Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Caution - Staging In Progress

Pity the poor documentarian. Like the anthropologists of yesteryear, their role is to observe with neutrality, report without comment, and remain invisible throughout, lest they should interfere with the integrity of their subject. All in all, pretty lofty ideals when applied to a fly-on-the-wall show about a south London fried chicken takeaway. 

Which does, of course, beg the question - who on Earth would want to watch an hour of glorified CCTV footage captured over a week in Clapham's Rooster Spot? Pretty much everyone, as it happens, if tonight's Twitter feed was anything to go by. Spurred on by the programme makers, who helpfully offered up hashtag suggestions like #chickenshop and #spicychicken, it seemed as though everyone was peering through the greasy window of this particular venue, and poking a judgemental finger at the lives they observed within.

Perhaps the appeal of The Fried Chicken Shop lay in its simple agenda; to document the comings and going of modern urban life. As the voiceover proclaimed in the opening couple of minutes, the high street chicken shop is where we can observe the best and worst of British culture. Overstating things a little, maybe. You'd certainly be shit out of luck if the word 'culture' made you think you'd be getting a guest appearance by Grayson Perry. Instead, what we got was an appropriately eclectic, if over-egged for the camera, portrayal of the standard interactions of your average London high street.

We saw the jobless, filling their day with a cheap and nutritionally void lunchtime offer. The school-kids bickering and bantering over their bargain burgers. And countless drunken bar patrons, attempting to dilate their pupils long enough to read to oppressively illuminated menu board. Interspersing all this human drama were enough shots from the chip-pan-cam to give Gillian McKeith a coronary. So, all in all, not too shabby.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show struck a somewhat melancholy tone as it documented the mundane trials and tribulations of big city life. We saw Paul and Sarah; a couple with learning difficulties, who call in most days for lunch and a chance to flick through the Daily Mail. Then there was William, who suffers from a degenerative condition that's slowly robbing him of his eyesight, and the barmy faith healer who attempted to cure him with a combination of prayer and a spongy green stress-ball. William was endearingly grateful for her ministrations, having observed the power of prayer himself when he wished for a bus on a cold morning and one promptly arrived. Proof that miracles do happen, even when TfL is calling the shots. 

Later on, we met Nick, who spent an inordinate amount of time showing off about his job in social media, and attempting to bully the shop's staff into using Twitter. He even engineered a role-play scenario, albeit one that rather unimaginatively involved him playing a customer in a chicken shop. Nick's overlong segment ended with him declaring the Chicken Shop as a representation of what the new Britain is all about: “I’d rather go to a chicken shop than WH Smith.” High praise indeed.

The real stars of the show, however, were Ali and his employees Waqar and Shawqat. Smiling helpfully through all manner of indignities and insulting exchanges, they displayed a singular commitment to working hard and getting ahead, putting the pissed self-important city boys, rocking up after a night out and teasing each other about wearing Primark jackets, to shame. Having moved here from Afghanistan to study IT, Shawqat enjoys his job, telling us "I like working in a chicken shop because you never know what's going to happen." Well, except for the fact that people will come in and eat chicken - that's pretty much a given.

Having said that, the programme makers went out of their way to portray the entertaining diversity of the shop's evening clientele. Performance artists masquerading as autistics, a flock of drag queens who took camera-friendly exception to being called "Sir" and a pair of homeless guys who prefer the independent chicken shops to the big franchises, because they're more likely to give away free food. Plus, of course, we got the crowds of drunken idiots, steadying themselves on the counter and dragging people into the street for a fight. Here then, was the representation of the "front line and the bread line" promised by the opening narration. The Rooster Spot in Clapham is where all walks of life cross paths, only to then trip over an omnipresent yellow 'Cleaning In Progress' sign.

Interestingly, the voiceover attempted to position the chicken takeaway as some kind of remarkable 21st  century phenomenon. A recession-proof wonder that continues to grow in popularity, in the face of a regressive economy. In fact, the chicken shop isn't so much immune to economic pressures, as it is a harbinger of the recession itself. Ask anyone who lives in a less-than-salubrious part of town what the predominant business model is for their area, and they'll tell you it's either betting shops, or the kind of cutlery-free food establishment where buckets are favoured over crockery. In my cosy little corner of East London, chicken shops continue to pop up, like yellow-headed spots on an overweight teenager's neck. And every morning, we awake to find the streets littered with chicken bones, as if the entire neighbourhood spent the previous evening engaged in some kind of communal voodoo rite. 

With aspiration and opportunity at an all-time low, the chicken shop represents a nation in stagnation. Food selected purely for its low price, rather than taste or provenance. Social interactions that depend on name badges to create the illusion of intimacy. And a zesty lemon-scented wet wipe to clear away a lifetime of broken dreams. The sad reality of the chicken shop is that, despite Little Mix's empowering assertions, some wings were only made to fry. 

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