How I fell out of love with the Gallagher family

From being a New Labour-mocking, underclass romp, Shameless is now content to make jokes about Nick Clegg.

David Bowden

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I finally fell out of love with Shameless this week. It had been a long time coming: far, far too long in truth. Our meetings had become erratic: often late at night, usually drunk, always with a sense of exhausted resignation. It was only memories holding us together, desperate attempts to reignite the flame of the early days, unable to break old habits. Naturally, it came at the worst time: a birthday. Still, the break-up sex was good. Well, it was okay. Alright, there was a refreshing absence of tears. Parting is such sweet sorrow and so on.

Whether the feeling is mutual is another matter: we’ll be going through the motions again next week. Indeed, Channel 4 has firm designs on a new series in 2012. Yet there was a sense of poignant symbolism as the show celebrated its 100th episode this week, bringing back its creator from foreign shores to breathe life into the moribund body. It was a bit like when Gordon Brown brought back Peter Mandelson: the spectacle was unmissable, but you knew a gruesome end was in sight.

If that comparison seems a tad unfair on Paul Abbott – who has considerable claim to being Britain’s best screenwriter – it is not entirely without merit. The first three series of Shameless will probably be recorded as one of the finest responses British TV produced to life under New Labour, all the sharper for steering clear of the melodrama of its inflated personalities (lauded dramas The Deal and The Queen) and handwringing over ‘BLiar’s wars’. It is apt then, if much sadder, to see it floundering so badly in these even more wayward times.

Shameless arrived brashly on our screens in early January 2004, and from the very beginning it proved difficult and confusing to categorise. Ostensibly a serious drama set on a rough council estate in Manchester and centring on the wayward Gallagher family, it dared to take a punchily humorous approach to its cast of grotesques and petty criminals, cantering through a series of apparently taboo subjects (underage interracial gay sex, drug abuse, child neglect, poverty) which previously would’ve provided months of bland issues-led storylines in EastEnders or something hard-hitting yet bittersweet starring Timothy Spall.

In portraying the white working class as a bunch of feckless, workshy wastrels who struggled to make ends meet but had a great time doing it – epitomised by the original cast’s sole survivor, the monstrous patriarch Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall) – the show seemed to revel in taunting Daily Mail-reading reactionaries, do-gooder liberals and misty-eyed old lefties alike. This lot may have been chav scum, but they also didn’t want your pity or lectures either: they just wanted you to keep paying the welfare and let them get on with it.

It is perhaps striking that Abbott based the series mostly on his own Sixties upbringing. It made him less willing to assign victimhood to the white working class as a way of bashing Thatcher and the Tories (like many of his contemporaries). Certainly, as a writer given time to hone his craft in a period when the main broadcasters were still willing to invest in quality drama and trust their audience, his writing had a sophistication and subtlety unlikely to be gained today by dashing out scripts for Hollyoaks or Doctors. This was a primetime drama, about life on a Manchester council estate, that was not frightened of throwing in elements of magical realism and cinematic flourishes alongside blowjob gags.

Either way, the show has been in palpable, but equally fascinating decline, since Abbott took a backseat role to focus on other projects. With much of the original cast moving on, and the scripts being handled by journeymen or inexperienced young writers, it quickly lost much of its delicate balance: the studied and deliberate apolitical stance of the original characters, who were simply interested in keeping a suspicious distance from an intrusive but inept state, quickly morphed into topical swipes at political scandals or opportunities to expose and laugh at the ignorance of the masses.

That the irredeemably grotesque Frank, with his rambling and intoxicated monologues, has become a kind of lovable moral compass for the programme tells you everything you need to know about how it’s lost its way, as do the current run of jokes about Nick Clegg’s treachery in the coalition (because, er, Manchester estates were full of Cleggmania before the election?). While it occasionally flickers into life dramatically, Shameless has ironically – and revealingly – lost most of its satirical edge the more self-consciously ‘political’ it gets.

The effectiveness of its original ability to tap into a very particular moment in British culture is perhaps highlighted by the HBO American remake, overseen by Abbott and currently showing on More4 in the UK. Given the notoriously snotty attitude towards American remakes of successful British shows, it’s telling that the biggest criticism received is that it hasn’t been changed enough, save from having some of its cruder aspects toned down: William H Macy’s Frank, for instance, is certainly much nicer than David Threlfall’s. What it lacks, cultural specificity apart, is the cruelty a satirist brings: at its worst, later series in the UK approached Little Britain levels of nastiness. It’s a shame since, as the response to the riots demonstrated, there are plenty more sacred cows and orthodoxies surrounding the apparent ‘underclass’ that are still to be mercilessly punctured.

So happy 100th birthday Shameless – we’ve had some good times together, but I think we have to accept that this time we’re through.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing the debate Not in front of the children: are our kids oversexualised? at Foyles bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London, on Tuesday 4 October at 6.30pm.

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