[published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 66, No. 7, April 2005]
The filthy fables of Paul Abbott's Shameless trample over bourgeois morality. Tom Jennings tries to contain his laughter.
Channel 4's comedy drama Shameless riotously restarted in a 2004 Christmas Special curtain-raiser to the second series. A north-west community defeats army quarantine and besiegement, after - in timely fashion for the festive season - a consignment of meat falls off the back of a lorry. With typically inspired symbolism, Paul Abbott (1) pits the grandiose poisonous stupidity of official power against the informal ingenuity of ordinary folk, who rally when it transpires that the bonanza was deliberately contaminated in a disaster-contingency exercise. Various central characters - the Gallagher clan and their nearest and dearest - are instrumental in the imaginative ducking and diving that restores (dis)equilibrium on the (anti)utopian Chatsworth council estate. Rounding off this holy fantastical yarn - minus po-faced wise men pomp and circumstance - the new lover of pathetic patriarch Frank then goes into labour. As in all its storylines, Shameless' gutter surrealism elevates a barful of lowest common denominators into both art and politics.
The narrative arc of the original series concerned the survival together of the six Gallagher siblings - aged 3 to 21, with an increasingly absent, unemployed alcoholic father and long-gone mother. Despite their chaotic social situation, desperate finances and violently conflictual personal dynamics, they ward off dangers arising from their own self-destructive urges and mistakes, the hostility of local State agencies and malicious fellow residents, and the not inconsiderable inconveniences of pure misfortune. Throughout, social control mechanisms of pressures to respectability via the isolated nuclear unit are flouted with haphazard self-fashioned mutual care-giving full of warmth, generosity and spontaneity - which, while frequently fractious and abusive, has no truck with emotional blackmail, self-disgust or meanness of spirit. These themes mature in the new stories. Having established the Gallaghers as a viable entity with fluid and variable interconnections in their local environs - now beset by more and bigger threats - the question becomes, how will the family change?
This broader problematic deprives series two of so clear a unifying thread, and the uneven tenor of successive episodes veers wildly between melodrama, romance, personal dilemma and crime caper - with new characters and guilt-free secrets, lies, perversions and purposes parachuted in soap-operatically to add dysfunctional flavour. However, the immense wit and intelligence in the scripting consistently fashions satisfyingly unlikely scams and dodges, averting catastrophe with a remarkable social synergy where even the most feckless shine. The ensemble acting needs to be, and is, superb - enhanced with a postmodern bag of filmic tricks, styles and devices to complicate and distort perspective, manifesting the confused richness of subjective experience.
A closing chorus of 'Jerusalem', sung enthusiastically over a wide-angle aerial pan of the estate, sees the remaining friends and relatives contemplate with apprehension, love and goodwill the departure of eldest daughter Fiona and her boyfriend (de facto parent-figures-in-chief). The strong family brew of differentiated vulnerabilities gives its members the confidence to pursue their desires, and next year's third run will hopefully enlarge on this theme with similarly sophisticated levels of integrity and self-deprecating affection. 'England's green and pleasant land' is afforded further irony by the humiliation in the local pub of a bullying rotten-borough councillor. The prejudicial hatred crystallised in his bluff and bluster hastens his decisive rejection by a clientele (the public sphere of this 'nation') of irrevocably mixed background and colour - comparable to the diversity and complexity intrinsic to each of the Gallaghers and their collective identity. It will be fascinating to see if this righteous idealism can be followed up too.
As outrageous comic entertainment, Shameless foregrounds the positive potential inherent in the lives of the vulgar great unwashed, along with its cultural and situational basis in material conditions and social history. Romanticisation, sentimentality and patronisation are largely sidestepped in its hilarious scenarios because their resolutions depend on the interweaving of so many characters' flaws, fuck-ups and unexpected capacities. However, the fragile civic balance forged by British working class extended family networks, neighbourhood mutual aid, irreverent expression and 'creative accountancy' has been systematically savaged by governments slavishly following the new 'logic' of capitalism, replacing jobs and welfare with drugs, guns and jails. The damage inflicted by our more troubled members as well as external 'betters' now often escalates far beyond the unfeasibly benign atmosphere on the Chatsworth.
Sure enough, Abbott condensed and exaggerated his own experiences among ten abandoned children in 1960s/70s Lancashire for grist to his mill. This accounts for the authenticity as well as the whiffs of nostalgia in absurdist escapism effectively melding satire and critique at a time when the criminalisation of lower-class anti-social behaviour blurs into War on Terror rhetoric. These days, refusing to conform to middle-class hypocrisy - offending sensibility or 'quality of life' (or merely hysterically inflated perceptions of threat) - attracts dehumanising, punitive reprisals from the State. Legitimising their assaults on flexible labour indiscipline as protection against yob culture, the real thugs profiting from neoliberal misery instead glorify selfish narcissism as the end-point of aspiration. That's what I call shameless.
Meanwhile Shameless gives a very rare mainstream media portrayal of organic lower class communal solidarity, doing justice in depth and texture to what's possible when individual action is valued principally for its contribution to collective effort - without pandering one iota to the bourgeois agendas reiterated in dramatic genres and, disastrously, in left-wing traditions (2). Soul-searching, preaching, laments and defeatism remain the preserve of documentary balance, liberal issue genres and social realism - which are only too eager to emphasise the depressing likelihood of tragedy rather than pleasurable farce. Preoccupied with the short-term demands of everyday life, Abbott's characters articulate no explicit ideology - but then art (like ideas) can't make history, though its material presence contributes to the stew of cultural resources nourishing political movement. Shameless has much to say - and, no doubt, "they know how to throw a party!"
1. writer of many excellent television dramas, including Cracker, Clocking Off, Linda Green and State Of Play.
2. see my 'A Low Down Dirty Lack of Shame', Variant 19, 2004 (www.variant.org.uk) for a contrast with conventional representations of working class life.