The best and worst of British television: Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain

Rachel Cooke on a weird and horrible week of television on the BBC and Channel 4.

Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain
Channel 4; BBC1; BBC4

A weird and horrible week on television, the late-summer schedules dominated by a couple of new series so belligerently populist they might have been dreamed up in the offices of the Daily Mail (and, true to form, just hours before one of them was broadcast, the Mail splashed on it).

On Channel 4, we had Benefits Britain 1949 (12 August, 9pm), in which three current social-security claimants were required to travel back in time and “adjust”. Dear God. It goes without saying that this is a revolting idea for a documentary series and I don’t intend here to spell out the various intricacies of its stupidity and nastiness (naturally, this was the Mail’s favourite). But it was also miserably predictable, giving us two “decent” claimants (Craig, who uses a wheelchair, and Melvyn, a widowed pensioner) and one who seemed not so “decent” (Karen, a rude, shouty creature who is on incapacity benefit).

Meanwhile, on BBC1, there scuttled along an even more gruesome prospect in the form of Fightback Britain (12 August, 8.30pm), a series about how “you, the public” are “taking a stand against the bad guys”. What do you mean, you’re not taking a stand? Haven’t we all from time to time felt moved to instal a night-vision camera in our garden, in order to catch a local knicker thief as he jumps over the fence in search of laundry-fresh undies?

The knicker thief was the “funny” item at the end of a half-hour show that was otherwise dominated by stories of plucky derringdo (two lorry drivers who managed to stop a third from driving drunkenly the wrong way down a motorway) and advice about how to make your mobile phone thief-proof (in essence, get a tracking app on it). By the time it came on, I was bored to sobs – Fightback Britain’s presenters, Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, have all the charisma of a couple of estate agents hell-bent on selling a particularly damp one-bedroom flat – so I can’t recall where exactly this incident happened. Suffice to say, the local police were not inclined to put a crack team of detectives on the case.

“Bring your washing in at night,” they told the victim, Leanne – which seemed fair enough to me, especially as by this point she was having to borrow knickers from her neighbours. Leanne, however, was having none of it. It’s just so convenient, putting out your washing last thing before you go to bed. Why would a girl want to do anything else?

When the film ended – thanks to CCTV, the thief was duly nabbed by Leanne’s husband, the waistband of his jeans apparently bulging with the very finest that BHS had to offer – Bradbury said earnestly to camera: “Remember, you can only film on your own property.” As if viewers everywhere were about to train CCTV on their neighbours’ rotary washing lines! And then it got worse. Turning to Simpson, she then uttered, presumably in a desperate attempt at chemistry, these dread words: “And I don’t think you need to worry about anyone stealing your pants, lovely.”

Lovely? To his credit, Simpson didn’t respond in kind (“Yes, Jules, my pants are rather skanky, aren’t they? Though I do wonder how exactly you know that. Ha ha ha.”). But nor, alas, did he look as though he wanted to throw up (presenting gigs don’t grow on trees, you know). See? I told you it was gruesome.

To soothe myself after this onslaught of ghastliness, I dived into Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain on BBC4, which was like following a Big Mac with an ice-cold fresh peach. Oh, the relief. Presented by an architectural historian called Olivia Horsfall Turner, who has a delicately old-fashioned manner – she reminds me of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – these documentaries are about fantastical building projects that never quite got off the ground. The first film (12 August, 9pm) took in Joseph Paxton’s proposed Great Victorian Way in London, a huge glass arcade that would have followed roughly the same route as the Circle Line of the Underground, had it not been superseded by the more pressing need to build proper sewers; and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia”, a 1,000-acre Sixties new town in which glass corridors would have separated cars from people.

It’s all amazingly interesting: the drawings and the dreams, the zeal and the bathos. How wonderful to find that Paxton’s chief inspiration in life seems to have been a particularly exotic kind of water lily and that the greenhouse he designed for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth was so vast and hot that it was known as the “Great Stove”. But the series speaks to the times, too. In our overcrowded cities, the problems these projects were intended to tackle continue unabated, while in the eyes of the architects who would solve them, the gleam is every bit as unnerving now as it must have been then.

Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, who present Fightback Britain. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.