Last December, Viacom’s UK-based Channel 5 screened a 90-minute documentary, Slum Britain: 50 Years On, which cleverly compared the housing and homeless crisis of today with the situation 50 years ago. It was a powerful piece of television created through a rewarding partnership with housing charity Shelter using unique photographs of the slums commissioned by the organization from the 1960s.
Producers Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis (who incidentally were nominated for an Oscar for their film, Watani: My Homeland, on Syrian refugees in Germany) combined a strong human interest story with a powerful argument, making Slum Britain: 50 Years On essential viewing.
At 90 minutes, with black-and-white visuals and a seriously angry point of view about the conditions many of our fellow citizens endure in 2016 Britain, the project was a risk. The film rated better than we anticipated, with more than 1 million people tuning in for the whole film.
The reaction from viewers across social media was amazing – I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a powerful, immediate and supportive response.
And not just from viewers. In partnership with Shelter, we had previewed the film and held a discussion chaired by David Mackintosh MP (Member of Parliament), chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, who has an ongoing campaign to raise the issue of Britain’s housing crisis in the House of Commons.
It made such a powerful impression on him that on Jan. 26, he invited us to show the film within Parliament to fellow MPs and homeless charities to generate further interest in the issue, and inform parliamentarians the day before the Homeless Reduction Bill was introduced into the Commons for debate. The meeting was lively and passionate, with other members of the all-party group praising the film and Channel 5 for raising the issue in such a direct and grown-up way on television.
We were also delighted that some of the film’s contributors came to the parliamentary discussion to describe their experiences and lives to MPs first hand, making for thought-provoking and emotional discussion. Following the Westminster screening, David talked about the documentary in Parliament, outlining how the plights of the people featured in the film, “reminds us why the [Homeless Reduction] Bill is so necessary and why it must progress through the House and into the other place.”
With the support of Ben Frow, our Director of Programmes, I’m going to commission more of these feature-length documentaries on key social issues for Britain, and I feel sure that they can have as big an impact as Slum Britain with the subjects we’re going to tackle next. It proves perhaps that television, 50 years after the documentary Cathy Come Home put the housing issue on the map and prompted the formation of Shelter in 1966, still has the power to change hearts and minds.