'Benefits Street' meets 'The Hunger Games' is a new low for the BBC

Poking fun at poor people — isn't the Beeb better than that?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you were looking for the positive, you could call it a piece of neat joined-up thinking from the BBC. On Tuesday, the corporation announced that it was axing its comedy pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks, after 28 series and 20 years, to “create space for new entertainment formats”.

Just 24 hours later, one of those formats was revealed. Not a panel show staffed entirely by women and/or cats; nor a “Great British Bathe Off” (a hunt for the nation’s best sunbather); nor a “Great British Fake Off” (a hunt for the nation’s best forger). Their time will come. Instead, the BBC offers up Britain’s Hardest Grafter.

Oh, the hours of meetings and focus groups that must have gone into that title, with its matey, EastEnders-y feel. It’s the sort of title Gregg Wallace would do a great job of shouting. People love a hard grafter, don’t they? Almost as much as politicians love hard-working families. And yet no one worried at the programme’s premise: essentially, that people who do not earn very much are probably a bit lazy.

“Who in Britain still knows how to graft?” bellows the promotional material, as if this is not really easy to answer by walking into any hospital or school. “It’s time to find out.”

The show, which will air on BBC2, will pit 25 of Britain’s poorest workers against each other in a five-week competition to win a cash prize of £15,500 – the minimum annual wage for workers outside London. Fingers crossed a Londoner doesn’t win. Only those whose earnings or benefits amount to less than this a year are eligible to apply. It sounds like a poor man’s The Apprentice, though the pitch, dispiriting as it is to imagine it, was probably more along the lines of “It’s Benefits Street meets The Hunger Games! Loads of people watch both!”. Plus, unlike The X Factor, which finds itself drawing on an ever shallower pool of talent as each series goes by, there is no shortage of poor people in Britain now. This show could run and run!

Each week the contributors will “experience a different ‘blue collar’ role as the series explores the truth about Britain’s work ethic”, the BBC explains. “Throughout the series, the contributors are rewarded for the work they do.” Rewarded for the work they do? That is a novel idea. A bit like paying someone to do a normal job – without them having to do ridiculous tasks on television and endure their backgrounds, families and friends being rifled through, in the name of entertainment. Each week, the “least effective” workers will be knocked out, and so return to their awful jobs, with their awful pay, with only a shiny new cloak of shame and a backlog of real work to catch up on as consolation prizes.

It is quite jaw-dropping stuff. In their mission to “explore the truth about Britain’s work ethic”, the production company has built a fake factory, “a warehouse space… transformed to cover the UK’s largest blue-collar sectors”. Presumably they have also dug the old Crystal Maze dome out of storage and the show’s finale will consist of diligent paupers leaping around in a glass box, grasping at £5 notes in the wind.

BBC2 is calling it a “serious social experiment”, at “the frontline of our nation’s low-wage economy” that will tackle “some of the most pressing issues of our time”. If only there were another format that could investigate these issues. Like a documentary, or a news report.

Britain’s Hardest Grafter was announced alongside new BBC2 shows called Mobile Phone Idol and Chinese School. We live in an age where the brain-farts that Alan Partridge once desperately flung at a fictional commissioner have made it to screen. (See “Gordon Behind Bars”, or as Alan pitched it, Cooking in Prison.) Where Peter Kay’s “Britain’s Got the Pop Factor... and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice” now looks quaint because it doesn’t include ski jumping and circus skills as celebrity humiliation rituals.

It has been like this for some time. Game shows are about people who don’t have as much money as they would like or need, competing for more, for other people’s entertainment. And there is plenty of dross on screen: programmes that fat-shame, sex-shame, house-shame and holiday-shame. The answer to outrage is always the same: don’t watch it. I just thought that BBC2 was better than that.