The Victorians had Dickens to chronicle the plight of the poor at Christmas; we have to make do with Channel 5. Actually that sounds a bit ungrateful, like some spoilt kid who’s been denied their favourite new gadget on Christmas morning and gets a banana instead, and then goes into a massive sulk (never me, promise).
Is it possible for a country to feel proud of those of its citizens “on benefits” as the ugly phrase goes? Yes, if Channel 5’s Christmas on the Poverty Line, an account of families at the bottom of Britain’s Christmas pile, is anything to go by. What was striking was how the various households, from Lancashire to Cornwall, coped with being skint; all with determination, dignity and remarkable spirit. They got on with it. OK, some borrowed and spent too much, even by their own children’s account, on Christmas, but the selflessness was arguably all the greater for the financial danger these parents knew they were getting into. The likeable Danni and Darren Truscott, from St Austell, blew a whole £1,200 on their offspring, most of it on tick. They’re now “consolidating their debts”.
Contrast, and perspective, was provided by Karen, who had a perfectly comfortable lower-middle-class lifestyle before ill-health robbed of her job and her security. And how fragile the membrane between normality and poverty can be. Her housing benefit doesn’t cover the rent, and she is obviously and bravely struggling to hold things together. For her, her new status as unemployed “stopped me from being judgemental, ’cause now I’m on of them”. Her answer was, not to put too fine a point on it, to beg, and she was distressed by it, as anyone watching was too.
Her plaintive email for a Christmas hamper someone had offered up online was as sad as anything in a Victorian novel, but without the respite of any Dickensian humour. What she did have was some supportive neighbours who gathered some presents for her and her children. A modest modern Christmas Carol.
Most admirable was Karla, whose surname was not Micawber, but should have been. She refused to get into debt to fund her £210 Christmas budget, carefully husbanded from savings and doing without for the rest of the year. Her children, especially Kayley, 12, were mature and understanding beyond their years, and extremely well turned out, if that doesn’t sound too condescending. Through no fault of their own, these children get called “dossers”, “skanks” and “tramps” by their wealthier counterparts at school, just because they haven’t got the latest Nikes.
I would like to think that this show is a sign that the media demonisation of the poor might be easing off, but I fear this is just a Christmas truce.
Confession: I’ve always wanted to host an Alan Partridge-style “Bondathon”, in which the whole canon of movies is consumed end to end in strict chronological order. But I’ve never quite had the nerve to do so (has anyone, I wonder?). Or the time.
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