Channel 4 likes common people. They’re fun. For eight years it’s given us the silly sink-estate antics of Shameless, where common people get into scrapes with the police or other, more violent common people, but then resolve the situation by doing something hilariously illegal. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding observed itinerant, sort-of-foreign common people, with poor taste in clothes. Big Brother: common people fighting in a tank.
My Tattoo Addiction (Thursday C4) scored highly on the Pinot Grigio smirkometer, visiting places like Blackwood in south Wales and St Austell, a soulless Cornish town made of concrete and grey mince. These common people sported tattoos: increasing numbers of them, often monumentally ill-advised.
Matt in Blackwood had worked as a party rep in Ayia Napa. He wasn’t doing that any more, which made the gigantic “fantasyboatparty.com – the world’s best boat party” tattoo on his chest less appropriate. Never appropriate were the tattoos on his back: “Martin is a c***”, “Oh s**t… boys on tour Ayia Napa 2007” and, all on its own in slightly shaky handwriting on his right shoulder, the simple legend: “C***”.
Britain is the most tattooed country in Europe and getting inkier by the week. The question being asked across the country, through mouthfuls of M&S dinner for £10, was a pretty fair one: have these people forgotten that tattoos are, you know, permanent? In trying to answer this, My Tattoo Addiction became much more than plebs pratfalling for the amusement of Phil and Kirstie fans.
In Ayia Napa itself, tattoos were on a level with a round of shots or a casual beachside buttock-trembler. They were part of the ritual. A tattooist sifted through a box of his most popular designs: a swallow, “Ayia Napa 2012”, random phrases in Latin. They were easy money and, to an accomplished skin artist, “rubbish”. Drunk tourists descended on his salon every night to get them. One guy was regretting his even as it was being done, but he’d lost a bet to his mate Luke Fisher, so “Luke Fisher” on the backside, for ever, it was.
There was something enviable about people who were having such a good time, and enjoying being part of a whole so much (“Ayia! Napa! Ayia f***in’ Napa!”), that they were sure they’d never want to erase the memory. But this didn’t explain Matt’s mix of advertising and random profanity – or Austin in St Austell, who had a huge scorpion drawn on one side of his neck to obscure “Melissa”, having split up with Melissa, and was having another huge scorpion on the other side to cover up “Daisy”.
These were emotional scars turned physical: indelible, visible reminders of the baggage most of us carry in our minds, about mistakes made and times when what we desperately wanted to be with us for ever slipped away. Eventually we learnt that Matt’s drunken short-sightedness (he even turned up plastered to Abracadabra in Blackwood, making it hard for Dave the tattooist to obscure fantasyboatparty.com with a giant eagle) was more like ADHD and was about to cost him his job. Austin had been in and out of prison but was now running his own decorating business and keeping out of trouble, despite the two huge scorpions making it hard to get served in shops.
Austin and Matt were both new parents. They’d got it all wrong before but now they had to get it right and, with laser removal out of their price range, that meant committing to something permanent again and hoping it would stick. Matt was moving in the right direction: on his right shoulder there’s now a picture of his daughter’s face.
If you sat down in front of BBC2’s new sitcom Hebburn (Thursdays) wanting to be annoyed by another portrayal of common people as naïve oddballs, it didn’t completely let you down. Fresh Meat star Kimberley Nixon was Sarah, the new wife of Jack (Chris Ramsey), who’d left the north-east to become a journalist but was now back to introduce his bride. His family cheerily struggled to cope with Sarah being posh, Jewish (Jack’s mum threw their bacon in the bin and turned baps into bagels with an apple corer) and southern (her parents live in York).
Basically it was an extended version of the scene in The Royle Family where Anthony brings home Emma the vegetarian, and Nanna asks, “Can she have wafer-thin ham?” But what the Hebburn lot also share with the Royles is feeling warm and real. Jason Cook’s script was particularly thoughtful when drawing Jack’s parents, and was backed by a double casting coup: the faultless Gina McKee in a rare comic role as the hysterically proud mum, and Jim Moir/Vic Reeves, as good here as he was in Eric & Ernie as a dad who took five minutes to emerge from the kitchen when the son he adores came home. He looked happiest when Jack cracked a bad joke that could have been one of his.
Cook hasn’t smashed any paradigms – Hebburn’s first episode built predictably, if skilfully, to a standard sitcom finale – but he’s writing about his own home town, with love. The people and relationships weren’t common, but universal.