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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried