Immigration is an emotive issue that requires cool analysis and calm reflection. Unfortunately the commissioners at Channel 4 seem to think that this wouldn’t make exciting television. So instead, in Make Leicester British (a follow-up to 2012’s Make Bradford British), they bundled together eight Leicester residents from different backgrounds and made them live under the same roof, Big Brother-style. The voice-over claimed that this was designed to encourage an “honest conversation”, but at the start there was much more heat than light.
Indian-born café owner Sukiy had “too many immigrants, flooded with them”. Native-born John, a retired bricklayer, put his foot in it by saying, “I’ve never had no bad experiences with any coloureds.” Somali refugee Sagal, a single mother living on benefits with four children, behaved awkwardly around the others. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising given that Kit, an East African Indian lady married to an Englishman, berated Somalis for being layabouts.
In the last 50 years Leicester has seen waves of migrants: now less than half the population is white British. Inevitably such a rapid change brings problems. But the anger on display here – particularly directed towards Sagal – was deeply uncomfortable to watch. The poor woman was offered no protection by the film-makers; there was only the roaming camera, hungry for conflict.
Only about halfway through did we learn more about the participants’ backgrounds. Sagal was a child when she came to Britain to escape the Somali civil war. She spoke movingly about seeing dead bodies covered with flies. In Leicester she was isolated: her husband was seemingly absent and she lived apart from other Somalis, possibly related to issues surrounding the civil war. Her most vocal critic, Kit, was angry at Sagal because she felt Somalis were undermining all the hard work she had done to integrate. Sagal had also been suffering from health problems and was generally in a difficult place. John, the ex-brickie, might not have been up to date with the latest multicultural lingo but he formed a touching friendship with a troubled Lithuanian called Eduardas, also in the house.
Ola, a Polish woman, was close to tears as she said that she had cleaned 3,964 rooms over the years. Now she is fulfilling her dream as a musician.
It was a positive note to end on, but I still couldn’t help feeling manipulated by the narrative arc. All the programme proved was that, if you look closely enough, each person has his or her own valid story. But the real question for the British state is how to weigh those sometimes competing claims against each other with both compassion and realism. This was something Make Leicester British did not even begin to grapple with.