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Demonising? Episode 2 of ