TV review: BBC1, Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits

Some wary prejudices can be dissolved with greater knowledge

Tom Sutcliffe
Friday 12 July 2013 13:35
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Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits
Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits

"The benefits world is not something I know anything about," said Margaret Mountford at the beginning of Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits. It was an odd thing for the presenter of a programme about the welfare system to boast about, but then it dawned on you that this candid admission of ignorance actually was a credential.

Because the problem the programme was addressing was that a lot of people do think they know about the benefits system. And what they know is mostly wrong. People think, for instance, that 40 per cent of our taxes go to pay for Britain's benefits bill, when it's actually closer to just 10 per cent. More pertinently, a lot of people think that a safety net has become a hammock, supporting the workshy in comfortable indolence. Margaret and Nick were on hand to observe that proposition being tested by a series of blind dates, in which taxpayers were paired up with the people their taxes help to sustain.

The grafters had the prejudices that the programme makers needed them to have. Stevie, who works for 60 hours a week as a carer, started out with the assumption that "the majority of people are claiming because it's easy". And to be honest, I don't think Liam, fresh out of university and currently on Jobseeker's Allowance, was likely to change her mind. Stevie inventoried the top-end consumer goods in his bedroom and his iPhone 5 and pursed her lips. Liam, she noted, had more shoes than she did. "They're all name brand," said Liam, "I can't walk around in anything but name brand trainers." Meanwhile, Debbie (who runs her own cleaning company) was asking searching questions about the small zoo that Kelly maintains, along with her two children, and Simon (a central-heating engineer with painful experience of being out of work himself) was ruefully noting that unemployed Kristofer's house was twice the size of his own.

Some of these wary prejudices dissolved with greater knowledge. Kristofer choked up when he recalled a conversation with his son. He'd asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and his little boy replied, "I want to grow up just like you, Dad." Kristofer feared he wasn't the right kind of role model, a doubt that suggested he almost certainly is and that also comprehensively melted Simon's resistance.

But Cheryl and Debbie, despite some nudging from Margaret about the necessity of giving people more than mere subsistence, sternly drew the line at a system that could end up with the workless taking home more than workers. And Stevie – after watching Liam curl his lip disdainfully at the idea of a job in the wrong kind of retail – looked as if she thought he should get nothing but a firm kick up the backside from an Asda-brand trainer. Next week, the out-of-work get a taste of the workers' lives, and Margaret and Nick may come out of their shell a bit and start earning their presumably generous fee.

I do hope that Ian Brady wasn't able to watch Brady and Hindley: Possession, a mysteriously pointless rehash of the Moors murders, given a frisson of exclusivity by the inclusion of audio tapes of Myra Hindley, delivering her own account of some of the crimes. What was heartbreaking to any normal viewer – such as John Kilbride's mother revealing that she continued to buy him clothes in increasing sizes so that he would have something to wear when he came home – would only have fed Brady's sadistic malice. And the film's teasing suggestion that it might offer evidence for the location of Kilbride's burial site would surely have gratified his teasing sense of control at a distance. "He loves the idea of people being manipulated by him... of people being confused by his different presentations," said a psychiatrist, apparently unaware that he was taking part in a film that could only add to that satisfaction.

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