bradford, the british and the camera

Make Bradford British is well worth watching. Initially I was very suspicious of it, imagining that it would develop into a form of Bradford Big Brother, be another reality TV show and no more.

However it develops into a fascinating and at times shocking programme that offers us a raw insight into the problems, bigotry and unacknowledged forms of exclusion that are suffered and offered.

The programme brings together eight people who ‘failed’ the British citizenship test. Most people failed (90%) and the programme makers, who are mercifully kept well in the background, chose participants aware of what challenges they would face. Their selection proved by and large successful, with only one participant abandoning the process, or the ‘experiment’ as it is well termed by one.

During the first episode the ex-policeman, in a clumsy attempt to indicate how race relations can be broken down tells how he had an ‘Asian’ police officer to whom he could say, ironically:

Get ready and let’s go Paki-bashing…”

This is the start of the programme working close to the bone and it ontinues to bring to the viewer raw experience of racism and exclusion. The ex-policeman fails to understand why he has caused offence as he says:

If I had meant this in a racist way then I would never have dared say it”.

This was a beautiful encapsulation of the very problem. There are so many who think it but don’t say it and his attempt at naturalising such language was an gauge of the existence of such direct and disgusting racism.  IIt lays bare that what is not said is as important to take into account as what is said.

The point was taken by a young Pakistani woman, born in England, for whom it relases a realisation of the level of exclusion experienced by her parents but to which she barely relates having followed a career through a “white school” and University.

The initial scenes show a ex-rugby league player, a Pakistani man, finding it difficult to reconcile his need to pray at the Mosque five times a day with his commitment to the ‘experiment’. The tension around this, felt by the other Muslim participants as much as anyone suggest that such stresses are part of the internal life of the Pakistani community as they are difficult to accept by the other members.

The relation that this man develops with the young, alienated white man is powerful. The white man, habituated to racist language, is struck by the sense of community, compassion and honesty that he experiences with the ex-rugby league man, the Zealot as he is termed by another. This experience gives him the idea that the ‘good old days’ spoken about by his grandparents, the values of family and community which he associates with being British, are announced in the Muslim community.

There are areas that the programme misses in particular around gender relations. This would be perhaps to much for a short two episode, two hour programme. This issue is raised by the reaction of the older white English woman to the full domestic labour of the Pakistani family that hosts her, but it has a sour end, partly through her insistence that the man shares her domestic labour preparing a meal and setting a complex dining arrangement.

There are missing elements in the programme where important issues are not addressed.  In particular, at one point the participants dress up in 17th century clothes to think about British history and how they relate to it. Yes this does bring up the non-person of the black man in earlier history. However it doesn’t deal with the way that class relations have always excluded people from such power who ever they may be. Who of the participants was descended from the nobles in whose clothes they dressed? Not the Pakistanis, not the Caribbeans and not the white British either whose ancestors were likely poor and tied to villages and cultural lives equally alien. 

British identity has always been in the process of being formed as is still the case.   British identity is an aspect of power relations, developed around the nation state, conquest and the necessary subjugation or simply negation of other identities.  The Pakistani participants are not ready to go down this road.  The point needs to be made that white British people, canon fodder in many centuries of wars, should not be so willing to make this jouney either. 

The idea of Britishness is of course very awkward: what is that when the Welsh and the Scottish are rejecting the term? Are we talking about Englishness? Is British a euphemism for English.   How does the history of conquest and the class system reveal antagonisms in Englishness, in Britishness.

Well worth watching this programme. Something useful happens with the paradoxical difficulty in that it is taking place with the camera present. If there could be cameras everywhere, we were all stars of a TV show, everything would be perhaps all right. Endless experiments could happen but only so long as it is popular viewing.


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