Illuminating television depends on taking risks. Make Bradford British, which began on Channel 4 tonight, took on the vexed question of whether we want to live together or not. TV companies can easily turn this into a competition to find the loudest and most prejudiced voices. This was a brave attempt to do something differently. Its reward was to find other voices – some very uncomfortable, but most expressing a sense of hope – which aren’t often heard in conversations about how we live together.
The omens were not necessarily good. The “Big Brother Bradford”-style format with eight citizens sharing a house evokes memories of the unedifying “Shilpa Poppadum” racism row involving Jade Goody in 2007. That hardly did much to illuminate issues of race or class. And viewers have become more knowledgeable and sceptical about constructed “reality” since then.
“Why always Bradford?”, some locals have asked, though most were sensibly reserving judgement until they had seen the programme. There is a persuasive rationale for choosing Bradford: it is one of half a dozen or more places in Britain where people are most likely to lead parallel lives. Few of the participants could sensibly describe their everyday lived experience as multicultural.
Still, the title Making Bradford British has raised hackles. Some hear in that a doubt that a heavily Asian town can be British. British identity comes closest, in western Europe, to securing the civic, rather than ethnic, foundation for identity on which a shared and equal citizenship will now depend. Its plural foundations, as a civic identity for a multinational state, probably help. But civic national identities often have ethnic roots too. So I was irked by the translation of Make Bradford British into what I guess is Urdu on the advert screen breaks. After all, Bradford, unlike Wales, does not have bilingual street signs.
The device used to demonstrate, instead, that all of Bradford needs help with being British is that almost nobody can pass the official citizenship test. Across inner city estates and mosques to leafy suburbs, nine out of ten fail. But this says nothing distinctive about Bradford and everything about the absurdity of pretending that this daft, nit-picking entrance examination for local government civil servants says anything about what makes us British. The amazing thing is that most immigrant would-be Brits, having learnt the handbook by rote, do pass, not least for fear of having to fork out another hefty application fee. Anyone else who really does knows whether schools are obliged by law to open 180, 190 or 200 days each year; and whether the Muslim population was 2.7% or 3.2% in the 2001 census would surely fall under suspicion in that distinctively British category of being “too clever by half”.
The show’s distinctive achievement is to shed light on the difference between public and private language. Participants were told to simply be themselves. “Are you sure that I can say what I normally say?” was the main issue on which they sought reassurance.
“That’s a common word. It’s a norm. There is a reason we are all, black and white, using that word ‘paki’ is about the way we are treated by Asians,” says one mixed-race participant, Audrey, before later coming to connect this to the racism she has herself experienced. That everyday use of stereotyping and racist language may be a banal commonplace in the pubs and the streets, but it is difficult to capture it on the screen. So the series succeeds in portraying this mainstream reality of British life, neither the formal liberal politeness of our public discourse, nor the most extreme fringe of opinions, which would have turned the programme into another circus. Instead, it captured the anxiety of how we talk to and about each other, and the racism of those who don’t believe they are being racist, and their personal journeys.
The programme begins with a study of self-segregation, in a lightly comedic portrayal of Rashid’s single-minded determination to pray at the Mosque five times a day. “I wouldn’t miss it if you gave me a million pounds,” he says. The devotion clashes with his commitment to sort out the opening night’s dinner, and, increasingly, with his ability to take part in the group at all.
The Ilkley liberal Maura, having declared her liberal “intolerance of intolerance” notes that “the only person who isn’t playing by the rules is a Muslim”. It is the group reputation which has been affected by how one of the three Muslim housemates is received. Various solutions are sought. Rashid wants the additional rewards which come from praying communally. But not with a non-Muslim. Nor indeed with his fellow Muslim, 22-year old Sabbiyah, who is a woman. She challenges him, and is told that their scholars would disagree. How often do we ssee that disagreement on our screens, where Muslims are seen as a monolithic bloc, with the most airtime often rewarding whichever attention-seeking extremist best fits the “preacher of hate” image of central casting.
Yet it is Rashid himself who sees the value of cooperation when asked to by the group. “It is my individual thing for a collective thing”, he explains. Sometimes, the group depends on “putting your foot on your individual desire”, he says. He goes on their daytrip, and prays on his mat in the car-park. “One has to admire the sincerity of his faith,” says Moira, visibly moved.
This is the meaning of politics – negotiating together what needs to be decided collectively. And the viewer can only be struck by the astonishing level of emotional connection, and the speed and depth of the journeys, which several participants manage to go on, within not much more than two or three days.
That is particularly true of the second and final episode, to be screened on Thursday 8th March, where the group of eight pairs off, to spend 48 hours in each other’s lives, so bringing family, relatives and communities into the mix. I shall hold off on any detailed description of plot developments, in which there are personal revelations about several of the group. I was struck by how Damon, a 24-year-old sheet metal worker who has never been into a Mosque, and assumes they are places where terror and mayhem are being plotted, finds instead a friendly welcome in which he recognises the simpler values of his grandparents’ generation.
Those who understood the title to imply that it is the presence of a large Asian-Muslim population which calls Bradford’s Britishness into question will see that the focus shifts increasingly too on the willingness of the white majority to accept the equality on which integration depends. The experiences of 22-year-old Sabbiyah, shaken out of her confidence in her right to think herself as British as anybody else by attempting a stint behind the bar, and Desmond, a 40-something who makes up part of the small black Bradfordian presence, show that integration must be a two-way process. And that is where almost all of the participants seem to end up.
It would be asking a great deal to ask them, in a week-long experiment, to define what it means to be British, on which they are perhaps sixty million personal perspectives. But what matters is that they did prove able to negotiate it collectively, in practice. The participants are surprised to discover much more common ground than they had expected, especially over the meaning of family and community, so that each ends the experiment talking about the importance to a shared society of mutual understanding and respect.
That takes contact. Almost all of the participants say that a shared sense of belonging, and being British, does matter. And they consistently express a strong preference for a more integrated town, with more contact with each other, than the one they currently live in.
Though it has many emotionally raw moments, I found Make Bradford British a hopeful programme. It shows how contact can bring about change. Capturing the reality that most people do want to live together does not mean it will be easy to achieve. Four out of five people in Northern Ireland have consistently expressed a preference to live in religiously mixed areas. The wish does not break down the barriers to the reality. There are many good examples, too, of everyday efforts to bridge divides in Bradford too, though rarely resourced on a scale which can reach most people. And when places do become more segregated, the dynamics are often self-reinforcing.
What is striking about the opening contributions is the participants’ sense of how difficult it would be for them, normally in their everyday lives, to encounter difference. “You can’t just go up to somebody in the street and say tell me about your life as a Muslim,” says one.
It would be a mistake to believe that Britain, overall, is becoming more segregated. In many places, the glass is at least half full. That makes it important to focus on the areas that are more difficult. Local scrutiny as to whether outside involvement is constructive or stigmatising is of course legitimate, but refusing to talk publicly about a widely experienced problem rarely helps to resolve it either.
The attitudes revealed by the end of Make Bradford British should increase the confidence that there are few places that the “parallel lives” phenomenon could not be constructively challenged, though there may be a handful of places where very dramatic interventions may occasionally be needed, as in Oldham’s brave, but necessary, decision to integrate schools which had become almost exclusively white and Muslim mono-ethnic hubs in a mixed but rarely shared town.
“It didn’t really take much. All we had to do was put them together,” said one of the series advisers Laurie Trott of the Bradford participants. If we want an integrated society, we will need to encounter each other. Is that too much to hope for?
By Sunder Katwala