(or how ‘This Country’ challenges media stereotypes of Britain’s working class)
by Phoebe Clothier
British media obsessively mocks our working class. Our media has a habit of attacking those living in de-industrialised Britain for being unemployed, having children too early, or drinking too much. I didn’t religiously watch Little Britain or The Catherine Tate Show when I was younger, but I didn’t have to. ‘Am I bovvered?’ and ‘yeah but no but’ reverberated around my primary school playground, and Vicky Pollard and Lauren Cooper were completely inescapable as cultural figureheads that lead the ‘chav’ obsession. Of course, at the tender age of 7, I had no idea of the issues surrounding representations of the working-class on television. I didn’t know what ‘working-class’ meant. But I knew what a chav was. Those who hung around council estates in large groups and skipped school, fought on Jeremy Kyle, who wore tracksuits and tight ponytails with gold hoop earrings. I was taught to fear these people not only by Little Britain and Catherine Tate, but other shows such as Benefits Street and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I was an avid watcher, even a fan of these programs, as were all my peers. Benefits Street, for example, detailed what crimes the residents had committed, or how many times they had been to prison, instead of critiquing the societal pitfalls that force people in Britain to claim welfare.
I did not realise that these TV shows were part of an onslaught of television programmes from Channel 4, and the BBC that fetishized such ‘abnormal’ British communities for our entertainment. Communities included are those ostracised from employment, and fiscal and cultural centres of wealth, and those who profit are such television executives who prod at them on prime-time television. Of course, the television ‘chav’ is a fictional construction of the white middle-class who have little experience of contemporary working-class spaces or humans. Until the 1980s, the BBC wouldn’t even employ anybody outside of the Home Counties, according to an employment handbook from the time. The constructed image of the modern working-class figure, or ‘chav’, is used liberally to communicate a predominantly middle-class paranoia. These stereotypes have permeated every orifice of British media, commanding an obsession so strong that they manifest as real.
Written by siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper, This Country is novel in its experimentation with the image and presentation of the contemporary working-class figure. Season 3 appeared on the BBC this month, and it is crucial to examine why the Coopers’ creation is so culturally significant in terms of the British media’s relationship with its contemporary working-class. What struck me so viscerally was how much protagonists Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe reminded me of the televisual worlds of my childhood and adolescence, and comedic presentations of ‘chavs’. At a first glance, Kerry especially seems like a distant cousin of Vicky Pollard. The protagonists live in a fictional village in the Cotswolds. The show takes a comic view of their dead-end lives as Little Britain similarly aimed to do, the Mucklowes even speak in the same West Country accent. There is a crucial, and unavoidable difference, however. The character of Vicky Pollard was played by Matt Lucas, who attended the Haberdashers Aske’s Boys School, with yearly fees of up to £21,000, and met his Little Britain partner David Walliams at Bristol University, reputed for its intake of posh middle class students. Daisy Cooper, on the other hand, holds up Kerry as a dystopic mirror to her own life, which was spent impoverished in rural Somerset, and the show operates as a bittersweet remembrance of her and her brothers’ childhood. The two have spoken openly about the isolation they felt as children growing up in the British countryside, and the importance of the British media widening its horizons, to account for social barriers that exist for those who do not benefit from middle-class connections.
We empathise with Kerry and Kurtan in a way we cannot with Vicky Pollard or Lauren Cooper. By using a mockumentary style, This Country allows its characters to become three-dimensional versions of their predecessors, and they can literally speak to their audience. The sketch formats of The Catherine Tate Show and Little Britain show only flashes of characters amongst a long parade of other societal outcasts. You don’t need to rewatch shows like Little Britain or Come Fly with Me to remember their insatiable mockery of people of colour, overweight people, immigrants, those on benefits, and transgender people – all defined solely by these attributes. Contrastingly, the Coopers embody the figure of what would have been dubbed ‘chav’ in the early noughties, but discuss social dilemmas, creating the show as a kind of parody which is laced with uncomfortable reality. Episodes deal with issues of unemployment, imprisonment, and illness, but in ways that are far removed from the bleak performativity of sketch shows in which the segments are geared toward a punchline at the expense of another. This Country opens each time with a title card stating that; “research shows that young people in rural Britain continue to feel marginalised and disadvantaged. To further explore this problem, the BBC returned to a typical Cotswold village”. Within this overarching narrative arc, Kerry and Kurtan obsess over the mundanities of daily life, creating a more nuanced exploration of rural Somerset existence. The show’s invisible crew enhance the narrative with this element of dark realism, and the behind-camera perspective suggests a subtle yet important transformation of the BBC from an oppositional voyeur into an ally of social issues.
