Where have all the working class television characters gone?

Steptoe and Son are back – but whatever happened to their successors? Social historian Michael Collins finds out

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There was a time when the working class was everywhere on television – in comedy, drama and documentary. Granted, it was often a parochial take on the masses by a TV elite that had rarely come across them – but it was better than nothing.

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Which is what we have now. While the television industry falls over itself to create a diversity based on ethnicity, gender and sexuality, characters and storylines that represent the lives of the masses is virtually absent.

The current trend for revisiting classic sitcoms by the BBC is at best an exercise in nostalgia, and at worst a sign that the ideas have dried up.

This week’s “new” episode of Steptoe and Son features characters that in the late 60s and early 70s touched viewers because they were authentic and familiar, although even then rag-and-bone men living in squalor belonged to another era. 

Earlier this year Caitlin Moran lamented the lack of working-class characters on screen and that her Channel 4 sitcom Raised by Wolves (which has since been cancelled) was one of the few that portrayed them “as humans”.

Because the working class – and those that have made it into the lower middle class – rarely figure realistically in modern comedy, or on television at all. When these characters are evident they are defined by their bleak lives on real-life programmes such as Benefits Street.

“But you didn’t get to hear them talking about their ideas on philosophy or politics,” as Moran pointed out. Yet this sums up how the working class has often been portrayed, when they weren’t cast as Andy Capp-type characters or cartoon Cockneys.

Danny Dyer’s character Mick Carter on EastEnders is an exception, because although he straddles the two, he manages to bring authenticity and humour to the mix. Yet this isn’t about the absence of a particular accent, but a particular voice.

Television has never understood that the working class has increasingly become a broad church. It has not solely been the preserve of trade unionists and council house tenants for some time.

What remains is a tribe united by its experiences, views and concerns. Much of which does not sit well with the “liberal” vision of programme-makers. Particularly when it comes to race, faith and immigration.

The reaction to the Brexit result is a prime example; when the news camera crews were looking to interview Leave voters, it seemed they were happy to find people with more tattoos than teeth. Perhaps we don’t hear these attitudes mocked in comedy programmes any more because news reports and documentaries have that covered.

Steptoe and Son, along with dramas such as Up the Junction and Cathy Come Home, was among the classic programmes commissioned in the 1960s when BBC director-general Hugh Carleton Greene wanted the small screen to reflect the real lives of the viewer.

But while the cinéma vérité style of BBC drama focused on the plight of the working class – homelessness, unemployment – it too frequently grafted the characters onto the issues rather than the reverse. Essentially they were stooges for the politics of the filmmakers.

While these dramas were largely based in the North, the comedy tended to be set in the South. Notably Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son, both of which have been remade by the BBC as Lost Sitcoms, where original “lost” scripts have been filmed with a new cast. 

Watch them afresh and you see that although the parochial world of the characters is mocked in these scripts, the genius of the writing and the portrayals bring poignancy and empathy, too.

Some years ago I interviewed the writer Johnny Speight, author of Till Death Us Do Part. He told me he didn’t create the bigot Alf Garnett, but simply “grassed him up”.

Speight was reflecting the views that existed. No matter how ridiculous the Garnett character appeared, he highlighted many fears and experiences that chimed with those living in London’s East End and beyond, many of which resonate today.

What made the Garnett character a departure from all who had gone before was attitude; what Harold Steptoe had – which made him the butt of the joke – was aspiration. This week’s remake of Steptoe and Son brings nothing new to the original, but presents it as a period piece. “Why do you want to go to Austria?”, Steptoe’s father asks his son. “What’s wrong with Bognor?”

But the young Steptoe does still offer a clue to a working-class character that even then was on the wane in a London landscape that is unrecognisable these days, rather like the East End of West Ham fan Alf Garnett.

Because while the sitcoms of the 70s began to focus on single men in bachelor pads, and modern single girls sharing flats (The Liver Birds, Take Three Girls), Harold Steptoe was locked in the poverty and grime of a rag-and-bone yard.

With every attempt he made to better himself – speaking French, reading books, wearing cravats – he was undermined by his filthy, uncouth father. (A figure who belonged more to the era of Dickens than of the Beatles.)

Of course, the aspiration of the working classes, like their views, has often been the subject of mockery in TV comedy, from Abigail’s Party to Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney and beyond. The punchline invariably arrives via a tangle of bad taste, malapropisms and Franglais, reaching its pinnacle in the guise of the ridiculous, yet touching, Del Boy Trotter. 

Some series managed to rise above this. In the Essex parents of Gavin & Stacey you see a modern take on the urban working class that made the voyage out to the suburbs.

In The Royle Family Jim Royle was a modern Alf Garnett, at least in spirit, as he railed against all passing by on the television screen. Doubtless he would have harboured views on the subjects that preoccupied Alf Garnett – but the sensitive mood of the time made it impossible to express them.

And so he became something close to lovable, seated in front of the small screen watching programmes that rarely featured anyone who thought, sounded or lived like him.

Jim Royle, Harold Steptoe, Alf Garnett and Mick Carter tell a partial story of the working class. The complete story is yet to be told – and it seems unlikely that television will tell it.

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Lost Sitcoms: Steptoe and Son is on tonight 9.00pm, BBC4