In defence of The Scheme

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Kenneth Roy

I knew of the making of the now notorious, and abruptly aborted, BBC Scotland documentary series, ‘The Scheme’, and confess thought little of it at the time….

Kenneth Roy

I knew of the making of the now notorious, and abruptly aborted, BBC Scotland documentary series, ‘The Scheme’, and confess thought little of it at the time. This magazine is based in Kilmarnock, the town whose ‘battered reputation’ is apparently having to be rescued from the barrage of complaints about the people who live here and the programme which has allegedly misrepresented them. Out of the country all last week, I still didn’t think anything was up, even when a journalist contacted me for a quote. It was only when I got back to the epicentre of the crisis that I realised I had missed a scandal almost literally on our own doorstep. ‘The Scheme’ is the talk of the steamie, assuming we run to steamies any more.
     The reason I knew of its making is that part of it was filmed in a shop round the corner from our office. One of the people who works there is a girl of 17 who lives in Onthank (the scheme in question) and is one of the leading characters in the BBC series. I use the word ‘characters’ advisedly since the programme appears to have acquired fictional, if not mythical, status in my short absence. I have never met the girl who works round the corner but I know on good authority that she is likeable, hard-working, even gifted. Outside work she is a competitive dancer, a good one.
     She is making her way in this life. She is worthy of our respect and admiration. But she happens to be a member of one of the six families or partnerships chosen by the BBC for this ‘observed documentary series following the dramatic and often emotional highs and lows of daily life’. When the programme was made a year ago, she was out of work. No doubt it will disappoint many of the detractors of ‘The Scheme’ (both as a television series and as a suburb of Kilmarnock) that she is now successfully employed. Oh, dear. Another little stereotype shattered. The truth is always more complex.
     
Onthank is not the nicest place in Scotland. It is not douce in the Newton Mearns or Morningside sense. It is not somewhere a tourist would desire to stray, even one on the Burns trail nearby. It has its share of drug addicts, recovering alcoholics, teenage mums, children who are sent to school late if at all, feckless men living on benefits, drifters in and out of the local private prison. But it is surprising to discover that most Scots, or most Scots who have watched ‘The Scheme’, have been going around with a bag over their heads for the last heaven knows how many years.
     Onthank is everywhere. Onthank is indeed mild hash compared to many such settlements on the edges of our towns and cities. Were we really unaware of their existence? Or has it taken two young film-makers, Michelle Friel and Jules Kean, to stir us from our complacency and myopia? The local authorities have done a wonderful job of disguising reality by pouring a fortune into glittering centres and leaving the hopeless periphery to rot. Look at Glasgow. Look at Edinburgh. Look at Aberdeen. Look at Dundee. Look at Stirling. No, go on. Look at them. Dare to wander into the forgotten backwoods – in the case of Glasgow a few minutes walk from the front door of John Lewis. There you will encounter a very different Scotland. But it is no less a Scotland than the one recognised by the Tourist Board or whatever they call it these days.
     I was about to add that this is essentially the Scotland of my childhood. I too was a product of a scheme. There were ‘bad’ streets, ‘bad’ families, ‘bad’ boys. The terrible twins who were my closest friends were among the worst behaved; half a century on, they lead respectable lives, having brought up families and contributed to society. But, of course, it is not quite the Scotland of my childhood. There are two essential differences. Then there was work, often laborious and ill-paid, but work nonetheless, conferring dignity on the meanest existence. And there was an absence of drugs. There was alcohol, abusive companion of the working class, but there were no drugs. Both are killers, but the impact of drugs on many young Scots is profound. We are witnessing one lost generation spilling into the next with no cure in sight.
     If we are ashamed of the people of Onthank, we ought to re-direct our shame – towards our masters who have made a desert of post-industrial Scotland. By the end of this year, the last major employer in Kilmarnock – Johnnie Walker – will have gone. A town that once made things of utility and some beauty – carpets, shoes, trains, tractors – now makes nothing. Do not condemn Onthank. Only connect.
     
You will find humanity in ‘The Scheme’: the forlorn attempt to re-open an abandoned community centre and the tireless house-to-house collections to raise money for the project. You will find dark humour: the middle-aged man, fighting for a new life off the booze, who puts on an immaculate suit for a job interview (a job he doesn’t get) with the comment: ‘When I wear this, I’m usually called the accused’. You will find pathetic ambition: the woman who fancies moving to Kilwinning, God help her. You will find frail hope: the drugged girl who longs for her ‘ain hoose’ and will not contemplate abortion because it is ‘killing it’. You will find dignity: an elderly woman confronting her own mortality. You will find creativity: the young dancer. I particularise because it is the only way to counter the offensive stigmatising of the last fortnight.
     The local patriots have condemned ‘The Scheme’ for its lack of balance. This is usually a sign that a television documentary is doing exactly what it should be doing – holding a mirror to society in a small, selective, deeply inquiring way. The series has performed a valuable public function by provoking debate on the nature of modern Scotland. For its honesty, courage and skill, it should be applauded.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.