Benefits Street, Channel 4 - TV review
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Tuesday 14 January 2014
No one's done much to help the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, now forever rechristened Benefits Street, thanks to Channel 4's controversial new documentary series. Despite – or maybe because of – the Twitter death threats, accusations of betrayal and media uproar, which followed its first broadcast, Channel 4 has defied calls for the series to be pulled. Did it hope this second episode would change some minds?
This week, the focus had broadened to include less divisive characters. There was pensioner Sue, a long-term resident, who had entered her street in the Britain in Bloom competition in hopes of restoring some front gardens to their former glory, and Anna, a Polish Mormon engaged to marry an Algerian Muslim.
Every Ukip voter's worst nightmare lurked behind the front door of Number 151, however: 14 immigrant workers from Romania squeezed into a house built for a family of four. "They could make at least two and a half grand a day, they can," said one neighbour with a sage nod towards the house. Try £10 a day for 17 hours of work.
After hearing the complaints made about it by the very people who appear on screen, it's impossible to watch this programme without scepticism, but this episode was an improvement on the last. At least here there were some attempts to challenge myths and confront prejudices about society's most marginalised people, instead of lazily reinforcing them. Whether that makes up for the misleading title and the unpleasant insinuations of the voiceover is another matter.
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