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Skint: the BBC’s new series of monologues are informed by lived experience of poverty

Writers Kerry Hudson, Jenny Fagan and Rachel Trezise are bringing their lived experience of poverty to new BBC4 monologue series Skint

A new series of monologues on the BBC will not solve the very real issues in the UK. But if there was ever a need to look at poverty from new angles, and to hear stories written by people who know what it feels like to struggle, it is now.

Skint is a series of eight short monologues airing over consecutive weekends. The project is lead by powerhouse actor, writer and director Peter Mullan and Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee – who served as mentors to the writers and directors.

Barring one written by McGee and directed by Cora Bissett, each monologue was written and directed by someone new to network television. And they all have lived experience of poverty. Three of the writers – Kerry Hudson, Jenni Fagan and Rachel Trezise explain why this matters…

Kerry Hudson

Kerry Hudson: “I draw on my own frequent experiences of homelessness as a child”

Kerry Hudson is an acclaimed author and writer whose bestselling memoir/travelogue Lowborn explores contemporary poverty.

TBI: Could you tell us a bit more about your monologue?

Kerry Hudson: Hannah is about a new mum who wants to do her very best for a kid. She and her husband are also both working jobs and yet are facing homelessness. A recent report shows that in England, ‘There were 96,060 households in temporary accommodation at the end of September 2021. This was a 1.5% increase on the number a year previously, and is part of a long-term increase. A total of 121,680 dependent children were housed in temporary accommodation.’

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While Crisis estimates that ‘almost a quarter of people (22%) coming forward for homelessness assistance at English councils were in fact working.’ I wanted to explore how this breakdown happens. People working hard every day, wanting to do the best by their kids and yet the system – with poorly paid, unstable work and lack of affordable housing – is still rigged against them.

Does your lived experience feed into the story – and how important was it in creating the character?

I always try to centre my writing in lived experience. It’s highly unusual to come from a background like I did – one of extreme poverty – and get to write about your own experiences. It’s important to me to write about that authentically. In the case of this monologue, I draw on my own frequent experiences of homelessness as a child and young adult having spent many years shuttling between slum rentals, homeless B&Bs and damp, unsafe council flats.

At the same time, I had just become a mother when this was commissioned and I finally understood the utter heartbreak, the fierceness with which you will always want to care for and shelter your child. This monologue is both the past and current parts of myself.

Emma Fryer plays Hannah in Kerry Hudson’s Skint monologue

What is the power of a monologue as a way of telling a story, with that direct eye-contact with the audience?

I have always thought of writing, whether it is a novel, nonfiction, op-ed or radio piece as having an intimate conversation with your audience. With this script I got to make that idea literally the case. One human, speaking their truth directly to another, can be transformative. 

How do you feel about being part of this season of monologues with such an exciting group of writers and creatives and what do you hope it achieves?

This is a particularly special collective as everyone involved has actual lived experience of poverty and hardship. The writers, directors and producers are also supremely talented at what they do. I’ve been writing for over ten years and I can’t tell you how rare it is – and what a joy it is – to work alongside other people with a background like my own. These people understand what is happening and why and where to lay the blame (look towards systemic inequality, not at the folk who are struggling in that rigged system). On a personal note, I wish I could go back and tell that scrappy wee kid always in the TV room in those homeless B&Bs that one day she’d have something on BBC, that there would be a wee girl like her maybe watching and thinking she could do that too.

How important is it to tell these stories at this moment, with the cost of living crisis set to lead to huge increases in homelessness, fuel poverty, food poverty and more?

Most of my work for the last ten years has been to try and readdress the myth that if someone is struggling with poverty or deprivation it’s because they did something wrong. This false but prevailing narrative has been used to demonise and push through a deeply harmful, even lethal, austerity agenda. Every story like the ones in this season has the possibility of changing one person’s perspective. Every story like these in the public eye lets people from backgrounds like mine see their own lives reflected with humour, compassion and nuance. An MP once wrote to me and said my writing, ‘made him think’ and isn’t that a miracle in itself?  

