TV shows about the housing crisis, whether in council housing or the property market, are popular with resentful viewers. Photo: Getty
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Television masochism: the housing crisis hits our screens

Wednesday night’s current double helping of sadomasochistic ‘property problem porn’ with BBC Two’s Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job followed by Channel 4’s How to Get a Council House is the latest in the genre of resentment television.

Channel 4’s Benefits Street, whether it was its content or controversy surrounding its content, was headline television because people viewing it either had bile to spew at the street’s residents, or at the government that had so neglected them. Either way, it was resentment television. And it seems this is currently becoming rather a popular genre. Aspiration on our screens is slowly giving way to bitterness.

Although we still have our supposedly ‘aspirational’ favourites such as MasterChef – where the humble viewer can only dream of making such dramatic dollops of jus – and Downton Abbey – where the humble viewer can only dream of having a dinner gong loud enough to drown out inheritance-related squabbling, our televisions are now leading us to a topic that is more masochism than entertainment: housing.

And it’s not the kind of audience-friendly, Escape to the Country, Grand Designs housing, either. It’s just a narrated series of problems about property – away from the cosy Cotswolds, or Kevin McCloud designing uninhabitable infinity flood rooms for excitable buyers.

Wednesday night is now an incessant flow of stress and antipathy, what with BBC Two’s Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job immediately followed by Channel 4’s How to Get a Council House. The first follows stereotypically smarmy estate agents going about their business – whether they’re selling Kensington mansions to multimillionaires or doing up tired old dwellings in the suburbs. It splashes the whole cornucopia of property buying subjects onto our screens, from cockroaches to colonnades.

Then there’s Channel 4’s offering, which tells the individual stories behind London borough Tower Hamlets’  council house waiting list. There are 20,000 households on the list. The programme presents the trials of the council workers as well as the individuals waiting to be housed, many on the brink of homelessness.

While both these programmes tell compelling stories, surely the source of entertainment is from the audience’s resentment. How to Get a Council House will either have viewers resenting what the government’s neglect to build more social housing has done to London residents (and in turn, the effect this has on the private rental sector), or agog at some of the impressively roomy apartments local authorities sometimes have to offer. Under Offer shows the other side of the street – buyers –and will have audiences resenting the inflated prices, how estate agents profit wildly from them, and also the simple fact that people are buying.

In the pit of recession, it was often reported how ‘escapism’ in entertainment is popular in tough times. Perhaps now, as we’re constantly being told we’re over the worst, we prefer a dose of bitter reality instead.

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job is on Wednesdays, 8pm, BBC Two
How to Get a Council House is on Wednesdays, 9pm, Channel 4

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era