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Move, old males! Meet the working-class women who are taking television by storm | Television

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Jelevision is supposed to be for everyone – but it’s not. How can it be when after nearly a century, it remains predominantly male, stale and bourgeois? For decades, the industry has talked about nurturing working-class writers on a massive scale, rather than actually doing so. The lack of voice from the working class – especially women – has become so severe that the BBC admitted it’s been just two years since “often people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are portrayed negatively, fueled by stereotypes, and viewed as the object of ridicule” on screen.

But now, at last, working-class women are spearheading a big change. The appeal of recent and upcoming TV shows written by working-class women is so exciting that when I list them for Kit de Waal – of which the BBC drama My Name Is Leon is one – she utters two words of pure relief: “Thank you fucking. ”

Waal kit. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

My Name Is Leon is an adaptation of De Waal’s harrowing 2016 novel about the race riots of the 1980s in Birmingham. Her journey to the BBC began after Lenny Henry – who recorded the audiobook – contacted her, asking: ‘Has this already been chosen? You have to!” She trusted Henry to take the helm, and the adaptation is now airing on BBC One next month.

It follows Leon, a nine-year-old half-breed who grows up in the care system but who never stops dreaming of reuniting with his mother and his little brother. While planning to get away with the 50p coins he pinches here and there, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a family worker called Tufty, from which he learns more about his identity. “All they see is your skin,” he tells Leon between teaching him about plants and how to dance. “Never let anyone tell you what you can’t be.”

As a Brummie who grew up “poor, black and Irish” and worked in family law for many years, De Waal knows this territory well. “The biggest myth is that you don’t want to be working class – that you’re desperately trying to be middle class,” De Waal says of one of TV’s most enduring tropes: a person wanting to “escape” through social mobility or a fluke. It’s something that has its roots in a lack of working-class writers, and one that De Waal eschews, trying instead to celebrate working-class life.

Regardless of the television genre, having such a festive writer makes a huge difference. While working-class characters are too often the preserve of crime shows — and their often negative stereotypes — in the right hands, a crime show can feel pleasantly representative of the real world. “Sally Wainwright, who cut her teeth on soaps, is very good at exploring working-class life in Happy Valley,” says De Waal. “Yes, it’s a police procedure, but it’s much more than that – it’s not about this ‘desperate’ family.”

Malachi Kirby and Cole Martin in My Name Is Leon.
Malachi Kirby and Cole Martin in My Name Is Leon. Photography: Ben Gregory-Ring/BBC/Douglas Road Productions

Ofcom’s latest report on diversity and equal opportunity in UK broadcasting found that in 2020-21 the proportion of women in the TV industry was 47% (although only 16% of them are 50 and over). When it comes to class disparity, however, socio-economic background is not even a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Nevertheless, Ofcom has included it for the past three years, confirming that things have not improved much today: workers are almost twice as likely to have attended a private school compared to the British benchmark, while 59% grew up in homes where the main breadwinner was in work. And, with 72% of all staff working in television being white, there is a serious lack of black, Asian and working-class minority ethnic voices.

So many working-class stories are refracted through a middle-class lens that Lowborn author Kerry Hudson was shocked when the BBC asked her to write about poverty. Skint, which recently aired, is a series of monologues written, performed and produced by people living in poverty – curated by Lisa McGee of the Derry Girls. Hudson’s screenplay told the frustrating and all-too-real story of mother-of-one Hannah (played by Emma Fryer) who is one of the UK’s hidden homeless, despite having a job. and that she is in a romantic relationship. “Zero-hour contracts mean there’s no chance of anyone hiring you, so we were stuck in this place with vagabonds and dirty, damp studios,” Hannah says, before explaining that they were evicted after she got angry when another tenant stole her son. first birthday cake.

Kerry Hudson.
Kerry Hudson. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

“I don’t think putting together a collection of monologues is an easy choice,” Hudson says, admitting she was initially skeptical. “I think most people who live [or who have lived] in poverty would be a bit cautious to work with production companies, because we’ve seen how bad it can go. But, she says, “they did it with real integrity — making sure people got their first credits, which is one way of trying to address the social imbalance in television. And Lisa wanted that our true experiences shine through.

The more working-class people behind the scenes, the more encouraging it will be to tell their stories. Netflix is ​​adapting Coming Undone, the memoir by Terri White, which details what happened when the magazine’s editor ended up in a psychiatric ward in New York. It unflinchingly peels back its formative years of abuse, poverty and alcoholism, and the working-class crew that adapted it played a huge part in bringing it to our screens.

“Would I have walked through the door if it wasn’t for [the show’s executive producer] Kate Crowther recognizes my story? said White. “I don’t know if a middle-class man would have had the same reaction to my book.” It’s an undeniably brutal story, but White is adamant it shouldn’t be treated as a ‘memoir of misery’ (another reliable trope), and that’s where having Crowther again helps: She saw the black humor, she recognized all the nuances. – and I think that was definitely informed by his class. And with Billie Piper announced as the lead, it should be big: “She’s completely fearless,” says White. “Incredibly empathetic, incredibly intelligent – it’s a bit of a dream come true.”

Terri White.
Terri White. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Guardian

Taking more creative control like this is one way to ensure that working-class stories are told truthfully. Candice Carty-Williams, who has been working on two screenplays since 2019, does not hesitate to go at her own pace. Queenie, based on her bestselling novel of the same name, will arrive on Channel 4 later this year. It follows a twenty-something journalist in London whose life begins to fall apart when she takes a break from her longtime boyfriend. BBC’s upcoming drama Champion is his other highly anticipated project, a love letter to black British music in south London, centering on a brother and sister who are both trying to become rap stars. “I probably annoy a lot of people, but that’s why my job works well,” she says of her approach on both shows. “I have a vision for this and I see it through.”

The TV world is tough if you don’t have money and even worse if you’re black, says Carty-Williams, who worked in the predominantly middle-class publishing industry before her success with Queenie: “I had to really push back on a lot of things, make sure the tone is right, make sure the white characters aren’t in the foreground so the black characters are just in the background – that are all things that I make sure don’t happen.

Carty-Williams believes that despite the recent surge of TV shows run by working-class women, the industry still doesn’t treat working-class talent seriously. “I think it’s on the right track, especially with subscription platforms offering more space. But I also know what it’s like to be in the industry and how it works. It always seems like leaders take this idea or a story from someone who is working class, and then it’s written by rich people and put on screen.

Author Candice Carty-Williams.
Candice Carty-Williams. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

This is something all the women interviewed are very clear about: they could not have worked in television without the time and finances that their already successful careers afforded them. “The system allows you to tell the story when you feel a bit more comfortable and have the money to complete it,” says De Waal, explaining that developing a script and putting it into production can take years, and there isn’t a monthly paycheck during that time to keep you going. Is it still possible only for people distant from their working experience to write on this subject? Sure, there are writing patterns one can take advantage of, but, as Hudson says, it’s no wonder the “dignified poor” trope is still going strong when the system itself still works. in this way.

“Would I have written a book and done this if I hadn’t had a successful magazine career first? Probably not,” White says. She is, however, keen to refer to writer Cash Carraway, who dwells on Rain Dogs, the adaptation of his BBC memoir, Skint Estate: “She wrote powerfully about poverty while living in poverty – she wrote about not having to be situation free to write about it. I think that’s really important. How can this become less rare? “I don’t know the answer to that.”

My Name Is Leon is coming to BBC One in June