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An enjoyable disgrace

SHAMELESS (Channel 4, Tuesdays), the series which has just ended, was a disgrace. This portrayal of life in a northern council estate confirmed every stereotype: the fractured Gallagher family is idle, feckless, frequently drunk, drug-users, and address each other, and the world generally, with a barrage of bad language. Petty crime and immorality are taken for granted. The local pub and the one shop left on the estate exist in a state of siege brought on by everyone’s anti-social behaviour.

The paterfamilias, around whom the action swirls, lives in an alcoholic haze. When a neighbour’s husband is decapitated in an accident (it later transpires that the deceased had, before having his head removed, been shot accidentally by the youngest Gallagher lad with a drug baron’s abandoned handgun) his response is to visit the grieving widow. He consoles her with the suggestion that she shouldn’t report the death, so that he can impersonate the dead man, collect the pension, and share the proceeds with her.

What is disgraceful about the programe is that it is brilliantly acted, extremely funny, and addictive. These social parasites are also shown to be warm, affectionate and fiercely loyal to each other, when they’re not fighting.

They display an acceptance of, and accomodate themselves to, life’s difficulties — one suffers from Asperger’s syndrome — with less fuss than those living more ordered lives. The humour and the affection, though, lower one’s guard against the problematic morality being portrayed, to the extent that it encourages one to become more relaxed about swearing, petty crime and drug abuse.

There’s nothing funny about alcoholism: it wrecks people’s lives and makes family life hell. But anyone who has experience of life with such families will recognise that this moral ambiguity is accurate: humour, affection and loyalty do frequently exist alongside the most reprehensible behaviour. The overall picture is too attractive and positive, but this is fresh and committed television comedy.

Brat Camp: What Happened Next (Channel 4, Tuesday) reminded us of the only kind of regime that might have any effect on the Gallaghers. Last year, we saw how a group of impossible British teenagers were put through this tough-love programme in the Utah wilderness, painfully learning to discard selfishness and chronic laziness, to become hardworking members of the team.

Would the changes last? Four of the subjects — and, more importantly, their parents — were contacted.

The programme failed to consider whether the families had used the experience to develop their parenting skills, and I did wonder how the rest of the particpants were coping a year on. It was striking to note how thoroughly the four have reverted to their former appearance. The studs and "metalwear", removed with wails of anguish by the Utah therapists, have returned.

But, despite a lukewarm attempt to inject suspense into the outcome, there were heartwarming stories of success. They had genuinely changed. Despite all temptation to slide back, they had stuck to their new insights.

Fran is, astonishingly, a police cadet. Danny now warns other kids of the dangers of drugs. Perhaps the strongest lesson was not to judge by appearances — what really matters is what lies within. Now where have I heard that before?

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