I have recently been watching Bouncers, only because it followed the brilliant and sweet Educating Yorkshire, but i’ve laughed along at the coverage of a boozy Britain and the sensationalised portrayal of our culture of high street drunk and disorderliness.
Then I watched the most recent two episodes, filmed in Essex, around Colchester High Street and Clacton-on-Sea’s seafront bars. Suddenly 45 minutes of escapism became far too personal.
After being born and starting school in North London, I moved to Colchester to be closer to my mum’s family, and that’s where I grew up. My mum and her family are from nearby Clacton, a small seaside town famed as a fading weekend holiday destination. It peaked as a resort town in the 1950s and the decline of tourism has seen the town hit with poverty and social problems. Cocaine is rife, which I find strange given that most people in town have no money to fund a habit. 41% of Clacton residents have no qualifications and Jaywick, an area of the town, is officially the most deprived area in the UK. It’s an easy media target, dubbed a “dumping ground for the poor“.
Here’s what Sam Wollaston said about Colchester, as portrayed in the Bouncers, in the Guardian:
“Colchester town centre on a Saturday night is a terrifying place. Fuelled by sambuca shots and Jagerbombs, predatory herds – of men, women, everything in between – prowl, searching for sex. Or failing that, a fight. Or both, in either order. As the evening goes on, the tension – and the volume – rises. Saggy-panted boys stagger out of doorways, then moon and shout at passing cars. Bottles, hands, voices, cocks, are waved in the air triumphantly. Arses are grabbed, and punches are thrown. The gutters run with piss and vomit and blood, and probably even worse.”
Google couldn’t tell me where Wollaston’s from. I’m guessing not Colchester, which he’s made clear he wouldn’t touch with a pooey stick.
Then, later in the week, Channel Four’s horrible through-the-fourth-wall viewer review show Gogglebox showed families watching footage, with one man exclaiming “I’d rather have a firework shoved up my arse than go to Colchester! What a shithole!” Even the family from Clacton laugh at the portrayal of their hometown, seemingly because they accept it as accurate.
It’s hard to defend it when that’s what’s being shown, and people are seen on TV to be enthusiastically defaming it. But it’s like when you complain about your family pissing you off and then someone else joins in. It gripes.
I recognise that I have been laughing along with Bouncers until it zoomed in on the ugly face of my hometown, and I realise the irony of only being angry now. But it’s not the first time Colchester has been held up as an example of Britain’s apparent degenerate culture. This is moral panic parallel to the media and the Tory’s portrayal of the London Riots, and i’m sick of my town being demonised and shown as an example to the rest of the country of how not to behave. I am sick of feeling like I can’t defend where I am from when people say “But isn’t it a bit of a dump?” What can I say when that’s all they see?
It is programmes like this that make me feel conflicted about talking about where i’m from. After watching how it’s portrayed on TV, I catch myself thinking “should I be proud that I made it out and i’m doing well?” And then I feel angry at myself for thinking like that when my parents moved to Essex to give me a better life, away from the area of North London we were living which is now another handy example of deprivation.
I guess the difference between showing the worst of what goes on in Colchester – which has been the target of many programmes on Booze Britain over the last few years, for example Booze Britain: Binge Nation – is that when we see it in Manchester, Newcastle or Cardiff, we are reminded of what these cities have provided in the arenas of culture, art, or sport. Colchester is shown as having nothing else of merit, other than the fact that it was once the Roman capital of Britain (but who gives a shit about that anymore?). It has been made a scapegoat for the UK’s problems, because it’s easy to show the activity of one section of society, so visible as it is on the high street. So to the viewer, it’s seemingly just a hellhole full of ASBOS.
My sister informs me that the one lad and his mates followed on a ‘typical’ night out in Colchester (containing one messy punch up, which I find hard to believe he has the stamina for every single weekend), was given £50 by the show’s producers and told to “get as drunk as you can.” Nice, Channel 4. I can imagine the producer gleefully rubbing their hands together at the sight of girls falling into the gutter with their skirts up around their waists, saying “GREAT STUFF, capture that!”
Call me defensive, but i’d like it to be known that Colchester is firstly a student town. Students are notorious for being awful, rowdy drunks. I know, I was one of them. And they come from all over the UK to study in the town. Secondly, it’s a military town. Squaddies reside here from every corner of the UK. And they love to fight. I know, I used to work Saturday night shifts in A&E. So think of a Saturday night in Colchester as cross-cultural, in that respect – an accurate snapshot of the UK’s boozy culture.
Colchester has a high street and it has bars, so people will get drunk and act like bellends, because that’s what they do. It has its problems like any other town in the UK. But as a country, it’s our alcohol problem we need to address. When planning a night out, young people on the show talk about deliberately aiming to get “paralytic”. They are drinking to paralyse their problems, whether they be family life or unemployment. They don’t want to think about them anymore. Let’s talk about that.
When I talked to my family from Clacton about the programme, they said it was an accurate description of the town; “It’s hell on earth!” In Clacton, the poor are vilified for acting as they do, when they are made to feel like they have nothing to feel proud of, with no prospects. So the rest of the country can watch it on telly, laugh and feel better about themselves.
If I was given the power to commission one programme for Channel 4 this year, i’d make one that saw business leaders go to Clacton and fund a start-up for a group of disadvantaged young people. The people of the town need to see their potential and something positive they can work towards in their own town, without thinking that escaping is the only way they can be successful. People drink and do drugs out of boredom and the fact that they think there is nothing else for them to do.
But look at the trends. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, binge drinking among 16-24 year olds is actually down. So, Channel 4, maybe it’s time for a change to the scheduling?
Image: The Observer (On a feminist note, search Binge Drinking in Google and 90% of images are of women…)