From King of Chavs to object of pity

spiked-TV: Keith Allen's defence of 'Lotto lout' Michael Carroll came with some dodgy prejudices of its own.

Rob Lyons

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The thing about the media these days is it’s all so post-postmodern. There are narratives everywhere, in search of some facts to attach themselves to.

Such is the life of Michael Carroll, a rather large but not particularly bright young man from Norfolk, England, who had the good fortune to win millions of pounds on the Lottery. Since then, he’s been labelled ‘the Lotto lout’ for essentially living large a loutish lifestyle. And that’s quite enough alliteration for one paragraph.

There’s no smoke without fire. Carroll won his jackpot in November 2002 while wearing an electronic tag, having been convicted of being drunk and disorderly. His list of convictions may be lengthy but it’s also mostly petty (criminal damage, benefit fraud, possession of drugs, fare-dodging).

‘I always found him a decent lad’, Brian Drew, local chipshop owner, told the BBC in 2004. ‘People have just taken a dislike of him in the village, but talking to him on his own, he is a nice boy.’ Carroll’s main crime seems to have been possession of large quantities of money while being a ‘chav’.

For our overseas readers, here’s a definition of the word: ‘Chav is a slang term which has been in wide use throughout the United Kingdom since 2004. It refers to a subcultural stereotype of a person with fashions such as flashy “bling” jewellery and counterfeit designer clothes such as Burberry…an uneducated, uncultured, impoverished background, a tendency to congregate around places such as fast-food outlets, bus stops, or other shopping areas, and a culture of antisocial behaviour. Response to the term has ranged from amusement to criticism that it is a new manifestation of classism.’

Step forward Keith Allen, sometime actor-sort-of-comedian-cum-BritArt-hanger-on and his documentary Michael Carroll: King of Chavs (Channel 4, Tuesday). Allen set out to meet and befriend Carroll in an attempt to find out the truth about him. But there were two big problems with the resulting film.

Firstly, Carroll is an unreliable waste-of-space who never turns up for things, is always surrounded by mates, and only engages in banter or is monosyllabic and unforthcoming in his one-to-ones with Allen. Thus, the actual footage of Carroll saying anything of importance is a bit limited. Secondly, Allen is just as interested in imposing his story on to Carroll as the tabloids are.

There is a modicum of truth in the ‘Lotto lout’ story. Carroll admits to enjoying the odd scrap, as exemplified in his misguided charity boxing match with former Gladiators star, Rhino – misguided in the sense that while Carroll is a big lad he clearly could not punch his way out of a paperbag. At one point, the muscular Rhino lifted his arms and allowed Carroll to punch himself into exhaustion without doing much harm to Rhino’s rippling abdomen.

This modicum of truth has been blown out of all proportion by the tabloids, and in particular by lazy local journalists desperate for a story in an area – Norfolk – where nothing very much happens. Carroll is just a particularly easy target in the well-worn tale The Folly of Thick Poor People Who Come Into Money, more usually exemplified by footballers and their girlfriends/wives.

Allen is right to be contemptuous of such a thoughtless portrayal, in which pantomime ogres are placed before the British public to be booed at – although he might also care to admit that such news-by-caricature isn’t just the preserve of GMTV or the Daily Mail; it can be found in different forms on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and Channel 4 News, too.

In fact, Michael Carroll: King of Chavs was quite patronising about Carroll. Allen seemed to be using Carroll to express his own disgust at the curtain-twitching middle classes. That led him to make excuses for Carroll or constantly to turn interviews into confessionals. So we learn that as a teenager Carroll slept rough; we’re told he has self-esteem problems; we find out that he wants to write a song for the daughter he never sees which Allen assists him with (and then cringeingly films Carroll attempting to sing it).

If only he’d learn to keep his head down, advises Allen, he’d be able to get on with the serious business of quietly enjoying his cash. The notion that Carroll might enjoy being noisy, drunk and winding up journalists because it might be fun when you’re a young man with money doesn’t quite compute, even if it’s just the kind of behaviour Allen himself has a reputation for. Allen’s message is: this man is not a monster; he’s not very bright but deep down he’s all heart.

Allen turns Carroll into an object of pity as opposed to an object of contempt – but Carroll is still just an object.

Read on:

In spiked-TV last week: Sandy Starr on Doctor Who.

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