OPINON: Dear Hysteria… an open letter to Benefits Street

Butterfly screen break - lr - smBy Ed King

Your name is wrong. In fact, it’s your biggest problem.

I watched your first episode on Sunday morning, as a 1am repeat, and kept asking the screen “what does this have to do with benefits?” Yes there was a young couple under investigation for benefit fraud, and the subject of rescinded claims was a constant, not prevalent, thread; but the programme I watched was about the lives of selected James Turner Street residents. Selected. And benefits, or rather the see saw relationship people have with the welfare state, was only part of their story. And a small part; a divisive framing technique at best.

Sitting here, after a sleep, breakfast and lunch, the things I remember are Black Dee’s agitation at the threat of eviction. White Dee’s maternal umbrella to the constant cracks around her. Danny’s foolish self destruction, Fungi’s demons, and Smoggy’s guarded admission of “trying to a think of a better way to do things, a better way to make money” and not returning to the “doing something silly” that locked him up in the first place. It’s the smoking, the grind, the conversations on porch steps; the battle for small victories and keeping a daily wolf from a door. And one moment when Danny and Fungi were trying to work out how long they have until Giro Day (as I used to call it) with the clandestine calculations of food, drink and drugs running through their minds, that made me laugh hard at myself. For that section at least, your name could have been Strensham Road – or no doubt countless of others.

And on the plus side, for there were a few to be lauded, I was fascinated by the candid participation of the subjects involved. The production team responsible for finding, engaging and filming the people featured in your first programme deserve a loud applause. However it happened, and I’m aware of the claims of bribery and coercion (which could be buying someone cigarettes blown way out of proportion), those that worked literally on the street to build the programme’s content must have done so with vigour. For anyone to get anyone to open up on camera, requires skill – but to garner such personal rolling content you’ll need empathy in there somewhere.

Had we been left to watch it in peace, and if the subsequent programmes deliver the same level of frank involvement, you may well have been on your way to a very public honour. From being allowed to film the insides of a marijuana grow to the colloquial preparation of a shoplifting endevour, alongside the seemingly default openness about individual’s lives, it was an exceptionally public look into the very, very personal. You just pitched it wrong.

So last Monday saw your debut and tonight sees your follow up, after seven days of public indignation, accusation, debate, and real news stories once again playing second fiddle to A TV PROGRAMME.

Although the actual subject of consternation received comparatively little intelligent discussion; and if, as your moniker suggests, your intention was to examine the lives of people living on welfare, and to engage, or even educate, a general public about the fiscal and emotional realities of surviving on state subsidies – you failed. You hooked this onto obvious characters with obvious problems, encouraging an even more obvious response and terms like ‘Poverty Porn’.

James Turner Street - sign

(Although there have been some saner responses, even on a very local level. Ozzy Styles brings some pertinent facts & figures into his personal reaction on our own Opinions page, plus Graeme Brown’s Birmingham Post article is worth a read – and not only for the line about Marketing Birmingham. For further discussions on benefits, from one side at least, also check out Sue Marsh’s blog – Diary of a Benefit Scrounger)

But the public have spoken, the country is ‘outraged’, and your hands are being widely slapped so we can all feel good about living in Moseley or not buying a Big Issue. And it is with baited breath that I shall watch your second outing tonight, alongside a confidently high audience; although to aid with my objective enjoyment I’m giving you a nickname.

To me, you will now just be called ‘The Street’, with the misguided prefix being forgotten like a precocious teenager. And I’ll forgive too, on one condition; Immigration Street never, repeat NEVER, comes to air.

Ed King is editor of Birmingham Review: https://twitter.com/edking2210

Benefit Street (2/5) is broadcast tonight on Channel 4, from 9pm to 10pm