The green-belt battles of the BBC’s The New Builds Are Coming are about identity, privilege and sense of place

The middle classes perform their roles quite happily, like so many loudly clapping seals.

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One rarely noted side effect of reality TV is the trouble it has brought for documentary makers. Yes, access has probably never been easier. Even the most clenched, middle class types no longer run screaming from the camera; they perform their roles quite happily, like so many loudly clapping seals. But if these self-styled cartoons are a gift, they’re also a hazard: there’s a danger of a satiric tinge falling across everything, like a net curtain across a suburban window.

Such cartoonishness was somewhat on display in The New Builds Are Coming: Battle in the Countryside (31 January, 9pm) in which Richard Macer (Inside British Vogue, Milton Keynes and Me) embedded himself in an ancient Oxfordshire village – and perhaps because he had no choice, he played along with it, telling us that as he drove the county’s lanes in springtime, he felt a bit like Inspector Morse (he was in a Renault Modus, not a Jaguar). His investigation, however, was in earnest. What price the green belt? Is its loss one worth paying for the houses Britain so badly needs? This question he hoped to answer with the help of the well-heeled residents of tiny Culham, where South Oxfordshire District Council hopes to turn 170 homes into 3,500.

I’m sure Macer knew long before he pitched up that properties built on prime Oxfordshire fields are unlikely to be even remotely affordable for those who most need them (making the answer to whether the loss is worth it an emphatic no). Somehow, though, this fact only made his film the more interesting. It wasn’t about trees, or herons, or pollution; nor was it about housing the homeless. Rather, it was about identity, privilege and sense of place, which are nothing if not hot topics.

And what about those cartoons? Well, here was Caroline, a Londoner turned born-again country dweller whose idea of a protest involved the brandishing of freshly cut shrubbery (that’ll keep the Didcot-ers away… I don’t think). And here was Andrew, a maths teacher whose outraged conviction that the developers were going to erase his house altogether seemed rather dishonest once we knew they’d already made him a financial offer (he wouldn’t say for how much, which suggested to me that it was improbably generous). And here, too, was Edward, who spoke of bored youths and their (for him, alarming) tendency to kick the tyres of cars. What right had any of them to a good view and the sound of birdsong? Macer’s great skill was in the way he managed to debunk these supposed rights – on paper, a view does not exist; anyone, moreover, can put in a planning application – and yet also to reveal the very real pain that even inordinately lucky people may experience at moments of change and loss.

Fantastic as it is to see programme makers producing drama that is both profoundly weird and morally ambiguous, I ended up  losing faith with Kiri (Wednesdays, 9pm). Its plot, spun around the abduction of the eponymous black girl about to be adopted by a white couple, was ultimately unconvincing; if you’re working with realism, I do think you have a duty to be, well, realistic. (No one in the world talks or acts like these characters.) For another, we seemed somehow to lose sight of Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), which seemed to me to be a waste of a great actor in a potentially great role.

Mostly I simply couldn’t deal with the poison that its writer, Jack Thorne, had injected so lavishly into Kiri’s adoptive family, from the way they ate breakfast (never has orange juice been so freighted with class loathing) to the way they had sex (drunkenly, unwillingly, and at the most insensitive moments). It made me sick. From episode three on I found myself transfixed by the grey nail polish of foster mother Alice (Lia Williams, a performance so cold you could use it to bring down swelling). What kind of woman gets a manicure when her daughter has been murdered? The only answer I could come up with was, in this context, a middle class one. Forget she had wanted to give an abused child a home. It was Alice and her values we were invited to despise, and to hell with all those who had put a little girl in so much danger in the first place. 

The New Builds Are Coming (BBC Two)
Kiri (Channel 4)

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 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration