The Synthetic Outrage Squad has been out in force over Channel 4’s Benefits Street, dubbing the series ‘poverty porn’ that ‘demonises’ a vulnerable group of people. In fact, as someone who’s lived in the city depicted on the programme for most of my life, what I saw not only rings true but also paints a rather flattering picture of life at the bottom in Birmingham. The reality can be much worse.
Those who watched the second episode looking for ‘poverty porn’ would have wondered what all the fuss is about. It did not ‘demonise’ the poor; what we saw was a mother trying her hardest to give her children a better outcome than she can ever dream of for herself, telling them off for swearing – a refreshing contrast to the parents I frequently see blithely swearing at their children – and evidence of her success, as she is castigated for wasting money on cigarettes by a daughter with all the maturity of Ab Fab’s Saffron.
There was no ‘scrounging'; there was however a rare moment of unbridled rage in the face of the city’s typically lacklustre refuse services when they fail to collect the street’s rubbish, leaving it to pile up on the pavement (a persistent problem in Birmingham, where some residential roads resemble landfills) until residents band together to find an inventive way to deal with their problem. Later, the near-desolate James Turner Street is entered for ‘Britain in Bloom’ with no sense of irony – its success, eighth in the area, saying much about the district around it.
There was a wedding, but we didn’t see ‘Big Fat Gypsy’ levels of excess; rather a more humble affair, where the multinational couple were congratulated by residents in spite of their doubts about the marriage’s legitimacy.
And if this is ‘poverty porn’ then the heart-breaking scenes of a packed household of hard-working Romanians must represent the stuff they keep under the counter. They find life in Britain even tougher than they did in their home country, are driven into slave labour and forced into hiding, surviving on scraps they find among rubbish until food is brought to them by kind-hearted neighbours. By the end they have all fled Birmingham in search of a better life – only one succeeding, in a town 14 miles away, while others sleep rough in Bloomsbury Square declaring life ‘better here than in Birmingham’.
If Channel 4 had wanted to gear the audience against the subjects of this show, they could have chosen a far more loaded title: ‘Scroungers and Shoplifters’, perhaps, or ‘Young, Dumb and Living Off the State’, or even ‘The Real Shameless’. They could have shown more of the truly unpleasant behaviour that goes on in deprived neighbourhoods like this one – the sort of behaviour I’ve experienced myself.
The unseen voice who shouted ‘white bastards’ at a group of us as we wandered through a predominantly Pakistani part of the city. The complete stranger who chased me down the street with his top off, angrily shaking and making intimidating gestures, because he didn’t like how noisily I’d put something through his letterbox. The man who yelled abuse at me from the bus stop as I cycled past him, simply because he didn’t like the fact that I was smiling. The youths who threw my sixty-something dad off his bike as he cycled home one evening.
And I feel like I’ve got off lightly. Round the corner, a nonagenarian was brutally attacked while she slept in her home, later dying from her injuries. Down the road, a mother and baby were killed when their house was burned down by a vengeful ex. A friend of a friend was stabbed to death as he left a memorial event for another stabbing victim.
The Birmingham Ladywood constituency that the series is filmed in has the fifth highest rate of crime in the country – and a report published last month shows serious violent crime in the city rising by 13% in the previous year. Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw branded the city a ‘national disgrace’ for its child protection failures, which he attributed to Birmingham’s overall decline.
Yet despite being relegated to the lower leagues of British society, the potential of its people is on full display in Benefits Street, if you would care to look for it (and beyond the kleptomaniacal shoplifter of episode one who had a corrosive effect on all around him). You could see compassion. Resourcefulness. Generosity. Tenacity. Salesmanship. Community mindedness. Charm, even wit at times. Most of it completely misdirected, but with the right guidance and motivation those attributes could surely be put to productive use and the betterment of society as a whole.
Naturally, this is easier said than done, especially in a city with such poor employment prospects (four claimants to each vacancy). And it is especially challenging when these people are so accustomed to receiving handouts from the state with no conditions attached that they feel it is their entitlement, an attitude portrayed on the show that rang all too true. These are people coping with abject despair (worse, I’m sure, when the cameras aren’t around) as they struggle their way around a bureaucratic system that doesn’t care about them – its low expectations fostering the worst possible outcomes. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find them the least bit endearing.
Later in the week, Channel 4 broadcasts another documentary series, ‘What Happens In Sunny Beach’, this time about low-paid British club workers in Bulgaria, which I presume covers the ‘working poor’ that certain left-wing firebrands are so keen for us to investigate. Last week these workers were depicted as drinking ungodly quantities of alcohol and engaging in mindless acts of debauchery – all while at work, we were clinically informed by the narrator. One of them even detonated a firework up his backside, with horrific consequences. Never mind stationing Keith Vaz at the airport as a deterrent, if this is how the British are represented to Bulgarians we needn’t worry about them wanting to migrate here en masse. Watching the two programmes in succession I couldn’t help but feel that the residents of ‘Benefits Street’ came out looking rather more dignified.
Follow Tom Huxley on Twitter: @tomdaylight