A documentary the BBC tried to ‘misrepresent’ has just been released

A picture of social cleansing and the BBC logo
Steve Topple

This article was updated at 7:30pm on Sunday 9 September to clarify that the BBC made its own documentary in the end and that the film mentioned here is a separate project.

A documentary maker, originally working with the BBC, has just independently released his work instead. It tackles one of the most pressing issues the decade – social cleansing. And its creator told The Canary he pulled the plug on the BBC‘s involvement because it tried to “misrepresent” the people at the heart of the film.

An authentic voice

Potent Whisper (aka Georgie Stephanou) comes from a single-parent, working-class family on a council estate in south-west London. It’s those politics and social issues that shape Whisper’s work. From Grenfell Tower to the NHS via the 2017 general election, his work is authentic and radical. But at the heart of what he does is the issue of housing estate regeneration; often referred to as social cleansing.

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Now, Whisper and documentary makers Rainbow Collective have released a groundbreaking spoken work documentary series on social cleansing.

It focuses on one of the most high profile ‘regeneration projects’ in recent years – the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, south London. Originally intended for the BBC, after a disagreement, Whisper and the collective decided to go it alone. And the result is a powerful piece of film. The BBC, however, went on to release its own documentary without the involvement of Whisper or Rainbow Collective.

So, The Canary caught up with Whisper to talk about our public service broadcaster, social cleansing and affecting change.

‘Regeneration’ controversy

Southwark Council’s regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate has been one of the most controversial in recent history.

It began in September 2005, when the council announced its plans to demolish the estates’ roughly 2,700 homes. It claimed this was because a £56.2m refurbishment grant from Tony Blair’s government wasn’t enough. The council said it would cost £314m to do; a figure that’s been disputed.

So instead, the council decided to demolish all the homes, transfer much of their ownership to a housing association, and rebuild the estate. Taking place in four phases, one of these is already underway with the council’s contractors demolishing hundreds of homes.

But even before the council decided to knock down the estate, resident opposition to these plans was huge. This stretches back to at least 2001 when 73% of residents voted to keep the estate council-owned, on a 76% turnout; a result most politicians could only dream of in an election.

This opposition is ongoing to this day; while many residents still face an uncertain future. Which is where Whisper comes in. He and Rainbow Collective have launched a new series, The Rhyming Guide to the Housing Crisis. And episode one is about the Aylesbury Estate.

The Rhyming Guide to… 

The film focuses on the residents’ story. It’s groundbreaking in its approach: Whisper mixes spoken word with an interview, along with archive footage of the opposition to the council’s demolition programme.

The film dedicates its full nine-and-a-bit minutes to represent the people who actually live on the estate. The council, housing association and contractors don’t get a look in. Too hot for the Beeb? Probably:

Speaking to The Canary, Whisper explained in no uncertain terms what happened with the BBC:

I was asked to present a documentary for BBC 1’s ‘Inside Out’ programme exploring the decrease of council housing in London. We worked with the producers for some months on the film and brought it to near completion. Unfortunately, I came to learn that considerable changes were suddenly being made without my knowing and it ultimately transpired that the BBC’s vision for the film was not aligned with ours.

Amongst other serious issues we felt that key housing campaigns and estates were being misrepresented, in particular the Aylesbury Estate. Our concerns were shared with the producers and we explained that we were not prepared to compromise on key points. We decided to step away from the film and took it upon ourselves to create our own content on this issue independently, telling the stories that we felt weren’t being told.

Misrepresenting 

The council’s treatment of residents has been pretty appalling. Its bought up the homes of people who purchased them under Right-to-Buy, sometimes at four times less than the market value. The council tried to push through Compulsory Purchase Orders; meaning legally it can take homes off people, effectively evicting them. In a bizarre turn of events, in 2016, the then communities secretary Sajid Javid put a stop to this plan.

But the media coverage of the Aylesbury Estate often doesn’t give the residents the voice they deserve. Headlines like How gang terrorised doomed estate just feed into the narrative that the Aylesbury Estate and its residents are broken. And only the council, through regeneration, can fix them

This coverage has invariably allowed it to spin its version of events without recourse. And it’s this that drove Whisper to make the film; consequently driving him away from the BBC. He said that the very nature of social cleansing means that the time for debate about the pros and cons is effectively dead in the water:

For many years residents and activists have been highlighting the violence of regeneration. The devastation it causes to families and communities is well evidenced and has been documented time and again by academics, journalists, residents and politicians. Tens and thousands of our friends and neighbours are being made homeless or forced out of London.

We are witnessing economic cleansing, an exodus of the working class from London. The debate surrounding estate regeneration has been exhausted. We know the situation. What we need now is action.

Passion, shining through

It’s this passion for the lives of people affected by social cleansing that shines through Whisper’s film. If you follow his work, you’ll already know he’s a highly skilled and accomplished poet, rapper and spoken word artist.

But what this first episode in The Rhyming Guide to the Housing Crisis shows is also Whisper’s talent for interviewing people. Because he has direct experience of the issues the film explores, his interview with Aysen Dennis is something you’re unlikely to get from the mainstream media.

This realism and authenticity will probably be the running theme of the whole series. Whisper told The Canary that The Rhyming Guide to the Housing Crisis will ultimately offer “radical solutions” to the issue it’s documenting:

The series dismantles and offers radical solutions to the housing crisis. The aim is to make important information accessible to the increasing number of people who suffer housing issues in the capital. We want people to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and give them the tools and inspiration to fight back.

An important public record

Whisper and Rainbow Collective have produced a radical and innovative piece of documentary making. But it’s also a crucial public record of a fraught time in a community’s history; where many residents are, to this day, still in limbo.

If this first film in The Rhyming Guide to the Housing Crisis series is anything to go by, it will continue to be groundbreaking. No wonder the BBC wanted to change Whisper’s vision. It’s probably a bit too truthful for it.

Get Involved!

– Support campaign groups Fight4Aylesbury, the Radical Housing Network, Focus E15 and Ledbury Action Group.

Featured image via Potent Whisper – YouTube and BBC News – Wikimedia 

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Steve Topple