Keeping Up With the Khans is let down by its own lack of curiosity

Channel 4's new documentary, which tackles immigration in Sheffield, has an intriguing cast - but fails to delve below the surface.

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Remember Immigration Street? The pesky younger sibling of Benefits Street, it was supposed to be a “controversial” new Channel 4 series. But then the residents of Derby Road, Southampton, unhelpfully decided that they didn’t much fancy taking part after all – at which point, the company behind it, Love Productions, was in effect run out of town. In the end, it had only enough material to put out a single, feeble film, screened last February.

Oh, well. If at first you don’t succeed. Keeping Up With the Khans (Thursdays, 9pm) has a chummier title than Immigration Street but its impulses appear to be roughly the same, playing as they do on the prejudices of both left and right. When, for instance, a pasty-faced man called Bert spoke in the first episode about immigrants’ “easy lives” from the low-slung seat of his shiny mobility scooter, I took against him instantly. Doubtless the series producers kid themselves that it is precisely this kind of response they’re after; that, by forcing weedy liberals to face up to their own intolerance, the racism of others will suddenly seem more complicated.

But of course that’s purest cant. The difference between Bert and me is that while neither of us knows anything of substance about the lives of those we take such pleasure in disparaging, only one of us is willing to admit this, let alone to feel bad about it (me). As the audience of Keeping Up With the Khans is likely to consist of both Berts and Rachels, its producers must know full well they are stoking prejudice even as they purport to challenge it.

The series is set in Page Hall in Sheffield (a postcode, this time, rather than a single street). It’s an area whose population used to comprise the white working class who had always lived there – there used to be steel mills near by – and a large and successful British-Pakistani community. Now, it is also home to one of the biggest Slovakian Roma populations in Britain, and to many asylum-seekers placed there by the Home Office. Racial tension is high, and the white population and the Pakistani community have formed an uneasy alliance against the newcomers. There have been warnings, from David Blunkett among others, of riots.

In other words: let the fireworks begin! But first, casting. I expect they had high hopes of Steve, a loquacious landlord to four refugees: Haider from Lebanon, Omar from Sudan, Ehab from Libya, and Pride from Cameroon. Maybe he would prove to be this series’ White Dee. But although Steve has plenty to say, very little of it is controversial: joking with Haider that if he supports Sheffield Wednesday his citizenship will be guaranteed is hardly going to get the Daily Mail going. Perhaps this was why we were treated, later on, to a bedbug invasion in the house of a Muslim convert, just back from Gaza. If Steve wouldn’t complain about his tenants (she was another), he could at least be filmed dealing with insects the environmental health people had identified as originally having come from – ugh! – the dread place that is known as abroad.

It was lovely when the smiling, plucky Omar was given leave to remain. “He’ll be a credit to this country,” Steve said, failing to come up with the goods once again. It was also fascinating that, papers in hand, Omar said his greatest wish was to move to a part of Britain where at least 80 per cent of the people are, as he put it, English (Page Hall, he said, feels like the UK only when a police car passes by). But, like so many other things in the film, this wasn’t explored.

The director did not push Haider to explain his circumstances more fully when the Home Office refused his application for asylum; nor did he ask Bert, after he complained of the many “escudos” the state gives to freeloading asylum-seekers, about his own benefits. The makers of this series, it occurs to me, do not know good material even when it’s right there in front of them – which is odd, given that what they seem to be chasing is mostly ratings. But I suppose that this is what happens when you wield a blunt instrument: in the end, it coshes everything. Why should your curiosity be any exception? 

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 appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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