In the summer of 1983 I became the first member of my family to be awarded a degree. I returned to the seaside town I grew up in with the letters BSc(Hons) after my name. I then became the first member of my family to sign up on the dole. The poor economic prospects of the inhabitants of coastal resorts are fairly well known nowadays, but back then it was something that was obvious enough if you lived in one but which weren’t that well known in the rest of the country. But nonetheless it was a frustrating time. The only source of work I had access to was the Job Centre which offered the odd paid gig for which there was considerable competition. I did a bit of moving of office furniture.

But one day a card appeared with what looked like a fantastic opportunity. A production company was looking for extras for a television programme. They needed hundreds of them. I put my name down straight away. They pay wasn’t fantastic but it was two whole weeks work. The scene was a trade union conference located in the Winter Gardens – I didn’t even have to stand up. It was interesting and undemanding work and plentiful sandwiches were provided. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. (If you are interested the production was Charlie starring David Warner.)

A friend of mine took part as well. He was even more taken by it than I was and became a regular extra and went on to do a great many related jobs. I think he had hopes of doing better but never broke into stardom, or even into speaking a line. I managed to land a job in a lab and finally got my science career going. But looking back on it I might have been lucky. A lot of my contemporaries found themselves sucked into low paid unproductive jobs and have never really had much of a chance to break out of that cycle.

This all came back to mind when one of those odd stories came to light during the General Election campaign. Channel 4 did some undercover work on the Reform Party campaign in Clacton. It was a story that was rather beneath them to be honest. They recorded some party activists saying some racist and unpleasant things while campaigning. This was not exactly a revelation of Watergate proportions. Political parties are at the mercy of volunteers who turn up to do the donkey work unpaid. The kind of person who is willing to put their time in for this is not going to be representative of the average member of the public and won’t be vetted. Given Reform’s pitch it isn’t very surprising that they attract people with colourful views. And the media microphones managed to pick up some pretty nasty stuff.

But it was interesting that one offender turned out to be an actor of sorts. This was seized on by Richard Tice who accused Channel 4 of setting up the whole thing to discredit Reform. I think that is a bit far-fetched. It’s hard to see how they could have done so without leaving a trail of evidence to give the game away. But I find it easy to believe that places like Clacton are well provided with people whose economic situation is precarious and relies on some highly marginal sources of income. I’m thinking of people who are pretty bright, but don’t have much in the way of academic qualifications or access to capital. They live off their wits and their network. But everyone in their network is a bit short of cash too. Describing oneself as a character actor might be putting a gloss on it – but playing a part might well be a good description of how they make a living. They’d probably find the politics of Reform quite congenial. And they might have time on their hands reasonably often too.

So I think Channel 4 might have missed a trick. Rather than trying to portray Reform activists as cartoon villains, it might have been much more interesting to find out what they are really like. That could tell us a lot about the state of the UK today and how some people survive. And speaking personally, I have a feeling I might have myself identifying with them.

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