This Country could be accused of similar transgressions in the visual characterisation of Kerry Mucklowe, as replicating the ‘chav’ aesthetic. Her scraped back blonde hair, fondness for branded football shirts, and larger bodyweight could remind a viewer of Vicky Pollard’s lack of femininity. Kurtan draws attention to this when he tells Kerry that; “you look like Andy Fordham, [the] fat darts player”, and in the same episode she tells Kurtan that; “I’d just finished writing my best man’s speech”, when he gets engaged. Kerry does not conform to long-established rules of female beauty, but crucially there is little falsity within Daisy Cooper’s performance. In Little Britain, Vicky’s lack of femininity is one way in which Lucas and Walliams lambast the contemporary working-class woman, creating Vicky as a distorted image of womanhood. Performed in Lucas’ male body, Vicky’s greasy hair, acne, and weight excess aims to further her from on-screen palatability, and garish pink colour of her tracksuit taunts this lack of femininity. The audience is encouraged to associate these physical attributes with vulgarity, and in turn belittle those who do not comply with such Western beauty standards. Conversely, Daisy Cooper writes Kerry Mucklowe not as a monstrous extension of the female form, but a reflection of her authentic self. By not altering her natural appearance in her performance, Daisy Cooper promotes an uncompromising exploration of nuanced femininity on screen and reclaims a more authentic presentation of working-classness. Kerry is visually close to Cooper’s real self, again holding a mirror to her own life, rendering the show’s attitude to representations of working-class bodies far from the extreme and unrealistic farce of Lucas’ interpretation.
As well as their appearances, Kerry and Vicky Pollard sound alike. Vicky’s hurried West Country accent is reflective of Kerry’s own Somerset in This Country, and filler words portray a similar colloquialism. In one episode, Kerry announces that she’s; “been hanging out with the Vicar and that, and he’s sort of taught me the way of the world. Like, how to be kind to others, and treat people the way I always wanted to be treated.” Conversational flourishes such as “like” and “sort of” echo Vicky Pollard’s unintelligible monologues. In an episode of Little Britain where she is babysitting for a neighbour and fails to do her job properly, Vicky declares;
“Oh, my god. I so can’t believe you just said that. Shut up! I’m like well good with kids. Because once me and Carrie Delaney was up the Broadmead Centre and she had one of them babies where you don’t know you’re pregnant till it comes out. It was well graphic. And I had to hold it while she went and bought a Dayglo hair scrunchie. Oh yeah, and I’ve actually shat out six kids myself, so does that count, superbitch?”
Vicky’s class is communicated both through her affinity for consumerist spaces, and her unrestrained reproductivity is aligned with distasteful themes of human defecation. Lucas and Walliams’ writing presents Vicky as human waste, not able to contain her base impulses to talk about these subjects in an inappropriate setting. Although both Vicky and Kerry use slang to communicate their colloquial characterisation, the content of their speech is radically different. The crucial difference is that Kerry seeks friendship through the institution of the Church, whereas Vicky fights authority and rebels against socially prescribed behaviours. Kerry ultimately rejects the idea of the unsalvageable delinquent, peddled consistently in Little Britain.
The main difference that can be drawn between the Vickys and the Kerrys of this world can be summed up in one of Vicky’s most painful lines from Little Britain. Upon hearing that she is pregnant, Vicky’s doctor advises her to give up smoking and drinking, to which she replies; “Oh, my God! I so can’t believe you just said that. I smoked like once for like two years when I was like nine. And I only drink to numb the pain of my worthless life, so you’re well out of order.” Like Vicky, Matt Lucas and David Walliams desire to numb the realities of being working-class in Britain under their veil of mockery. Unlike any other mainstream representation of the contemporary working-class, Daisy and Charlie Cooper confront their audience with these social realities, in a humorous way that an audience cannot, and do not want to, turn away from. Vicky is a mouthpiece for the media elite’s impressions of disenfranchised figures who, in their view, live a ‘worthless life’, but Daisy and Charlie Cooper’s voices are authentically their own. They speak from personal experience, and we laugh with them, not at them. Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe are part of a nation that is increasingly divided on the subject of class in 2020, where the 52:48 vote of 2016’s Brexit referendum still perpetuates animosity between two sides of a country that is both politically and socially divided. Post-Little Britain, media accusations of bigotry, welfare fraud, and a failure to understand the repercussions of the Brexit vote are still ardently pointed at the contemporary working-class. And with David Walliams recently signalling a possible return of Little Britain to our screens, will he look to Daisy and Charlie Cooper? Although This Country cannot remedy class divides, it brings clarity to a social landscape that is saturated with inflated and misguided rhetoric regarding this social group, and initiates a hopeful future for the representation of the contemporary working-class on television.