Grace Dent on TV: Benefits Street, Channel 4

The title screams "poverty porn", but this is a show rich in compassion 

You may have enjoyed the recent media furore over a Channel 4 show you haven’t watched but were offended by called Benefits Street. I say “enjoyed”, because we all secretly enjoy a furore. In fact, I distinctly remember being enormously irked about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand’s vile and disgusting treatment of Andrew Sachs, despite never having listened to Brand on Radio 2 to have any context of previous tone, or having truly heard the radio segment in question.

But I didn’t need to, I harrumphed, deliciously whipped up into a righteous frenzy about “the terrible state of where we are” and “the damn cheek of everyone involved”. Brand could carry the can for everyone’s anger with the BBC about licence-fee budgeting, everyone’s anger about handsome young men in tight trousers who seemed to get a lot of casual blow jobs, anger about sexism, anger about Britain’s supposedly plummeting morals – and anger because modern life makes us feel very impotent, and a focus of anger feels good.

With this in mind, I decided to actually watch some episodes of Benefits Street, which is the ongoing tale of a close-knit community of people on James Turner Street in Birmingham, some of whom have become rather trapped by living on benefits while others haven’t and work for a living. The title Benefits Street is, I admit, vaguely antagonistic, but then so are almost all Channel 4 show titles. The trick is to slightly annoy or appal so that people watch out of curiosity, but then quickly relax and enjoy the slightly more erudite and thought-provoking narrative. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is, indeed, about grand, flamboyant weddings, a little bit, usually for about five minutes – but it’s just as much about people washing up and chatting about how they see life. 

Episode one’s main focus was a stalwart matriarchal figure called Dee, whose front door is quite literally always open to help her neighbours. Dee does more charitable and altruistic acts for her neighbours in one morning than I manage in a year. She fills out forms and job applications for them; she negotiates with gas and electricity suppliers; she feeds and minds her neighbour’s kids; and she attempts to counsel friends who are addicted to drugs and drink, often keeping their money for them on their behalf and doling it out in little portions to encourage frugality.

Dee is twice the woman I am. My front door is firmly closed. My patience with friends who are addicted to drugs is patchy. Much is said these days about how television and magazines present a spendy, Boden lifestyle and a skinny, glossy body image which us mere mortals can’t achieve. Yet every time anyone shines a camera on people who resemble Dee, and who live in homes like Dee has, someone screams “Poverty Porn” and we all wet our knickers and beg for them to stop.

One argument this week was that Channel 4 should stop showing Benefits Street as some social-media users were being unkind about people like Dee and Danny, a rather heartbreaking character whose life is a carousel of leaving prison, heading to town to shoplift, and returning to clink. This seems like a dangerous route to go down. People are bewilderingly unkind on social media all day long. No show goes untouched, no presenter untrolled. Are we saying, “Don’t put poor people on telly, as their feeble souls can’t handle the stick?”

Dee lives on a street beside a violent man who, in episode two, attacked the TV crew with a claw hammer, and another neighbour who keeps splitting open all the bin bags looking for scrap metal, before scattering dirty nappies and food scraps over the pavements. The gist seemed to be that Romanians have arrived in Birmingham and were desperate to work, but couldn’t – but could get £40 for a lorry-load of scrap.This is Dee’s world, every day. I’m glad that Channel 4 showed it to me. I wonder if the fact that some idiot Dee’s never heard of and will never meet is anonymously saying on the internet that she has fat arms is truly her priority.

Three things have stuck with me about Benefits Street that I can’t quite shake off during my daily, relatively heavenly, existence. One is “50p Man”, who goes from door to door giving out plastic cups full of washing powder and drinking chocolate to people who have nothing. He’s skint and job-seeking himself and not terribly good at extracting the 50 pences as he’s so soft-hearted. The second thing I can’t shake is the Romanian men in episode two who arrive to pick beans and slowly learn that they’ve been duped by a gangmaster and are little more than slaves. They have no gas, no food and one mobile phone amongst 20 of them, which they share to call their children back home for two minutes a month, trying not to weep, trying to stay proud.

The third thing is Danny – he of the sunken cheeks and the penchant for crack cocaine – in episode one: just out of prison, he’s determined to visit the city centre (which an Asbo bans him from) to steal. His friends, including Dee, beg him not to go. They try all means, all powers of distraction and persuasion, but Danny is not one to be told anything. The moment he reaches the city centre, he’s re-arrested. Inevitably, humiliatingly, and slightly heartbreakingly. If we’re going to learn how to help people like Dee, like Danny, we’re going to have to learn to face them full on.

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