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“You do get a bit smelly. If you need to go shopping on the way home, you try not to get dirty that day otherwise you walk in Tesco’s and people do look at you funny. It’s one of them smells that if you get it on your actual flesh, you ain’t getting it out for a while. It lingers.” Alex, Portaloo Cleaner
Britain is an island obsessed with cleaning. But we’re not as clean as we’d like to think and the 400,000 men and women who do our dirty work know the truth. Unseen and unheard, they keep our filth out of sight and prevent us from drowning beneath our mountains of waste. As Dirty Britain returns for a second two-part series, we uncover the truth about the grime hidden within our green and pleasant land.
In episode one, we meet portaloo cleaners Alex and Silvo from Essex. Alex explains: “You’d be surprised how people actually leave them and you think, ‘What’s it like at their house?’ It’s a dirty job.”
Despite admitting it’s not unusual to get excrement on his clothes after a day on the job, Alex still takes pride in his work: “A lot of people my age, like 16-25, don’t want to work. Some days I don’t get back to the yard until 7pm but I know that what goes on the table for my kids, I’ve earned, what gets in the house, I’ve earned and paid for it, instead of the tax payer paying for it all.”
In Britain we now employ more domestic cleaners than ever before with one in ten homes paying someone else to clean for them, which is four times more than in the 1970s. Sandra runs a domestic cleaning company in Surrey with over 40 cleaners on her books and the keys to some of the country’s most expensive houses. Yet it seems wealth does not always make for better clients.
Sandra says: “We have clients who’ll ring up and say: ‘I’m really glad the girls are coming tomorrow because the dog’s made a mess in the kitchen and they can clean it up when they come.’ And you think: ‘You’re gonna cook in your kitchen with dog’s mess in the corner?’ Why would you think it’s ok to call and say that and why would you think the girls would want to clean it up? Nothing surprises me now.”
Michelle and Alison clean 20 houses every week. Alison says: “Sometimes you do feel a little bit second class, because you’re cleaning. Some people think because you’re a cleaner you’re a nobody basically, they think you’re thick.”
Life as a domestic cleaner in the privacy of people’s homes can also be eye-opening.
Alison says: “Some of the things you see in the bedroom, you think, ‘Ooh!’ I think I’m quite naïve to be honest. Like ladies toys lying on the bed. And men’s things...I thought it was a thumb ring!”
A third of Brits do less than two hours cleaning a week, far less than many of their European neighbours.
Sandra explains: “Swiss, German and Swedish clients are a nightmare, to the point of sanitising and sterilising, they are very, very clean people, they will go round with the white glove, no margins for error at all.”
Britain’s rat population is currently thriving and we re-visit pest controller Jim England, as he meets Harvey in east London who has lived in his terraced house for 23 years and claims rats have been a problem the entire time.
Rat infestations can be horrific, even for Harvey, a former Rambo impersonator: “It’s terrible, it’s a nightmare, the way it’s affecting my life. Every day I come in and think, ‘Am I going to hear a rat in the kitchen?’ You tend to think, ‘It’s me, maybe I’m not clean enough.’ But I am. Really I just feel like selling the house and moving away.”
Jim suspects the rats are accessing the house from the unsealed sewers and calls in drain specialists.
With almost 2.5m people unemployed, work isn’t always easy to come by. But the cleaning industry is more resilient than most, and offers some surprising career choices. Chimney sweeps are busier than ever. Katie runs her own thriving chimney sweep company in Yorkshire but it wasn’t an obvious career choice for her.
A degree-educated designer, she explains: “I was probably sending 10 to 15 applications for jobs every day all over the country. Often I’d never even hear back. I got to the point where I’d pretty much do anything.”
With an ageing population, cases of elderly self-neglect are on the rise. Richard runs a team of extreme cleaners who are often called in to deal with the mess that can follow isolation, illness or death.
As they clear a neglected house in the rural tranquillity of the Cotwolds, the property is in a desperate state and even Richard is shocked: “This is one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen in 21 years. It’s quite terrible.” The house was lived in, in its current state, by an elderly couple for over 40 years, clearly unable to look after themselves but without support. They have now gone into a home due to ill health.
Each year nearly six million people attend horse racing. At the Haydock Races in Merseyside, the course employs over 100 cleaners to keep the mess at bay.
Cleaner Elaine says: “It is a never ending job but I do enjoy it. I like mess and I like making it clean. The old man next door but one, always says to me I’m so clean I should be cleaning for the Queen. So if she’s interested and she pays over £6.96 an hour, I’m hers.”
Also this week, we meet Delia Cannings, who is paid to teach cleaners how to clean properly and is always on the lookout for hidden bacteria. She swabs public areas in search of potentially dangerous levels of organic matter, including chip and pin machines in shops and pedestrian crossing buttons. Any swab reading over 10 indicates a risk of picking up bacteria that can cause sickness or diarrhoea. The pedestrian crossing button has a stomach-turning reading of 103.
Delia says: “Clearly we’re looking at quite a bit of contamination there, which you would expect with everybody touching the button. Fingers goes into all sorts of orifices…then of course residues of food that’s been eaten, spit, snot and saliva…”
Research has shown that some of our cash points are dirtier than public loos when it comes to bacteria levels.
Narrated by Zoe Wanamaker.
Made by Wild Pictures, producers of acclaimed ITV prison series Her Majesty's Prison: Aylesbury, Strangeways, Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway.