Slum Britain: 50 Years On, Channel 5 | reviews, news & interviews
Slum Britain: 50 Years On, Channel 5
Slum Britain: 50 Years On, Channel 5
An unflinching look at the changing face of poverty in Britain
In the late 1960s, photographer Nick Hedge travelled the country, documenting some truly horrific housing conditions and the people who were forced to live in them. He photographed entire families living in one room with no heating or access to running water – people who had almost literally nothing. These weren’t isolated people on the fringes of society, these were communities, for many of those involved, this was normal.
I wouldn’t have bet big money on Channel 5 revisiting some of the children pictured in these slums with care and moving sensitivity, while also highlighting the plight of the modern-day homeless, but Slum Britain: 50 Years On, the result of a partnership with housing charity Shelter (marking its 50th anniversary) and award-winning documentary makers Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis (Children on the Front Line), was full of surprises.
We saw the, now grown up, children, including Paul Pryde, whose family had been living in Moss Side, Manchester, who had a very different take than Hedge on the “horrifying” scenes that the photographer captured, “We never gave it a second thought,” he says, “we were poor, but so was everyone around us.”
That’s not something that can be said for those currently homeless. The Coleman family (pictured above), currently living seven to a room, are one of 12,000 families living in emergency temporary accommodation. If you were to pass teenage daughter Eden on the street, you’d never guess, but that’s because poverty looks different these days. It might even come carrying a smartphone. The Colemans see people all around them who are comparatively thriving, they are cheek-by-jowl with a society they feel isolated from, while simultaneously denied any kind of privacy as they sleep many to a bed.
Not everything has changed, of course: look beyond the make-do plasterboard and cheap duvets, and rats, mice and cockroaches are still day-to-day concerns. The main difference now you can have other people’s luxury piped into your Facebook feed while you listen to their scratching. Poverty is relative, and the internet is there to ram the message home with the full force of corporate capitalism.
While feelings of isolation were shown to be acute, the direct effects were staggering. When you strip away connections and community, when someone feels alone, they have little reason to invest in anything other than escape. The scenes of Martin O’Neill, battered and broken by life, shooting up was desperately uncomfortable to watch, but far more so to live. Still, at least Toby Young would have been pleased at the portrayal of poor people drinking and drugging, as it gives him the part of the picture he craves to confirm his prejudices, allowing him to carry on caring about free schools rather than free school dinners.
Street Pastor Jim McMaster (pictured above), a man whose name and title make him sound like a benevolent Viz character, provided one of the few rays of light, his work and humanity helping those in the deepest need, – “throwing lifelines to people before they die” as he puts it – sums up not just the scope of empathy, but also our fragility.
For most of us, life is demonstrably better than it was 50 years ago. Many of those featured in Nick Hedge’s study pulled themselves out of that situation. For those who fall through the cracks, however, it is much the same. Worse still, what safety net there was is being pulled away by a Draconian administration with a brutal and uncaring agenda. It was a bleak message, but one communicated with care and unflinching honesty.
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