Grace Dent on TV: Benefits Street benefits us - because poverty should be funny, right?

But whether it in any way benefits any of the people who are in it is questionable

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The Independent Culture

As an inner-city-London resident for 20 years, I have often felt that Class-A drug-addicts are wrongly maligned as lazy, when evidence suggests quite the opposite.

There is no busier bee on the pavement than a heroin or crack user with a 10-quid note en route to score. But if the new series of Channel 4's Benefits Street taught me anything – and I'm really grasping hard for positives here – it's that Class-B drugs aren't as conducive to focus.

Maxwell and his brother, after 10 diazepam tablets each and several pipes of what in my day we called "skunk", were not overly committed to time-keeping. In fact, I predict footage of the brothers attempting to reach court in time for Maxwell's case – the mystery of the missing leaf-blower – to be one of the funniest slapstick sequences shown on British TV in 2015.

Except that once I'd stopped laughing at Maxwell, his eyes spinning, staggering around near the bus stops, becoming distracted by a fridge full of ice-pops – mmm ice-pops – then eventually turning up 47 minutes late, I remembered again that Maxwell is a human being and this was probably exploitation. Probably. Because it was and it wasn't. This opening slice of Stockton-set Benefits Street may have tried very hard to refute the charges against it, but only muddied the waters further.


We saw footage of Dot, Maxwell, Julie and the gang reading initial press coverage about their agreement for the Tilery Estate to be filmed. "Poverty porn?" Maxwell and Dot both laughed. It was unclear whether the pair really understood the implication that their poverty was to be watched and enjoyed.

We were supposed to take comfort that they knew the "poverty porn" buzz-term existed. Because, after all – we were informed numerous times within the hour – they'd all given permission to Channel 4. "I feel like I have a story to tell," Julie said, standing in her front garden flanked by a brood of kids, neighbours' kids and relatives.

Julie absolutely did. Footage of Julie rocking her severely disabled 15-year-old son in her arms while crooning "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was some of the most sobering TV we'll see this decade.

In these moments, it was difficult to argue Benefits Street shouldn't exist or its value was null. Julie's need for state assistance was irrefutable. Furthermore, Julie insisted vehemently that her community – yes, poor and gleefully bawdy – were a tight-knit bunch who tirelessly helped her out. We saw this in barrow-loads.

Friends and neighbours Sue Griffiths and Julie Young in Benefits Street

Their front doors were always open. Kids played out on bikes, dinners were dispensed to the hungry, tenners were loaned for electricity meters. Residents knew the restorative value of a good sing and dance to Showaddywaddy or a gossip and a fag on the front step. If the Tilery Estate wanted to underline that here was a collection of valid human beings with big hearts, they succeeded. But then the national press, hoping to predict the next "White Dee", arrived in Stockton and the residents' choice to be filmed became questionable again.

As freelance reporters and agency photographers loitered on Kingston Road, the episode became somewhat of a moral maze. Sue, Julie, Dot and their army of children were hurt and furious at how journalists were now snapping them and summing their complex life-situations in big broad tactless hack-speak brushstrokes.

"How can they print things that aren't true?" Sue's daughter asked, staring sadly at a newspaper. The residents argued that they'd given permission to Channel 4's cameras, but not to freelance hacks. "This is a public street, I can stand where I want," a photographer quite rightly told them.

Lee and his Mum 355Z2447Benefit.jpg
Lee and his mum on Benefits Street

Channel 4 seemed to be telling us that they were the good guys here and the press were the sharks. This didn't address the fact that clearly Julie and Sue had been wholly gullible and ill-advised about the control they'd have over privacy once the Benefits Street circus came to town.

Into the mess snuck local MP Alex Cunningham to inform Sue and Julie that they were being exploited. Confounding matters, the ladies disagreed. In fact, they were more irked by Mr Cunningham. He'd never visited the estate prior to this, despite it being picked out as a national epicentre of grot and decay. Now he was holding interviews with BBC crews. Who was exploiting who now?

"We have no facilities for the kids!" Sue complained to him. "You have the, um…" the MP grasped around for a positive, "the netball court!" Julie, then, had a chance to explain to Mr Cunningham about her poorly son's situation.

If Julie wanted her story to be heard it certainly was. But whether Benefits Street truly benefits any of the people it focuses on is still very much undecided.