Bradford Is British

Review: Make Bradford British, Channel 4

As its starting point, Channel 4’s Make Bradford British used a seemingly simple premise: What does it mean to be British? Finding the answer was presented as the first step in forming a new and cohesive identity in our 21st century – supposedly divided – Britain. When discussing it with a friend from abroad, seeking the viewpoint of an ‘outsider-looking-in’, we came up with no solid conclusions. At first, the participants of the show seemed to have similar trouble. Would being forced to spend four days in the company of people whose backgrounds are vastly different to their own allow them to find an answer?

The programme piqued my interest due to its choice of location. Bradford is described as one of the most “deeply segregated areas in the country” and just down the road from where I went to school. Given my suburban, middle-class upbringing, I had expected the potential subject matter, inner-city racial strife, to be a million miles from my personal experience despite the geographical proximity. I was then surprised to learn that one of the participants was from the same little moor-side town as me. Perhaps the content applied to me after all?

Though born elsewhere, I grew up in Ilkley, the hometown of Maura, and described by the programme makers as “one of the wealthiest and whitest suburbs in Bradford.” While such a statement doesn’t paint the full picture, certain aspects of my upbringing suggest that this cannot be denied. The number of ‘non-white’ pupils in my year at school could just about be counted on both hands. Excluding a couple of skateboarding sessions with a lad from Keighley, my only interactions with local Muslims would be those wintry Yorkshire afternoons when my peers would manage to get out of doing rugby or cross-country because they were “Ramadanning”, to use my P.E. teacher’s parlance.

I found myself cringing at some of Maura’s somewhat naive, middle-class liberal leanings (“I’ve read books about other cultures”), but a lot of what she said rang true: “You can’t just tap someone on the shoulder and say, what’s it like to be a Muslim?” That’s exactly right. When you haven’t experienced it, it’s impossible to know what it means to be something simply by questioning, so I took heart from the common ground that the participants found in religion.

Often I find that the white working classes are portrayed in the media as wild-eyed, Sun-reading racists, ‘chavs’ on public transport spouting vile abuse. At the other end of the spectrum, we are mainly shown the extremes of Islam; men with beards burning poppies and women seen in the context of a headscarf and not the content of their words.

My worry upon watching Make Bradford British was the potential sensationalism. I expected the programme to take its cue from the likes of Big Brother, Wife Swap and a million other middle-of-the-road reality TV shows, in that it would seek confrontation between the housemates at the most base of levels – a heady combination of ignorance and race. My fears were largely misplaced, for the most part. I appreciated Damon’s forthright honesty when he came out with lines like “I’m a fuckin’ drinker” and, describing his walks through Pakistani neighbourhoods, seeing people wearing “baggy trousers and hay-jabs”. I respected Sabbiyah’s outspokenness and assuredness, even in confronting fellow Muslim Rashid about his prayer habits. Rashid, almost like a cartoon character moving four times as fast as anyone on the programme (especially when sprinting to the mosque), was described as a ‘’zealot’’ and had come up with the stats to prove that praying in a congregation gets you “25 to 27 times more blessings.” But he’s a former rugby league player; what could be more Northern and British than that?!

The tone of the program was contaminated somewhat when the seemingly cheery Jens started acting out his racist “humour”. His plea that “if I’d meant it, I wouldn’t have said it” obviously holds no ground, and if that’s “humour” then it’s of the sort that should be left in 1970s pubs. His comments, combined with the position of authority he held as a police officer for 21 years, clearly caused some discomfort among his housemates.

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