‘Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away’: A Literary Analysis

Some programmes exist in a peculiar hinterland, accessible only in certain stages of your life. They’re such unattractive prospects to everyone else that they may as well be broadcast on a different frequency. ‘Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away’ exists in a liminal space (Channel 5) that you can only reach if you are a student, or depressed. It makes you feel the same way you do when you see someone fall over in public.

It’s bad for you, basically. But I’m here to discuss it at length, because every episode is a dazzling, nauseating opera of discomfort. You need to know about this programme. You need to know about what happens when someone Can’t Pay. You need to know how ‘Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away’ – which has run since 2014, almost 24/7 on various Channel 5 sub-channels – conforms with five key stages of Joseph Campbell’s scholarly framework of ‘The Hero’s Journey’.

STAGE 1: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

The boys are in a van. Big boys, small van. They’ve got a writ to enforce. Usually it is daytime and they’re squinting out of the windshield; sometimes, though, it is dark. (“The banks will be shut!” is something you can say at this point, knowingly.)

“Stuart and Vic are on their way to Bradford,” says the voiceover. This is “just another day” for Stuart and Vic. They’re going to a dry-cleaners that owes the landlord £6,000, or to evict a family of three from their rented semi, or to a farm to find a man who owes another man £500.

There is no excitement. The show rarely lingers in the van. If ‘Can’t Pay’ tried to do what other noted absurd reality show ‘Catfish’ does, and create a charming, humorous travel montage, it would make you want to tear your eyes out. Just a load of different shots of two large men, creaking in their bailiffs’ gear, adjusting the volume of Radio 5 Live and staring out of the window.

STAGE 2: CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

Did you know that bailiffs with a High Court writ are allowed to access your property? Because they can – and then they can ring you at work, saying they’re stood in your office next to the rabbit cage. A solid 40% of the show is just two men squeezing through partially-open gates or wedging their foot in a door that someone’s begrudgingly opened. Thresholds are crossed at an insane rate.

When they get into your house, they’ll proceed to just drag it to hell. Brian O’Shaughnessy, pointing at some clothes on the floor: “I mean, it’s just sad.” Someone called Gary or Mike stood in the kitchen, shaking his head. There’s some dishes piled up, maybe with some food still on, and he’s distressed. You’ve never seen such an unhappy man with a teeny camera strapped to his chest. “It’s no way to live.”

STAGE 3: TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES

The dance begins. A mother owes £2000 to a car rental business, and she Can’t Pay. She’s got Dave or Mark or whoever in the driveway, taking a picture of her Ford Fiesta and saying to the camera that it’s worth approximately ten pence; she’s got Joe or Terry at the IKEA kitchen table, stroking a cheerful and oblivious dog, asking if she can “make a few calls”.

They say this a lot, and it seems ridiculous but IT WORKS. There are legions of mates with good jobs, or sons that just want everything to settle down, or mums that don’t want your TV to get taken away, for goodness’ sake. Often it’s not a direct relative – it’s some friend or a friend, or someone that just REALLY shouldn’t have more money that the debtor.

If there’s going to be some shouting, it’ll happen here. Maybe they’ll try and chase Mark and Terry off the property, screaming “YOU CAN’T BE IN MY HOUSE,” while Mark and Terry say “Sir. Sir. Sir,” over and over again, standing totally still in front of a Live Laugh Love wall stencil. If it gets too much, and a death threat slips out as they are wont to do in Stage 3, a call will be made to the police, who guest so often on ‘Can’t Pay’ that an episode without them would feel like it belonged to another series.

STAGE 4: THE ORDEAL

Grandstanding over, this is where they figure out how to get the money. Often – thrillingly – one of the bailiffs will rephrase the name of the show a bit, as an explanation to the debtors. “Look, if you can’t pay it, we’re going to have to take some of your goods,” they’ll say. Sincere. The High Court writ will be produced, over and over. Put down on the kitchen table. “We’re got a High Court writ,” the bailiffs will say. This means that you have to stand there while they take a picture of your laptop and TV, and say into the TV camera that followed them in that your goods are RUBBISH, essentially. Your goods are DIRT to them, and they are worth £20.

It’s time for the debtor to share their story, which is always horrific and sad and you get why they don’t have £4500 in their back pocket and no matter how many times some large guy called Matt says “Is there ANY WAY you can scrape up £3000 of it today?” you’re never going to remember that, oh yeah, it’s in your other pair of jeans.

STAGE 5: THE REWARD

“I’ll make a call to the office,” says Kev, or Paul. They go outside. The camera shows them in a tiny back garden, the phone dwarfed by their big hand. The debtor’s chewing their fingernails and giving their kid some juice, and the other bailiff is just sort of there, in the house, really…PRESENT, stark in his black-and-white outfit.

“They’ve accepted.” It’s happened! The debtor will now pay £300 a month, with interest. Except obviously they won’t because they don’t have £300 a month to spare but everyone forgets this and forms are signed and THAT’S IT SEGMENT ENDED we’re off to Guildford to get a businessman to pay £15000 in fines by the end of the day.

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