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This week’s Big TV Picks: Skint, Then Barbara Met Alan and Top Boy

A new weekly round-up of the best television – starring Skint, a brilliant new series of monologues about poverty on BBC4.

This week’s round up of the best new television serves up humour, anarchy, art, revolution and high drama – with a massive side order of politics.

Skint – BBC4, Sunday March 20, 10pm

Skint is a series of eight monologues with, as the title suggests, poverty as their focus. They are wildly different, brilliantly written and acted, and all the writers and directors have lived experience of poverty. This matters.

We are in the middle of a desperate cost of living crisis. Fuel prices are rocketing just as the Resolution Foundation warns of the largest drop in UK incomes since the 1970s. New research from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition suggests 8.5million UK households face fuel poverty next winter, while a record 2.5 million people received emergency food parcels from Trussell Trust foodbanks in the year to March 2021 (for comparison, in 2009-10, the figure was 40,898).

Now, a new series of monologues on BBC4 will not solve the very real issues about the widening wealth gap in the UK. Far from it. 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, that time is now.

Screenwriting genius Jack Thorne (more from him later) describes the television as an “empathy box” and seeing real people (whether in drama or documentary) encountering poverty gives a face to statistics we read with growing horror.

Each monologue weighs in at around 15 minutes, but they all pack a real punch. The format is so direct, so intense, almost daring viewers to look away – and by holding our gaze, the speakers challenge us to confront the causes of poverty.

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The series is led by powerhouse actor, writer and director Peter Mullan and Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee. Mullan acts in one (The Taking of Balgrayhill Street, written and directed by James Price), McGee wrote one (I’d Like To Speak To The Manager – directed by theatre great Cora Bissett and starring Derry Girls’ Saoirse-Monica Jackson), and both served as mentors to the new-to-network-television writers and directors.

The results are outstanding. Important. Eye-opening. Funny. Vital. Infuriating. Educational. New voices shedding new light on an issue as old as the hills and more urgent as ever.

McGee’s I’d Like To Speak To The Manager kicks things off, wrong footing viewers as it begins in a luxury penthouse, before revealing what is going on. With the final series of Derry Girls imminent, it is a reminder of McGee’s skill at weaving humour around serious social issues.

No Grasses No Nonces, written by poet and playwright Byron Vincent, directed by James Price and starring This Is England and Being Human’s Michael Socha is an unflinching look at male pride and ways in which economic poverty can trap people in dangerous situations.

Hannah, written by Kerry Hudson (whose brilliant memoir/investigation into modern poverty, Lowborn, won such deserved acclaim), directed by Corey Campbell and starring Emma Fryer introduces us to a care worker on a zero hours contract facing up to eviction from their latest unsuitable housing – it is, says writer Hudson, written from experience.

“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,” she says.

“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.”

The first set of four monologues end with Regeneration, written by novelist Gabriel Gbadamosi, directed by Campbell and starring Gary Beadle (Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, EastEnders) as a market stallholder holding out against the inevitable tide of change coming to his neighbourhood. “You’d better be strong to be poor,” is just one of the standout lines.

Heart of Glass, written and directed by acclaimed novelist Jenni Fagan and featuring a brilliant central performance by Isis Hainsworth shows a young singer, preparing to go on stage – but also facing homelessness having recently left the care system. It’s beautifully played.

Heart of Glass is based on my own experiences leaving the care system, going into homeless accommodation at 16 years old,” Fagan tells us. 

“I was also playing in bands at the time. That aside, Mia is her own character…”

The Taking of Balgrayhill Street is another highlight. It is written and directed by James Price and stars the great Peter Mullan – as Donnie, his chest full of pride, his cupboards bare, arguing with himself over whether to accept the offer of a food parcel and fixating on a jar of curry sauce. “Fuck your council fucking curry sauce,” he reasons. It’s a classic Mullan performance, summoned from real life, and explodes from the screen.

Isis Hainsworth in Skint.

Unicorn, written by novelist Rachel Trezise, directed by Lisa Clarkson and starring Tamara Brabon as young mum Tasha, who talks about her relationship with food (and unicorns) while serving on a community payback litter in an emotional, smartly written monologue set on a windy hillside.

The final episode, written by Skint Estate: Notes From The Poverty Line writer Cash Carraway, will air soon but has been delayed by production issues.

But anyone with an interest in poverty, in great new writing, or in monologues, which have had a welcome resurgence in recent years with the success of Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, Queers, Crip Tales and the return of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads during lockdown in 2020 – should make a date with Skint.  

Then Barbara Met Alan – BBC2, Monday March 21, 9pm

Brilliant new drama telling the real-life story of the civil rights struggle in the UK that eventually resulted in the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. Then Barbara Met Alan, a new one-off film by Genevieve Barr and Jack Thorne, focuses on Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth – two performers on the cabaret circuit who meet, fall in love, start a civil rights movement after hate-watching ITV’s charity Telethon, have a child, chain themselves to buses, go to parliament and change the world while their relationship burns brightly before slowly imploding. Phew!

It’s quite a story, told with a winning wildness and anarchic abandon, with standout lead performances from Ruth Madeley and Arthur Hughes. Once again, lived experience is vital to making this film work – it is disabled-led in every department, from writing and acting right through the crew and supporting artists, making this a revolutionary drama about a dramatic revolution…

Top Boy – Netflix, from Friday March 18

Top Boy is back on Netflix for its second series since rapper Drake saved the show, following its premature axing by Channel 4. Loyalty over everything is the tagline – and loyal fans have been key to the show’s survival against the odds – but this time, the drama branches out. There are fine performances from Little Simz, Jasmine Jobson and Saffron Hocking as Shelley, Jaq and Lauryn become more central and an important storyline exploring domestic violence.

It’s still a series that focuses on drugs, gangs and territorial positioning, however and Ashley Walters, Michael Ward and Kane Robinson remain still the main stars. But as all-time classic series The Wire showed, expanding the world and worldview is a smart move. And it makes for brilliant TV…

Grayson’s Art Club – C4, Friday March 18, 8pm

During lockdown, Grayson and Philippa Perry’s series was a welcome hub of creativity, humanity and celebration. A place to unite, a place of humour and joy. And how we need that now. Series three begins with comic and Strictly champ Bill Bailey visiting them in their studio as works of art on the theme of love come into the spotlight. Look out for an appearance from Ai Weiwei. Such a welcome return for one of those shows, like Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, that makes the world feel like a better place, even if only briefly.

Catch Up

Life and Death in the Warehouse – available now on iPlayer

This drama is exactly what BBC Three was brought back to showcase. A new writer, Helen Black, a modern and vital subject matter – the working environment in Amazon-style mega warehouses – and a brilliantly constructed issue-led drama.

Aimee Ffion Edwards, who first caught our eye in Luther and went on to star in Peaky Blinders, plays Megan – a new management trainee pressured into pushing her pregnant colleague Alys to improve her pick up rate by her boss (Line of Duty‘s Craig Parkinson in heartless, menacing form).

What follows shows how zero-hours contract work can mean zero care and consideration for the welfare of workers – and it may just nudge a few viewers to change our shopping habits.

From the same team as Bafta-winner Murdered By My Father, Murdered For Being Different and Killed By My Debt, this is, once again, important social politics wrapped up in smartly written and acted drama that offers a new view on the world.

Watch now on iPlayer

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