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Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? How the working class turned into chavs

Updated Tuesday, 5th July 2011

In the 1960s, the idea of working-class pride wasn't ironic. How have we come to be in a country when even the poorest seek to demonise their peers?

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Laurie Taylor:
We learn comedians Walliams & Lucas may not be together very much in the near future - news which was heartily welcomed by columnist Barbara Ellen in The Observer, she wrote: "If this is the end of an era, the end of chav jokes and fat jokes, then good riddance".

And Barbara Ellen is not the only one to tire of chav jokes and chav characterisations. In a new book called Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, writer Owen Jones argues that the word 'chav' has become a way to stereotype a vast underprivileged section of our society - it is a term which has become synonymous with the white working class, a way of rationalising inequality.

A young man

After all if the working class is full of spendthrift layabouts who lack aspiration then social programmes aimed at poverty reduction become a waste of time and money.

Owen Jones now joins me together with Imogen Tyler, who's Leverhulme fellow and senior lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University. And Imogen's written on this subject, quite a few articles, one called Chav Mum. Chav Scum. Class Disgust in Contemporary Britain.

But let me come first of all to you Owen. When you hear [a Little Britain sketch with] Vicky Pollard describing her being surprised by her pregnancy, how do you react to that, do you find anything about it funny or is what you have to say in your book about the stereotyping of these members of the working class stops you from laughing?

Owen Jones:
Yes, and some would undoubtedly call me a killjoy, they'll say it's all a bit of fun but what we're listening to there is a wealthy privately educated male comedian dressing up as a caricature of this grotesque caricature, feckless, thick, white working class, single mother.

And what's disturbing about that firstly it's something which grossly inaccurate, I mean if we look at teenage mums and this idea of teenage mums, only one in 50 single mothers are even teenagers and the vast majority of mothers are in work but it taps into a prejudice.

And interestingly and very disturbingly there was a poll done, a Yougov poll of people who worked in television a few years ago and it revealed that over 70% of those people thought she was an accurate representation of the white working class.

Laurie Taylor:
And this is really what concerns you because, after all, comedy is hardly based upon people doing a systematic sample of attributes and traits and then deciding they'll attack this or that. It is really that this is one of the other ways in which the working class is now being routinely and regularly described?

Owen Jones:
Well absolutely, all you'll see on TV now are these either middle class people portrayed in a fairly positive light or, on the other hand these, as I say, grotesque caricatures of people from working class backgrounds.

There's no balance, there's no counterbalance, there's no actual authentic representation of how working class people in this country actually live on a day to day basis.

Laurie Taylor:
And it's interesting, isn't it, because you look at the way in which there have been shifts in the depiction of the working class in popular culture over the years, I mean just mention some of these others: the Liver Birds, The Likely Lads, whatever, what is the difference that you observe now?

Owen Jones:
Well yeah I mean of course it's easy to be dewy eyed about it and although there were positive representation, sometimes they could be patronising. But I'll give you an example, you had films, you have A Taste of Honey, Room At The Top, Cathy Come Home.

When Coronation Street first started in 1960 it was a bit of a mini revolution, it didn't have these larger than life caricatures, it showed working class people in a sympathetic way and how they lived their lives, and went to work, and so on.

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And then you had various comedies like the Likely Lads, The Good Life where middle class people could often be the butt of the jokes.

[And] The Rag Trade, which was female trade unionists being portrayed in a positive light.

And then things like Only Fools and Horses and there's an example, Del Boy himself was, you could say, in some ways, a bit of a clown and so on, but you rooted for him, you were on his side and that's what different.

Whenever you get any representations of working class people on TV now they're to be sneered at, ridiculed and mocked, there's no authentic representation, there's no balance.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me turn to you, Imogen, because you've written about this phenomenon as well, indeed you've actually written about the phenomenon of the way in which teenage mothers are characterised in reality television, so let's just shift into another domain of television here.

Imogen Tyler:
Yes, I think the difference or the shift today in terms of this depiction of young single mothers is a shift from sort of social realism if you like, which was drama...

Laurie Taylor:
The Cathy Come Home type of thing?

Imogen Tyler:
Yeah, and I think I'd say it wasn't authentic, but we can go back to questions of authenticity, but it was drama and it was made with political intentions. It's kind of consciousness-raising which tried to raise the agenda in the case of Cathy Come Home about homelessness, for instance.

And we moved from this kind of social realism to reality TV where really young single mothers find themselves served for comedy and entertainment purposes, and there's a massive explosion of these types of reality TV focused on motherhood which are really grounded in class and are about laughter and moral judgement and disgust.

And the young women I interviewed who'd taken part really felt that they'd been told that they were going to be able to create representations about their own lives, but then felt that they'd been edited in ways which made them an object of shame.

Laurie Taylor:
So when you talk about the photography, the camera work, or you talk about the cutting and the editing of these programmes, what you say you're saying is [there is] almost a determination to show up these people as feckless, as irresponsible?

Imogen Tyler:
Because that's what the purpose of the programmes is, they're for entertainment in a very particular kind of way.

Laurie Taylor:
And you can prove that a bit by looking at the responses on the internet to them, can't you?

Imogen Tyler:
You can, yeah, but also by talking to people who take part about how they then feel afterwards, that they've been misrepresented or unable to get across their own voice.

Laurie Taylor:
And that way - the way in which people talk about chavs on the internet - confirms your view, doesn't it, that when the word chav is being used, it is being used to describe an entire class?

