Being poor and living in a council house has become rather cool since Paul Abbott's series Shameless became a feature of Channel 4's Tuesday evening schedule. "It's the drama about which everyone is talking at the moment," announced Rupert Smith in a Guardian review. Nancy Banks-Smith, in the same paper, called the drama "a Savile Row suit, nothing baggy, nothing wasted". With another series already in the pipeline, Shameless is sparkling on the jaded palates of the nation's TV critics like a Ratner tongue stud. The cast, and its author, must be wondering even now what they will wear for the Bafta awards.
An everyday chronicle of the Gallagher family's life on the dole on the Chatsworth Estate oop North, Shameless is said to be authenticated by Abbott's own childhood on the lower slopes of slag heap Britain, before he began writing episodes for Coronation Street. The problem is that real poverty - its disenfranchised victims Prozac-drugged in the sink communities represented at Westminster by cabinet ministers - is hardly recognised by the author of this post-Cool Britannia pantomime. Should we be surprised? A new generation of programme controllers, hot gospellers of lifestyle television, has no stomach for a series such as Boys from the Blackstuff, which reduced my generation of TV critics to tears of rage. Abbott's exercise in poverty chic exposes a curious kind of heartlessness in the hand-spun utopia created by new Labour, in which working-class children are supposed to applaud its youth opportunity programmes and move on to life-enhancing careers in call-centres.
So, welcome to Prolezac TV, palliative for the uneasy conscience of the chattering, once-caring classes of Oxfam-land. Hoot as the deranged children and alcoholic father of this "parasite paradise" (to quote a New Statesman review) demonstrate that poverty bankrolled by the dole is fun. In a recent episode, little mad Debbie came home with a stolen two-year-old boy and the trick was to get him back to his frantic parents without get-ting caught. When the caper succeeded, Debbie cashed in the reward money and her bedroom got a complete make-over: new furniture, a new computer and a doll with peanut-butter diarrhoea. While big sister Fiona, surrogate house-mother to the whole Gallagher brood, fussed over her, a voice explained sternly that child-stealing was not a punishable offence on the Chatsworth Estate, because "round here we treat the symptoms". I found myself worrying if Jamie Bulger's parents were watching.
For all its manic gibbering, Shameless is very much a child of its time, a working- class drama dressed in contemporary stockbroker values - amoral, heartless, nodding towards political correctness and, always, driven by the kind of reckless cheeriness that marks the dying days of empire. Its characters have white teeth and designer clothes; they drive around in Bentleys and alloy-wheeled Audis, courtesy of a middle-class Hugh Grant lookalike who doubles as a car thief. And its working-class label authorises round-the-clock sex - under-age romps with Gallagher senior in a schoolgirl's bedroom, fast shags on the kitchen floor. Even the milkman swaggers around Shameless with a gigantic erection.
A couple of nights earlier, in a late-night slot, Matthew Parris, the former Tory MP, revisited the Newcastle sink estate where 20 years ago he had spent a week on the dole. He met a father whose four children had featured in the film of his first visit. The father said his three daughters had got jobs, but his son had hanged himself just after his 21st birthday. The young man had attended every government training scheme going, but still couldn't find a job. "He never once moaned," his father said. "On the day he hanged himself, he shaved and had a shower. He'd been practising pull-ups on the rafters to make his arms strong for what he intended to do."
Parris said to camera that the visit hadn't changed his views about the dole being kept low to make people look for work. People who hanged themselves might come from a dysfunctional family, and it wasn't fair to blame politicians. After his first visit, one critic called him a "Tory prat". Twenty years on, the views he expressed would be echoed by any member of the Blair cabinet. Shameless?
Peter Dunn is a former television critic of the Sunday Times