The British television scene is very selective when it comes to social history and examinations of real life. On one hand, you have the never-ending parade of costume dramas invoking a misty-eyed nostalgia for a world which only existed for an elite few. On the other, you see the modern life that so many still experience rendered as offensive caricature.
The working class appear on television primarily as punchbag punchlines for lazy sketch shows and sneering stand-ups, and then in laughably irresponsible documentaries like Benefits Street, which endeavour to legitimise these caricatures. The lives of society’s most vulnerable are reduced to misery-tainment fodder to be gawped and jeered at, or to be collectively dismissed in the same terms that right-wing tabloids columnists write them off every week.
Compare and contrast to more ‘middle class’ television programmes like Location, Location, Location and Grand Designs which give hour long in depth looks at individuals and make no attempt to tar whole groups of people with the same brush. The tone is decidedly sympathetic and free of heavily-implied judgement. We learn about the people who appear on these programmes, their families, when they are having the inevitable child, what schools they’ll be trying to get them into, the struggles they endure, their motivations and their dreams.
The individuality of ‘working class’ people is ignored in this way as everyone who is poor tends to get lumped together as one faceless, feckless mass of people who deserve to be laughed at and victimised. If a whole group of people can be stereotyped in one way then it is easier to ignore them. Why would you try and understand these people? This is not a definitive rule, but the trend of anonymising the ‘working class’ and personalising the ‘middle class’ is certainly evident.
One programme that bucked this trend, however, was Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men.
The basic premise is that Danny Dyer travels the country meeting a selection of the most deadliest men. It’s very Ronseal like that. Originally appearing on Bravo, it is hardly a surprise that this programme didn’t find a large audience - but it very much deserved one.
Few caught DDDM the first time around - it originally aired on Bravo, a perennial dumping ground for American reality show offal - and of those who did see it, few took it particularly seriously, largely because of Danny Dyer. People tend to get easily distracted when he talks, something which is mostly Dyer’s own fault. He’s spent the best part of three decades nurturing a cheeky-chappy comedy Cockney persona - which, while leading to several lucrative paydays, has also led to many writing him off on sight. This is a shame. The Danny Dyer who starred in the godawful Run For Your Wife and gets wheeled out on panel shows to be sniggered at is not the real Danny Dyer; the Danny Dyer who is a genuinely talented actor, mentored by Harold Pinter, and who is a surprisingly adept documentarian.
To be clear: from the start, Deadliest Men contains lots of class Danny Dyer Banter. Danny turning up hungover to SAS training and promptly getting CS gassed is funny. Danny going to an Essex barbecue attended by serious criminals and calling them all "son" is funny. Danny going pale and being near-visibly sick when Stephen French, who made his living ‘taxing’ (in the most dubious legal sense of the word) drug lords, whispers his most intimidating threats in Danny’s ear is funny. Danny musing on whether he could iron out three very large debt collectors led by the extremely large boxer Dominic Negus is funny. However, if you only come for the banter, or find you can’t watch it at all because you can't stand Danny Dyer Banter, then you are missing the show’s most in interesting aspects.
Indeed, the thing which hamstrings the programme - the Danny Dyer persona - is simultaneously the thing which makes it so worthwhile. On the surface, Deadliest Men appears as though it’s another programme in the tradition of laughing at the lawless ‘working class’ and depicting them as mindless criminals, but this acts as cover for its true intentions. The apparent focus on titillating danger is likely the reason Deadliest Men was commissioned in the first place. Dyer would have been laughed out of the room had he suggested a social documentary looking at what deprivation, religion, war and drugs can do to angry young men. So instead, the programme is sold on comedy Danny Dyer and the threat of vaguely-fetishied violence.
It’s hard to imagine any other British TV personality could have assembled this cast of robbers, murderers, contract-killers, fighters, bouncers, enforcers, debt collectors, cops and ex-SAS soldiers to appear on telly, let alone convince them to open up. Against all the odds, Danny manages to get these legitimately scary, hard people to open up about their pasts and their feelings. Given that in at least two episodes, he confesses that he does very little research, this could be purely accidental - but there is something about his manner which makes his subjects comfortable enough to let their guard down.
Dyer has a quality which most television interviewers seem to lack. He goes to meet these people with no preconceptions, seems legitimately interested in them, and is more concerned with actually listening to them than talking at them. His boyish enthusiasm and curiosity allows him get away with asking terrifying people highly personal questions that are extremely off-script. We learn about their family struggles and how their life of being very feared affects their perception of themselves and of the world around them. They are shown to be interesting people in private, separate from their reputations, and are thereby personalised in a way almost unique on British television.
Consequently, Deadliest Men is less a chronicle of villains, dark characters and violence, and is instead a study of parts of our society which very rarely get given attention. The types of people and places which appear on Deadliest Men have helped to shape our society, but are ignored by it. Ignored by everyone apart from Danny Dyer, the People's Louis Theroux, who takes on topics which are otherwise almost entirely absent from television. It would have been all too easy for Deadliest Men to be eight hours of Dyer in a car listening to grisly war stories and salacious anecdotes from urban legends, but he didn’t take the easy, sensationalist route and Deadliest Men is much richer for it.
A day with Stephen French turns into a thoughtful account of the Toxteth Riots, the endemic racism of the 1980s that forged his outlook, and modern gang culture in Liverpool. Combat training with Spud, an ex-SAS man who runs a private security company, branches out into an analysis of the debilitating effect of war on young men, how it ruins them and stays with them for the rest of their lives. The story of Bradley Welsh's career as a boxer and hooligan becomes a long talk on how young men from abandoned communities can fall through the cracks and must fight to survive without any support. How does this happen? Danny wants to know. An episode with ex-loyalist terrorist Sam McCrory looks more deeply and fairly at the Troubles in Northern Ireland than any other TV show recent memory. Dyer notes that both sides were in the wrong, a viewpoint which is all but forbidden in modern Britain.
Danny Dyer records parts of our society which are routinely ignored, actually listening to the people involved rather than going down the usual documentary route that treats people and communities as though they were subjects on Planet Earth, rather than human beings.
Could a programme like this - centred on the sort of lives we rarely see on-screen - work without the violence aspect? Absolutely, but it would need a host like Dyer. Someone interested in people and not there to make a mockery of them in front of the nation. There are people out there who deserve airtime, and if the right interviewer found them and simply listened, it would do very well.
In the meantime, you should rewatch Deadliest Men. Danny Dyer’s persona – a living meme – makes him an easy figure of fun, but in harnessing it, the creators of Deadliest Men were able to sneak one of the most interesting bits of contemporary social commentary onto our screens. By actually connecting with people, Danny Dyer created something unique, and that deserves far more respect than it gets.