Owen Jones:
Well absolutely, I mean if you look at websites like chav towns, for example - in fact they've added me to the banner of the website now, which was a badge of honour - but this goes through entire predominantly working class communities and attacks them wholesale aschav towns, towns which are entirely populated by chavs.

And my own town - Stockport - gets a regular mention and what this will do in particular will attack people in council estates and indeed an acronym people have created for chav is "council housed associated vermin".

It will attack also people who work what are regarded low prestige jobs, like supermarket workers or people who work in fast food restaurants for example.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me try to defend the use of the term by suggesting to both of you that it's used to characterise particular examples of vulgarity if you like in the working class, so you can be Victoria Beckham and you can be a chav; the Beckhams can be chavs even though they've got lots of money, live in big houses, are hardly working class anymore, so what we're really talking about [is not the] whole working class at all. This is somewhat of a misconception. How would you respond to that Imogen?

Imogen Tyler:
Well in two ways. I think the first thing I'd want to say is what actually are we talking about when we talk about class?

So we're talking about here is really social class, but class basically is a process of classification, it's about creating distinctions between groups of people.

And really what we're talking about when we're talking about chavs is who gets to make those categories, and who gets to make those representations, who's the object of knowledge, if you like, and who's the subject of knowledge.

In relationship to celebrities, that is a whole other system of classification - there's D list, Z list, A star celebrities.

And I think what we find there is still kind of processes and practices of class-making distinction, making - because class isn't just economic, and I think that's what sociology and sociological theories contribute - it's about taste.

Owen Jones:
Well firstly the point about celebrities is interesting because it's almost exclusively celebrities from working class backgrounds who are called chavs, whether that be Wayne Rooney, whether that be Cheryl Cole, whether that be Katie Price and part of the idea is these are working class people who when they get money spend it without the taste and discretion of middle class people.

But on your other point - I mean my book could easily have been called the demonisation of working class identity and I'll explain why. Britain Thinks - a polling group has just come up with a huge study about class in Britain based on extensive polling and focus groups and unlike a lot of other polls it showed 71% thought they were middle class, other polls have between 50-55%, but what was disturbing about this is when in the self-identifying middle class focus groups were asked to play word association with working class they came back with chav associations.

And Deborah Mattinson who conducted the poll said that she saw working class being used as a class-based slur in the same way chav was, and when people were asked to come up with magazine clippings and so on which conveyed what working class was they came up again with chav things like overeating, booze, spending money in a tacky way.

And so what you've got there is the merging of working class and chav. That idea that being working class is something to be proud of, is something which has been purged out of existence and it's linked to this idea we're all middle class now - except for this feckless underclass, the chavs.

Laurie Taylor:
But I was talking on this programme not long ago to a researcher - Tracy Shildrick - who'd been doing some work on Teesside and what she found there that when she talked to people who were by any measure very, very poor indeed, deprived, socially underprivileged, they still spoke about another group of people who she said she couldn't actually find or detect who were regarded as, if you like, the lumpens, the lower working class, the feckless working class.

Imogen Tyler:
That's why we need to be a bit more nuanced when we're talking about class, because it's a constant and changing process and practice of categorisation that we all engage in all the time but it's related to questions of power and who gets to do the class [identification] and those struggles. But we need to be careful not to generalise, because it is constantly changing.

Owen Jones:
[In the What Britain Thinks survey] one focus group there were two single mums who were on benefits, and in another there was a guy who was on long term incapacity benefits, and they were most vocal in attacking what they thought of as chavs and what the Britain Thinks [group] thought - [was] they spoke of an insecurity of being lumped with a despised social grouping.

This wasn't classism in the same way, it was a way in a society in which we're all encouraged to have aspiration and become middle class, to be seen as being lumped with those who were at the very bottom of society and are somehow responsible for their own poverty [was undesirable] and that was a way of distancing themselves from that caricature.

Laurie Taylor:
We've moved such a long way away from, say, Richard Hoggart's Uses Of Literacy and that warm, convivial, proud working class - your book chronicles a great deal of this lack of pride or anything to be proud about.

You'd want to say, wouldn't you, Imogen, that this in a way was related to the growing levels of social inequality which exists in this country. You see a connection between this readiness to stereotype the whole working class?

Imogen Tyler:
Yeah, I think if we take it back to when the New Labour came into power what happens is we get then a political rhetoric, and perhaps aspiration for the nation to be a classless society - so we get Tony Blair saying that, we get Gordon Brown saying that.

But at the same time we get the rise of individualism, the rise of kind of market economics which is supposed to deliver that equality - and Owen argues this but I agree with him - that the chav in a way emerges as a way of individualising deprivation, so deprivation becomes almost like a property of the person, or an attribute of the person. It's no longer seen as part of the structure...

Laurie Taylor:
So, Owen, it's a way of reducing guilt that people might feel about social inequality to say 'well, those people who are on the losing side deserve to be on the losing side'?

Owen Jones:
Absolutely. Where once we may have seen poverty and unemployment as manifestations as a social issue, if you like, it became personalised - it was your own behaviour that was at fault.

Now the right - it was the idea of the underclass, and with the underclass was the idea that it was those who were poor who were breeding out of wedlock, effectively.

With New Labour it was the idea of social exclusion and the idea of social exclusion was that you could exclude yourself, that you had agency and that you were partly to blame, if you like, or partly responsible, as probably a defender of that model would argue, you were partly responsible for your deprivation.

This piece is adapted from Thinking Allowed, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, 29th June 2011.

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