Make Bradford British – an important social experiment or lazy television which panders to long-held stereotypes? Sarah Freeman reports.
WHEN Big Brother first arrived on UK television screens back in the summer of 2000, it was billed as a genuine social experiment.
What, it asked, would happen if you brought together 10 strangers from different economic and social backgrounds and asked them to live by a series of house rules? By week five when Nasty Nick Bateman had been ushered out a side door, guilty of mild cheating, the shows grand claims had been abandoned.
The viewers wanted arguments, they wanted personality clashes, and occasionally they wanted tears. It’s a formula which has since proved a winning one for broadcasters, but every so often a series comes along which like the Big Brother of old tries to raise the bar of reality television.
Channel 4’s latest bid to get under the skin of the people who make up England’s green and pleasant lands is billed as an exploration of national identity, class and religious difference. It sounds like serious stuff, which inevitably begs the question why they chose to call it Make Bradford British.
Make Tunbridge Wells British clearly wouldn’t have had quite the same ring, but the deliberately provocative title aside, the programme makers stand by their high-minded aspirations.
“We chose Bradford because its ethnically distinct areas offered fault-lines of difference,” says series editor Heenan Bhatti. “We wanted to explore how we find ways of living together despite class, cultural and religious differences.
“Spending time in Bradford confirmed ordinary people were having this discussion as a matter of course, while independent research cited it as ‘one of the most deeply segregated areas in the country’ although there had been a ‘great deal of progress’ in Bradford there was still a ‘great deal to be done’.”
The seeds of the programme were sown following Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech last year which questioned the idea of multi-culturalism and suggested far from encouraging social cohesion had in fact encouraged people to live apart.
To test the theory that Britain or at the very least Bradford, is now a community divided around 100 people from the city and surrounding areas were invited to sit the Government’s Life in the UK citizenship test. None were given the usual prior access to practice questions and unsurprisingly struggled to answer questions on the percentage of Muslims living in Britain or identify the country’s largest police force.
Of the 90 per cent who failed the test, eight suitably diverse candidates were chosen to spend part of last summer living under the same roof. The housemates included Jens, a retired policeman from Haworth, Maura, a former magistrate and grandmother of four from Ilkley, committed Muslim Rashid, a former rugby league player, and 24-year-old sheet metal worker Damon. For the first episode, it’s footage of casual racism in an inner-city pub and weekend binge drinking which provides a backdrop.
“This is a country which needs to come to terms with a distinctly ethnically mixed future,” adds Bhatti. “The first non-white majority city in the UK is predicted in the next few years. Our aim was to bring together a cross section of British citizens to live together in a micro-version of a multi-cultural community. The aim was to see if they could find common ground , in short what unites rather than divides us.”
One of those who put herself forward to be part of the programme was 22-year-old Muslim Sabbiyah. The aspiring writer and mother-of-one says her goal was to counteract the negative press which followed the July 7 bombings.
“I just wanted to present a different voice. I wanted to show that you can be Muslim and be British. I’ve lived in Bradford for 19 years and I’ve worked with the community a lot, through the youth parliament and a social services agency. What I’ve found is that there is a fear of the unknown. The Pakistani community is very segregated, they feel that if they stick together the values they hold won’t be threatened. But this is a mutual concern across all communities.
“When my family moved into a predominantly white area, all the white people put their houses up for sale, to such an extent that today there are now only three white houses on the street compared to the 30 or more 10 years ago.
“At the root of it is ignorance and a lack of education. We’re all parents, everyone has the same concerns for their children, we have similar values. But people just look at what’s different.”
Sitting around the kitchen table working out their weekly budget, it’s not long before the Bradford housemates are arguing about how much to spend in alcohol and how meal times can be worked around Rashid’s prayer times at a local Mosque. Eventually, they opt for a box of lager, a couple of bottles of wine and when Rashid is late back they make do with a takeaway, having got no closer to the notion of Britishness in the 21st century.
“Calling a programme Make Bradford British is a way of attracting publicity, but it’s what is in this programme which really counts,” says Adeeba Malik, deputy chief executive of QED. The Bradford-based charity was set up 21 years ago shortly before the city’s damaging race riots with the aim of improving social cohesion. “Our main fear is the Bradford is singled out as a place of division. It isn’t unique, just look at how the British live in Marbella. They have their own community groups, they don’t speak the language and they social generally with only other ex-pats. It’s human nature to stick with what you know and forcing people to mix with one another isn’t the answer.
“There is always a tendency to simplify the issue of identity and one thing we have learned over the last two decades is that the only way to improve cohesion in society is to ensure that workplaces have a mix of employees. The fact there is disproportionately high unemployment among ethnic minorities is the greatest obstacle to integration and that’s what we really need to address.
“It’s not helpful to keep harking back to the riots, but they did set Bradford back a lot of years. If people see that others are willing to invest in their city it brings a sense of pride and a willingness to share that success. No one has a problem with an honest portrayal of what Bradford is like, but when anyone mentions reality TV there is a danger that serious debate is sacrificed for entertainment.”
As part of Make Bradford British, 47-year-old Desmond, one of the few black people living on an estate close to the city centre, returns to the pub where he was the victim of a racist attack some years earlier.
“I’d been working outside of Bradford for about 15 years, but when I was made redundant I suddenly found myself spending a lot of time in the city looking for work,” says the father of four, who now works full-time as a cleaner. “I just thought, ‘Boy, when I was younger, this wasn’t Bradford. It’s just a tip’. At first people thought I was stupid to take part in the programme, they thought I would be crucified but I felt I had something to say and I thought maybe I could make a difference.”
But as Rashid knows a television programme is never going to change how some people see him.
“Wherever I go in the world, people will look at me and they won’t think I’m British. They’ll think I’m Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian or Bangladeshi. But I’m a British Citizen, I’ve been born and bred in England, but for some people that will never be enough.”
• Make Bradford British, Channel 4
So, just how British are you?
1. What percentage of the UK’s population lives in Scotland? a) 4 per cent b) 8 per cent c) 11 per cent d) 13 per cent
2. In the 2001 census, what percentage of the UK population identified themselves as Muslim? a) 1.1 per cent b) 2.7 per cent c) 3.6 per cent d) 4.9 per cent
3. After age 70, drivers’ licences are issued for how many years at a time? a) 1 b) 2 c) 3 d) 4
4. How many elected members does the UK have in the European Parliament? a) 59 b) 62 c) 73 d) 84
5. What percentage of the UK’s ethnic minorities live in London? a) 30 b) 35 c) 40 d) 45
Which of these countries is not a member of the Commonwealth? a) Philippines b) Belize c) Maldives d) Cyprus
Answers: 1. b; 2. b; 3. c; 4. c; 5. d; 6. a.