TV

Apoocalypse Now: Joe Lycett vs Sewage on Channel 4 shames UK's privatised water companies

In new documentary, Joe Lycett vs Sewage, the comedian calls for water companies to stop paying dividends to shareholders until they stop polluting rivers

Joe Lycett on a toilet

Joe Lycett vs Sewage is on Channel 4. Image: James Stack / Channel 4

Watching television this week has already been like wading in a cavalcade of shit for the government – and now here comes Joe Lycett to dump another load on them. While last night’s ITV drama series Breathtaking kicked off by showing the horrendous handling of the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, tonight’s Channel 4 documentary Joe Lycett vs Sewage sees the comedian wading into the row over sewage polluting UK waterways.

It’s yet another issue on which the public feels shortchanged by the people in power. And Lycett skilfully teases out the key facts and figures, shows the impact, and is a compelling host who can switch from high comedy to serious science in a flush.

Joe Lycett vs Sewage begins with him chomping a high fibre hamper as he travels to see sewage scientist Dr Francis Hassard at Cranfield University sewage treatment works. When he’s asked to produce a sample, it is, he says, “like shoes falling out of the loft.”

Lycett keeps the tone light, but asks the pertinent questions. “Is it clean – could I swim in it, could I drink it, could I throw it at a child?” he asks, when his own personal sewage water has been filtered and treated.

When he visits the beach affectionately dubbed Shitwick Beach by members of the Bognor Bluetits Swimming Club, Lycett finds out exactly why they regularly have to cancel their sea swims. We also see why this matters to so many people. These are public spaces being polluted. As well as being environmentally catastrophic, it is damaging to physical and mental health.

Bianca Carr from the Clean Harbours Partnership explains that “Southern Water had 16,688 spills last year – untreated sewage releases” in the area last year. And these spillages are not accidental. It’s not like being clumsy with a cup of tea. This is the deliberate, conscious polluting of seas and waterways.

In April 2023, sewage was pumped out of a nearby treatment works for 187 straight hours.

“Who’s allowing this to happen? Shouldn’t this be illegal?” Again, Lycett asks the obvious question. But someone needs to. Because does anyone in this country think this is acceptable? Surely not. And if not, why is this not being given the priority it deserves?

Lycett consults with campaigners from Surfers Against Sewage, contacts the Church of England about their pension scheme investment in water companies, and consults newshound Jon Sopel, who handily appears in his bath.

The stunts are snappy and always have a point. And Lycett’s comic mask slips on regular occasions, outlining the seriousness of the issue at hand. When he learns from his father that he himself is a shareholder in Severn Trent Water, courtesy of the privatisation boom of the late 1980s, we get a comic set piece starring Phil Daniels and involving Lycett dressing up as a baby.

But this transitions into a trawl of LinkedIn to look at whether water regulators and water companies are connected by key personnel. Sure enough, he uncovers a revolving door between water companies and Ofwat – could this explain why the regulation of the water companies appears to many so inadequate?

Lycett’s big set piece is the launch of Turdcast, a podcast about poop. He even ropes in Goalhanger Podcast supremo Gary Lineker for the launch edition, in which Lineker once again regurgitates his tale of pooing on the pitch at the World Cup. It’s a joke, of course. But the pair do briefly get serious.

“How has it come to this?” Lineker wonders, about the state of the nation’s waterways. He is not alone.

Joe Lycett and Gary Lineker launch their Turdcast
Joe Lycett and Gary Lineker drop their Turdcast. Image: Channel 4

A whistleblower lifts the lid on the dilapidated waste water infrastructure in this country. We hear how one company leaked seven million litres of untreated sewage every time it rained – but also how financial inventives were used to discourage the reporting of spillages.

Lycett’s big set piece involves a blow up ‘Turdis’ and a plan to stage a fake sewage leak into the River Mersey at his podcast launch. He even goes old school, employing a stink bomb as he tries to drum up publicity, with a view to switching attention on to the water companies. “I think the press really love it when a celeb fucks up, so I hope they really take me to the cleaners,” he says.

This is central to Lycett’s plan to encourage thousands to back his campaign to stop privatised water companies paying out dividends until their record on sewage spills improves.

And this cuts to the crux of the matter. How can these privatised monopolies running our public utilities continue to pay their shareholders when one produced 44,765 spillages in a single year? This is so clearly unacceptable. Yet we can hardly be expected to boycott water. So we need people power to pressure the polluters.  

It will take more than Joe Lycett’s comedy brilliance to clean it Britain’s waterways. But even if by kicking up such a stink, Joe Lycett vs Sewage serves only to confirm to a wider audience that the regulation of water companies in this country is, in short, a shitshow, then the comedian will, once again, come out smelling of roses.

Joe Lycett vs Sewage is on Channel 4 on Tuesday (20 February) at 9pm.

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