyle, often twice a day ("I switch it on in the afternoon on ITV2," says Ryan, just released from prison).

Ryan has just left prison after a four week sentence for breaking a restraining order.
He is also a rapper.
It's led by the lives and situations of its participants, and it's as cast and produced as any other tv show, but it seems to be in its own labelling of itself as 'reality' where problems arise.

Some people who live in that area of Manchester are saying not everything in the show is set in Harpurhay, or that the show paints an inaccurate picture of what life is really like there.

Elsewhere, other commentators in the Guardian or Independent worry about the show's 'cartoon' depiction of poorer people, or that the programme may be patronising in tone, as if they need to defend the show's participants against 'exploitation' by its makers - which itself is quite patronising.

The Wakefield family in their launderette:
Paul, Karen, Maddy and Amber, with dogs Crystal and Casper 
Their observations are interesting, and what's come across on the show so far are, admittedly, some fairly bleak situations with no easy answer - alcoholism, crime and poverty - and predicaments we might not otherwise consider. But what's also depicted are strong family bonds, people aiming high or overcoming setbacks, and also quite a bit of warmth and humour.

That doesn't make any of the bad things better of course, but the point is that nothing is black and white, and it's to the programme's credit that it makes this clear.

People Like Us is no more representative of the lives of all the people in Harpurhay (or nearby) than Made in Chelsea is of Chelsea or TOWIE is of Essex, but as a snap-shot of the lives of a handful of indivduals who all agreed to take part, and with their actions packaged and edited to make a programme you want to watch, it works, even if it poses some uncomfortable questions about the lives of its participants once the cameras are turned off.

And while you wouldn't want to live there yourself, or use a launderette where people might pee into a bin, it's a programme you want to return to - just don't believe you're watching 'reality' defined in the same way as you do.

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