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Jenni Fagan. Image: Urszula Soltys

Jenni Fagan: “Heart of Glass is based on my own experiences leaving the care system, going into homeless accommodation at 16”

Jenni Fagan is a Scottish novelist and poet whose debut novel, The Panopticon, saw her acclaimed as one of the best new novelists of the last decade.

TBI: Tell me about Heart of Glass – where did this story and character come from?

Jenni Fagan: Heart of Glass is based on my own experiences leaving the care system, going into homeless accommodation at 16 years old. I was also playing in bands at the time. That aside, Mia is her own character and I wanted to devise her with Isis [Hainsworth, actor] in mind, as quite an iconic, straight talking and incredibly smart young woman but one who has empathy and a humanity underlining everything else. 

What do you think is so powerful about a monologue?

Monologue is a very personal conversation that is quite intense because it isn’t diluted by multiple perspectives. It also allows the viewer to sort of step into a conversation with someone, like their best mate, it’s harder to look away when someone is talking directly to you.

There’s such fury and poetry in Heart of Glass – and what a great performance from Isis Hainsworth. To what extent are you writing from your lived experience of the care system with lines such as “I’m not too young to be homeless, how the fuck am I too young for benefits?… I’m not too young to leave care with not a single thing to my name except the address of a homeless bedsit.”?

It really is heavily informed by my own experiences, such as when I left care and did struggle to get benefits to keep my placement, or just be treated with any kind of empathy and practical concern by the systems I needed to support me at the time. 

Isis Hainsworth plays Mia in Jenni Fagan’s Skint monologue, Heart of Glass

How important is that lived experience when you were creating the monologue?  And what do you see as failings in depictions of working-class lives on TV and in film?

It certainly grounded the piece that it comes from my own experience, I think there are a great many representations of working-class lives that perhaps don’t always encompass some of those influences in music, fashion, art, literature, counter-culture and I am always interested in seeing a bit more of that. There is no one fixed way to be anything, it’s good to not just see it always represented in the same way. 

How do you feel about being part of this season of monologues with such an exciting group of writers and creatives and what would you like it to achieve?

It was lovely to work with some really talented people and make a film that stands on its own whilst being part of a wider message.

How important is it to tell these stories at this moment, with the cost of living crisis set to lead to huge increases in homelessness, fuel poverty, food poverty and more?

I think it is always important to tell these stories, but the challenges faced by communities without money in times of wider instability can be so acute, that it needs to be humanised and articulated.

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Rachel Trezise. Image: Jon Pountney

Rachel Trezise: “The story specifics are fictional but I know in my bones how it feels to be as desperate as Tasha”

Rachel Trezise is a Welsh novelist whose debut collection of short stories won the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2006.  

TBI: What can you tell us about the character of Tasha and the inspiration for your story?

Rachel Trezise: Tasha, like most people, is fundamentally good but in her quest to survive, both financially and emotionally, she’s ended up doing something illegal, a crime she’s currently being punished for. The idea came from a similar incident that occurred in Ireland in 2007. I thought the story was reported in a very simplistic and judgemental way and I thought; hang on, there’s more to this situation that needs to be explained. 

Does your lived experience feed into the story?

Yes. I grew up on the council estate the monologue was filmed in, daughter to a single, unemployed, alcoholic mother. The story specifics are fictional but I know in my bones how it feels to be as desperate as Tasha was when she committed the crime in question. 

What do you want audiences to take away from watching Unicorn?

The understanding that anyone can very easily fall into a difficult situation in which there’s no safety net to catch them and no opportunities to wrestle themselves out. 

Unicorn, by Rachel Trezise

How do you feel about being part of this season of monologues with such an exciting group of writers and creatives?

I can’t quite believe my luck! This is my first ever piece for television and I don’t think I could have done it with a better group of creatives; working class writers and directors who know exactly what they’re writing about, many of whom I’m I’ve been a fan of for years on end! 

How important is it to tell these stories at this moment, with the cost of living crisis set to lead to huge increases in homelessness, fuel poverty, food poverty and more?

The stories are important in any case, but currently more people than ever are facing the kinds of situations the characters are experiencing, which of course makes the timing particularly poignant. 

Skint airs on BBC4 on Sundays at 10pm and is available on iPlayer

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