An installation at the Channel 4 building in London. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Secret Life of Students: a Channel 4 documentary or an episode of Jeremy Kyle?

Channel 4's new documentary series The Secret Life of Students once again fits into their trend of perpetuating stereotypes and vilifying social groups. 

One of the first shots of The Secret Life of Students, Channel 4's latest documentary series which follows the first weeks of a group of students at Leicester University, is a scroll through one fresher’s Facebook profile. In between a picture of a drunken student sat in a trolley and a pixellated clip of a fresher streaking, a patronising voice-over chirps “you can tell Josie is popular from a quick peek at her Facebook page, she’s got over 1,200 friends!”. Later, they ask another subject why he actively seeks more followers on Twitter and his awkward stammering response “Just- I don’t know why- it’s weird... Probably competition” perfectly and hypocritically captures Channel 4’s own thirst for viewing figures. The pervasive theme of fame-hungry students, each of which have given Channel 4 access to their Facebook messages, texts and tweets throughout freshers’ week, reflects Channel 4’s own greed for shocked reactions from audiences.

The documentary teams are uninterested in accurately representing social groups – epitomised by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street – when they have selected outrageous subjects who will give audience the response they crave to incite. This response is shock and Channel 4 has perfected their formula for it:

1. Include a provocative title such as Gypsy Blood and My Social Network Stalker which could easily be confused with a headline from Pick Me Up! Magazine.

2.  In the style of Big Brother contestants, choose subjects who can perform in front of the cameras and play up the stereotype they have been carefully selected for.

3. Inspire viewers to tweet about their despair for humanity to create further publicity.

This agenda is the result of Channel 4’s systematic search for documentaries which cause controversy instead of seeking to portray social groups in an accurate and considered way. The current trend of “scripted reality” seen in Channel 4’s export Made in Chelsea, which follows the elite 1 per cent, has shaken up what the channel think their audiences want. Do viewers desire aspirational television or depictions of the reality of lives under crippling government cuts?  The ‘Cutting Edge’ segment of their documentary strand defies the gloss of Made in Chelsea (although just out of shot of the skinny lattes are council estates, but that would ruin the soft focus glow of the product placement) yet the effect is a jeering condemnation of groups in society which are already demonised.

Earlier this week Ofcom decided against an investigation into Channel 4’s documentary Benefits Street despite recieving nearly 900 complaints about the “negative and offensive” portrayal of the lives of those on benefits. The programme raised concerns over the welfare of the children who appeared in the programme and questions of whether the detailed portrayal of criminal activity would inspire viewers to use the subject’s shoplifting techniques. Although Ofcom let Channel 4 off the hook, this perfectly encapsulates the way viewing figures are sought to the detriment of quality. These series have the potential to be hard-hitting reports from the front line of society where people are struggling to make ends meet. In Benefits Street there are juxtapositions such as one inhabitant of James Turner Street in Birmingham declaring the importance of family, with the optimistic sentiment “you could have the whole world and still nothing compares to what we’ve got around here” cruelly followed by a man staggering past the street sign, swearing at the camera and clutching a can of lager.

These are not cutting-edge documentaries. These are production teams hunting down stereotypes and filming them in their natural habitat, cutting them together so as to reinforce as many stereotypes as possible. In one scene in The Secret Life of Students one fresher finds out they have chlamydia and texts her friends saying “LOOOL”. In another a group of students play the drinking game Ring of Fire, with a Nazi twist and when one history student whose idol is Anne Frank, complains at the students using their fingers as moustaches to mimic Hitler, she is ignored. Scene after scene includes more shock value. There is no ground-breaking or even relatable footage about the struggles of leaving home for the first time and the awkward stage of meeting new housemates and instead Channel 4’s aim is to gain viewing figures by provoking outrage, an angle similar to BBC3 ‘s exports Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.  A far cry from the Louis Theroux's unassuming interviewing technique of asking insightful questions at a distance, these programmes are part of the Jeremy Kyle school of thought, depicting predictable narratives which vilify groups which are already looked down upon by most of society . With The Secret Life of Student’s omniscient but off screen interviewer, the audience sat at home on their sofa assumes the role of Kyle sneering down from his moral high horse.

The Channel 4 website outlines what they want from prospective film makers, stating that “If you have ideas that are agenda setting, risky, controversial, and could never have been made before, we want to hear about them”, adding “our strongest commissions are often ones that, at the outset, feel the most dangerous”. Their rallying cry for producers to deliver them “the most daring and controversial ideas” inevitably leads to programmes equally as hyperbolic.   When Aiden, the fresher who lists his interests on Facebook as the Kardashians, Nek Nominate and Right Wing Conservative views is questioned about his “banter” he answers “I just love pushing the boundaries”. A line which, ironically, could easily appear in the Channel 4 documentary manifesto.                                                  

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496