This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 28th June 2014.
Beauty Queen or Bust: Thursday, Channel 4
Meet the Mormons: Thursday, Channel 4
Channel 4 rightly gets a bad rap for the more down-market end of its factual slate – My Big Fat Undateable Dole Cheat etc. - but it's still capable of producing the occasional gem. Last Thursday, in a moment of rare generosity, it aired two worthwhile documentaries about troubled young people from vastly different worlds.
The first, Beauty Queen or Bust, was a surprisingly touching account of three hopefuls vying for the Miss England crown. Most films about beauty pageantry tend to focus on the weirder, chintzier aspects, but this new series is more concerned with the hopes and aspirations of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. For once, it was a programme which sought to sympathise with benefit claimants, rather than demonise them.
Formerly a blazing hub of industry, the Black Country is now one of the most deprived areas in the UK. For Diamond, Natalie and Sammy-Jo, a chance to compete in the Miss England competition offered a tantalising means of escape. Otherwise, what can a poor girl do?
Beauty Queen contestants are usually derided for their aspirational platitudes, but when the likes of Diamond expressed a need to better herself and give hope to others, she was clearly speaking from the heart. The contrast between her public persona – loud, boozy, aggressive – and her private, sensitive, insecure self was quite striking.
Having been expelled from school without any qualifications, she didn't feel as though she'd ever amount to anything. But the judges at the Miss Black Country heats were impressed by her natural elegance and obvious sincerity. Diamond just wanted to feel proud of herself for once. Happily, she succeeded.
This was a positive portrait of working-class women struggling to make something of themselves in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Their dole-funded plight was contrasted with the relative comfort of Ruby, a pageant veteran with a wardrobe full of expensive frocks. The other girls had to pay for their dresses in instalments.
Ruby has been gainfully employed for years, and believes she'd easily find another job if suddenly made redundant. “A lot of the younger generation do just sit back and wait for something to happen,” she opined. Ruby, it is safe to assume, has never walked a mile in their high-heeled shoes.
With its curious rituals and beliefs, it's easy to snigger at the Mormon faith. Yet despite a few wry nods in the direction of their temptation-cessation underwear, Meet the Mormons didn't come to mock. Rather, it was concerned with the difficult realities of life for young missionaries.
It followed Josh, aka Elder Field, as he trained to become an 'Ambassador of God' in Leeds. Barred from seeing his friends and family for the entirety of his two-year mission, Josh was understandably lonely and upset. Director Lynn Alleway offered to give him a hug, but even that was disallowed.
Despite being given unprecedented access to this notoriously secretive church, Alleway was frustrated by the constant hovering presence of a watchful PR man and Josh's limpet-like missionary partner, who swooped in whenever he risked a moment of candour. It was like living in an amenity-free prison where freedom of expression and privacy are punishable offences.
Out on the streets of Leeds, Josh tried to stay positive while facing door-to-door indifference. I don't begrudge anyone their faith, but this was a rather sad study of fruitless indoctrination.