BBC 3's People Like Us - Social cleansing or social healing?

Mandi Goodier

People Like Us is being dismissed as exploitative, stereotypical and not representative of those in privately owned accommodation on the deprived council estates in which they are filmed, bringing the common opinion that this sort of programme brings shame on the community. I completely disagree, here’s why People Like Us deserves more credit.

The BBC 3 television show has brought comparisons to the likes of the controversial Benefits Street, and the much-loved TOWIE, but it is a departure from both. Benefits Street caused controversy and debate by overtly drawing attention to the fact that, for better of worse, these people are on benefits. TOWIE is a contrived ‘reality show’ with real people and a script; it is an all round badly acted affair, that has caught the attention and conversation of millions. People Like Us departs from the two, declaring itself a ‘real reality show’, without an agenda, and popular opinion is unsure what to make of it. The programme is now in its second series, focusing this time on the lives of those in Chelmsley Wood, one of the UK’s most deprived areas. And that is the show’s sticking point: focusing on the so-called deprived people who are living their lives, against all odds. They are not depicted as miserable, breadline, scroungers: this is how people live, their support networks, their communities, and their melodramas. 

Having grown up on council estates myself, I am fully aware of the characters such as, Mo, who add colour to the mundane dramas of everyday life. And these mundane dramas are a point that we can all relate to no matter social status. They may differ in gravity but the day-in-day-out small things add to the rich tapestry of life. And they spill over wonderfully into our televisual life. But still the question being asked is why do we only get shown these sorts of characters?

Let’s think about other shows, Joey Essex (TOWIE), Stef and Dom Parker (Gogglebox), Ollie Locke (Made in Chelsea), Jade Goody (Big Brother), and just about any soap character on the box. Perhaps we struggle because shows like TOWIE and Made in Chelsea, have a lot more in common with the suspension of disbelief applied when watching Eastenders, but with People Like Us it’s much more difficult to perceive the line between reality, fiction and careful editing. Yet, none of these characters are shown to be unlikeable, they are all shown in a positive light, and are all completely lovable.

A lot of the negative comments appearing online have been written by people who have grown up in the area and left for better things, otherwise they are homeowners living near the estate. Both claim the show brings shame on their area. I think quite the opposite, if anything it shakes up perceptions of community. It’s a heart-warming display of people living normal lives. It is sympathetic, sometimes enlightening, and occasionally philosophical in depth. I personally believe those that fuss and focus on the fact that these are not people like them—that are these lower classes are causing a stink—equates to nothing more than social cleansing through censorship. It may not be as critically indepth and spanning as Grayson Perry's superb Who Are You? or as biting as the aforementioned Benefits Street. But, right on to the people of Chelmsley Wood council estate, who are trying to live their lives and manage to put a smile on my face every Wednesday evening.

But what do you think? Does it do the residents more harm than good? Is it light-hearted entertainment that should be celebrated? Is it shameful poverty porn? Do we need to create an entirely new schedule when it comes to reality TV programming? 

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