A change is in the air across Britain. A new divide is opening up: not between the rich and the poor, nor indeed the poor against the poor; but instead between those on both ends of the political spectrum who remain outraged at the depiction of the impoverished on ‘Benefits Street’, and the increasing millions that are glued to their screens actually watching it.
The economically inactive are, as irony would have it, proving an extraordinary success for Channel 4. It shouldn’t be surprising – it was after a noisy week of petitions, protests, and pugnacious press pieces that the viewing figures rose from an already impressive 4.1 million to 5 million.
And it’s not just the media who are stoking this: ‘Benefits Street’ is a programme filled to the brim with ‘watercooler moments’, the foodstuff of office chitchat, thus guaranteeing that the only way to keep up with what’s being talked about in the workplace is to follow the lives of people who don’t go anywhere near one.
These moments are talking points because they do not articulate a Labour or Conservative point of view of how things should be. They do not label the programme’s subjects as scroungers or even as strugglers. They simply present matters as they are in a memorable way, and rather than ‘demonising’, as some on the left have charged, these moments paint a human face on people who have been otherwise shunned by our society. Rather than preaching one way or the other, these moments give us a rare chance to understand their situation as they see it, and apply our own individual interpretation onto it.
Moments such as the ones where Mark and Becky attempt to maintain their unusual status on James Turner Street as a couple who stay together in order to raise their family, attempts that bring them hurtling against the innumerate brick walls of a harsh reality: the difficult world around them, their undeveloped life skills, their lack of money, their inability to find a job that pays, and the ever-looming threat of social services that they fear might take their beloved children away from them. (They’ve barely stopped being children themselves, as scenes of 22-year-old Mark performing skids on his mountain bike serve to remind us.)
Moments such as the one where 28-year-old Sam, a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, phones up the family of her estranged young child, begging to speak to him again, only to be cut off mid-conversation.
Moments such as the normally effervescent street matriarch ‘White Dee’, in an unusually downbeat mood, being asked by producers to identify the nature of the prescription drugs she was taking, pausing shiftily before giving the politician’s answer ‘my medication’, followed by another awkwardly long pause between both parties until she confessed her sad and all-too-predictable truth: ‘anti-depressants’.
And a telling moment that I recognised all too well – a resident greeting a passer-by on the street in the middle of the day, only to be reciprocated by a scowl. A moment which hints towards Birmingham’s social divide – a divide that explains why the passer-by feels entirely justified in scowling.
Birmingham is, by its level of population, officially classed as Britain’s second city – but in many ways, it’s a tale of two cities. There’s the city where people you pass on the street greet you with a smile and a jolly ‘good morning!’, and the city where even your attempts at pleasantries are reproached with indifference, if not downright anger. This divide is not a geographical one. It is a split between those you see walking around before half eight in the morning, and those you see after ten. In other words, those who get up every day to go to work, and those who don’t. The wealthy city versus the welfare city.
It’s easy to see why the man on the street chose to scowl. I was recently told that it’s hard for jobless people to make friends with someone who’s in a job. I’d go further than that and say it’s hard for someone who’s been long-term unemployed to make friends with anyone at all. These are typically people with an underdeveloped skill set to begin with, who don’t have money to splash out on their friends, have lost a large degree of self-respect and feel an enormous sense of anger at a system that they feel has let them down. The worst aspect of all this is a perpetual sense of shame that dogs them every time a new acquaintance attempts to break the ice with the seemingly innocuous, ‘what do you do?’
All in all, it’s a mindset that makes such people very hard to be liked. I would be very surprised if White Dee were the only neighbour who’s been prescribed anti-depressants; being long-term unemployed is enough to make the best of us feel permanently down in the dumps.
Yet the people of James Turner Street show that it is possible to make friends in the most difficult set of circumstances – the forces of adversity can bring people closer together.