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TV review: I Belong To Glasgow, a folksy glorification of kebabs and bingo

Karen Dunbar stands outside the Blue Lagoon chip shop with a tray of broccoli. She tries to hand it to people - 'free broccoli!' - but they ignore her.

Karen Dunbar
Karen Dunbar

The notorious 'Glasgow Effect' is in full swing, she tells us, with 2/3 of the city overweight, and dying faster than anywhere else in the country. Dunbar knows how easily it can happen: when she first moved here she worked in a karaoke bar, and her party lifestyle meant dinner was often a kebab. She soon turned into 'a big lassie' and hit 16 stone.

In a city notorious for bad diet it can be hard to nudge people towards nice green veg. As she demonstrated outside the Blue Lagoon, you can't give the stuff away!

But tiny projects are popping up to change things. She visits an allotment in Milton where local people are growing their own veg and promoting healthy eating. It was refreshing to see this, although noticeable that the women on the allotment were mostly overweight. Either they're not taking their own advice or, more likely, change is just slow to take effect.

And that seemed to be the message of this first episode of I Belong To Glasgow - a new series where famous Glaswegians talk about their city - the message was that nothing changes.

Despite Dunbar's funny narration, occasional detours into comedy sketches and her own inspirational story of escaping small-town prejudice, the programme was disheartening. It portrayed a Glasgow where all we do is booze and eat and go to the football, where we're all coarse and slang and fag-hardened. We may have lost our macho culture and our razor blades, but other grim stereotypes cling. She may as well have worn a See You, Jimmy hat.

And the worst thing is that these negative stereotypes were lauded. Apart from the scenes at the allotment (which seemed to have been cut from a different programme entirely) or when she met young gay people who said how welcoming Glasgow was, this programme shrunk the city down to a kebab-scented package of football, bingo and 'a swally' - even the show's title is about a drunk man in the gutter - and it was all portrayed as a great laugh.

This folksy glorification of low culture was insulting. It was like a patronising pat on the head to the working class; pacifying us by praising our bingo and football and our funny square sausages. And it's damaging, too. In Glasgow discourse, how many mentions do Parkhead and Ibrox get, compared to, for example, the Burrell Collection or Kelvingrove or Alasdair Gray? Do we only celebrate this city's best achievements when they go on fire? Does the Mitchell Library need to burn down before we start to appreciate it? Perhaps, and this programme's promotion of low culture over high doesn't help. Such dumbed-down discourse stifles aspiration and shrinks the horizon of every Glaswegian child born into poverty.

This might make me sound like an organic quinoa-munching snob. I'm not. I didn't see a parsnip till I was 24 and even then I pushed it to the side of my plate thinking it was a perfumed chip. So I'm not saying this from a lofty position of privilege, but as one brought up in the Glasgow Karen Dunbar describes but one which, in my 33 years, I haven't seen for a while and had hoped we'd moved on from.

If this programme was a genuine paean to traditional working class Glasgow then it failed. Its cheery promotion of slang language and low culture was patronising. Some might say but it's your dialect! Your heritage! You reject it by 'speaking nice' and going to a museum instead of the bingo, or to the library instead of the football, but I disagree. I was brought up in that culture in the 80s and its grubby slang and swearing and drinking and the dead hours spent in the bingo hall or bookies was something to be escaped from, not celebrated. It's only those safely removed from that life who can look down on it and smile fondly. But why shouldn't working class people look upwards and outwards, away from it? Is our culture so flimsy that we can only preserve it by indulging in mangled pronunciation and heavy drinking?

The best thing about this programme was Karen Dunbar and it would have been a joy to watch if it had stuck to her story because she's gutsy and funny. The strongest segments were when she spoke directly to camera, telling anecdotes and reminiscing and laughing at herself, but then the mock sociology was shoved in and it made me weary but, och, I'm just a wee lassie fae Glesga so ah cannae hope fur anythin' better. Now whaur did ah put ma bingo pen?

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