Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Last night Channel 4 boldly launched "an experiment that will reveal if it's possible to use psychological theory to turn bad neighbours into good ones". Oh yes indeed, it's another cheap reality show masquerading as a social experiment. I do love those. They're always the most tacky.

This particular piece of academia went under the title of 'The Nightmares Next Door', and brought together five households from across the country in a purpose built 'village' (ie. caravan park) in Dorset for four weeks. Each family represented a common cause of neighbourhood disputes, and the aim was to teach them all to live in harmony under the guidance of Dr George Erdos, senior lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University.

George, we were told, is "an eminent psychologist", though he was obviously off sick the day they did 'stigmatizing labels' at college, so the programme helpfully referred to each of the households using catchy nicknames, which I'm sure didn't act as self-fulfilling prophecies at all. Well not much anyway.

First to arrive were "The Party Animals", a group of four binge-drinking students from Newcastle. Hang on... Newcastle?? Don't tell me George has hired his own students for this project? Is that allowed? Oh well, I'm sure there's nothing underhand going on. It's probably just coincidence, and doesn't mean the whole programme is fake.

Next up was Simon Warr, "The Bossy Busybody", a residents association chairman with a thing about cornflake packets in the street. His neighbour kindly informed us that "Simon's worst nightmare would be people who are loud, slovenly, and inefficient". Yup, I think that's the remaining three households covered...

The Williams family from Stockwell were next. They were helpfully tagged "The Noisy Neighbours" (no pressure to live up to that label though, obviously), and were followed in by "The Dog Lovers" - Carmen and her two grown-up daughters Holly and Clover (who presumably changed her name from Ivy when she was 18). They arrived with five dogs in tow, which, Carmen told us, are like her babies. Which is a polite way of saying her daughters are dogs. She continued "You don't have children put down when they're naughty, do you?", which was a fair comment, although she hadn't met the Jones family at that point.

The Joneses were undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of this reality show, particularly mother Wendy, who's a kind of Lizzie Bardsley for the new millennium, only not quite as bright, and with more of a foul mouth. Wendy did, however, manage to stop swearing long enough to tell us "I'm a nice person", prompting an immediate response of "No you're not" from one of her children. A chorus no doubt echoed by most of the viewing public.

But the families were soon settled in, and Simon was confidently declaring "I think the most important ingredient of this entire project is that everyone's reasonable to each other", which was possibly slightly optimistic given that the programme was made by RDF Media, the people who brought us 'Wife Swap' and 'Holiday Showdown', two shows not exactly known for their reasonable protagonists.

But still, things started well on the first morning, when Wendy indulged her family in a little neighbourhood visiting, waking up the students with water pistols, before turning to her children and instructing them to "look at these gay fuckers". I'm not sure, but I don't think that's an official part of the good parenting manual. I could be wrong though. And at least it gave Wendy a break from calling her kids "fucking muppets" to their faces.

Fortunately the community were able to bond around their mutual dislike of the Joneses, and celebrated by throwing a residents' meeting in which they took turns to voice their concerns, whilst Wendy confidently declared that you can't stop a six year old from stealing, and announced that there might be severe water restrictions, but she was still planning on filling the paddling pool every day.

Half an hour of complaints later, Wendy paused for reflection with a copy of the minutes, before perceptively commenting "You know... this meeting is all about me and my kids..."

Yup, I think the penny's finally dropped.