Tara is a waitress supporting her widowed mother, alcoholic sister and adored niece with her nugatory wages. Jambo is a 37-year-old man with “mental health” having a birthday pint in the pub and trying to fathom his impoverished life. Hannah is part of a hardworking couple whose zero-hours contract and toddler militate against them finding new accommodation when they are summarily evicted from their one-room home. Gary is the leaseholder of a stall in a market about to be redeveloped who is plunged back into the memories of the slum clearance that broke his mother and his childhood.
They form the first four stories in Skint (BBC Four), a series of seven 15-minute monologues (four broadcast this week, three next), overseen by Lisa McGee (the creator and writer of Derry Girls) and the award-winning actor and film-maker Peter Mullan. It follows in the footsteps of the acclaimed CripTales, Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle and Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives, which used the same form to break down weighty issues (disability, institutionalised racism and endemic sexism, respectively) into individual aspects and examine them in the round.
As a television project, it is heartening. The monologues are written and directed by people with direct personal experience of poverty. (For example, the novelist Kerry Hudson, the author of Lowborn, a clear-eyed memoir of her deprived childhood, is the writer of Hannah’s tale of homelessness.) The series’ rubric was to cast and commission as many new faces as possible, creating those all-important first footholds and credits.
While some episodes are better than others, it is a uniformly strong lineup: never dull, always vivid and never descending into mere agitprop. They all feel like real glimpses into real lives, providing windows on to realities that are too infrequently (and inaccurately) depicted in drama. The underprivileged and disfranchised appear often in documentaries, of course, but rarely escape a framing as zoological specimens.
Skint opens with a piece written by McGee, with Saoirse-Monica Jackson turning the keen edge of madness she brings to Derry Girls to equally fine use as Tara. It is a role that is much closer to tragedy than comedy – which is not to say it is without laughs, black though they are.
We meet Tara dressing in borrowed finery as she rails against a customer’s rudeness earlier that day. We begin to understand that this rudeness imperils not just her livelihood, but also the security of those who depend on her. She is as bound by her responsibilities and worries (“how to manage money we just don’t have”) as the customer is … well, I won’t spoil the first twist.
She sees almost too clearly to bear how circumscribed her life is, just as her father’s was before her. She says his first question to the doctor, after being diagnosed with cancer, was: “How long will I be able to work?” “I don’t think that’s a question you should have to ask,” says Tara, furiously, opening up the world of generational poverty with a line of dialogue.
The lack of any margin of error in poverty and the lack of protection and control over life that it brings are frequent themes, probably best conveyed in the two standout episodes of this week’s batch. No Grasses, No Nonces has a blistering Michael Socha, as Jambo, delivering a monologue filled with rage, despair and bewilderment. The episode, written by Byron Vincent, details and dramatises how the lack of all kinds of resources results in and compounds the effects of sexual abuse, toxic masculinity and grief. It shows how people are left – in their hundreds of thousands – walking around with shattered souls.
Gabriel Gbadamosi’s Regeneration takes a more lyrical approach to the scars left by early horrors, dipping in and out of poetry, patois, prose and different periods of time, to no less powerful effect. Gary Beadle plays Gary, simmering with impotent rage, piecing together the fragments of memory and hoping that the one piece of advice his mother left him will be enough to protect him from the uncaring, indifferent powers that be this time round.
Next week’s batch comprises The Taking of Balgrayhill Street (written and directed by James Price, with Mullan as a man struggling with pride, shame, nosy neighbours and the need to visit a food bank), Unicorn (by Rachel Trezise, with Tamara Brabon as a young woman being pushed further into poverty by a community-service sentence), and Heart of Glass (written and directed by the novelist Jenni Fagan, with Isis Hainsworth giving an astonishing performance as Mia, a fierce, fragile, hopelessly vulnerable young woman who has left care). They round out an unflinching examination of modern poverty. Whether anyone with the power to change things will be watching, I couldn’t say.