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It’s not about people or poverty. The Scheme is quite simply porn. By Pat Kane

Poverty porn, it’s been called: Scotland’s own new addition to the genre of horrified bourgeois gazing at the undisciplined classes, represented by Wife Swap, Supernanny, How Clean Is Your House and a host of others on satellite channels with three numerals.

BBC Scotland’s The Scheme, a series about a council-housing estate in Kilmarnock, has already invoked the ire of the bustling Cathy Jamieson, new Labour MP for the area, who fears “it will not address the community spirit and all the good work that has been going on”. So far, going by the domestically defecating dogs, broken junkies, teenage mums and severely desocialised boys that careened through last Tuesday’s first episode, the East Ayrshire Council PR department will have to redouble its branding efforts.

The first thing that this show deserves is a decisive jab in the kidneys from a half-decent media studies lecturer (well, I’ll do my best). Like all of these reality shows, there’s one fundamental condition that enables the viewer’s sumptuously Dickensian view on the squalor and disintegration of the post-post-industrial classes: namely, some tightly binding legal documents, signed by willing and possibly paid participants, who surrender both their privacy and their rights to a say on the final cut of the show.

So whether the documentary-maker is aiming for a prize at Cannes or a re-run on late-night Bravo, those who are giving up their experiences will have little or no power over the final shape or feel of what appears in the media spectacle. You could imagine a radically different relationship between community and camera -- say, the kind of participative media literacy currently being practised in the more left-wing South ­American republics. But that stuff’s for the subcontinent, grant-aided conceptualists and the early, experimental days of Channel Four. Nowadays, we need character-driven narrative and a prurient, affluence-confirming superiorism from our non-fiction TV.

For those with cultural references (and capital) to spare, there are many to-die-for semiotic tingles to be had from The Scheme. Is it any coincidence that this grim suburban grid happens to be called Onthank -- only one opening vowel away from Alasdair Gray’s benighted realm in Lanark?

The musical score is especially offensive. Every time the sadly shattered heroin couple Marvin and Dayna totter through their ups and downs -- him welcoming her home to his faeces-strewn hallway as she writhes under her Asbo ­bracelet; both of them mourning each other’s absence after Marvin has a night in the cells -- cod-heroic strings saw away. When Marvin finally applies himself to his floors with a mop, they actually play Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Look at the Mickey Mouse junkie in his domestic Fantasia!

We know this ironic-prole sensibility in Scotland quite well by now. Via comedy, it used to have a liberatory feel. Remember the thrill of seeing Billy Connolly temper his diction enough to have them rolling in the aisles on Parkinson with his shipyard anarchisms? Note also the Comedy Unit’s various waves of demotic levelling: Rab C Nesbitt as the Diogenes of Govan or Chewin’ The Fat’s human one-liners. Limmy, the Unit’s most recent urban fool, dips deeper into the spaghetti of unravelling psychologies so crisply edited for our consumption in The Scheme -- self-loathing jostling with stone-cold contempt.

But there’s no comic logic to shock or disrupt stereotypes in this show. No, this is all well-fashioned material to justify small-c conservative social reformers to wade into the lives of the hollowed-out ex-proletariat. A mother who takes the waifs and strays of Onthank acceptingly into her house also lies to the police and roars the C-word in front of a six-year-old. The ­patriarch who sheds tears at his son’s prison sentence gives him advice on how to smuggle his tobacco behind bars. In this first episode, every self-possessed or “respectable” behaviour is shown to be subverted by one moment of madness after another. These are HG Wells’s Morlocks fused with, not opposed to, the happy, playful Eloi: a hermetic, perplexing underclass you’d vote in every ­election to keep your distance from.

BBC Scotland have covered the ground of the socially dysfunctional before, in their series on social workers in the mid-2000s. It was no work of genius, but it did attempt to show there was a painstaking route towards minimum autonomy for the poor, depressed and addicted: a route paved with much patience and attention from social services. Now, in pursuit of format-friendly ratings winners, we have real poverty shaped to be as entropically entertaining as Channel Four’s Shameless.

Will we ever see a media response to Scotland’s yawning divide in life chances, and even life expectancy, that’s remotely adequate to the task? Where is the close listening that might elicit the real tragedy of those adrift in our country’s schemes? Who will describe the journey of the souls who live in what commentator Gerry Hassan calls “forgotten Scotland”? That journey from the worker’s solid identity brutally forged by heavy industry, through their confused sons and daughters adrift in their parents’ unemployed grief, to their sons and daughters tethered only to celebrity, interactivity and thrills -- with the vampire of drugs waiting to jump when their media-driven aspirations predictably hit the wall.

We need the dots joined up if we are to tell the story of poverty in Scotland. We also need those suffering those conditions to be encouraged to dream of a future that lies beyond producerism and consumerism; where self-determination at the most everyday level is diversely encouraged. So far, The Scheme shows the walking wounded of Scotland ­dodging work and prison, and embracing every other distraction: a cartoonishly lost cause.

The thing about porn is that it’s easy to watch, you know what you’re getting, and the payoff is instantly satisfying. Poverty porn is no different. They, and we, deserve much better than this.

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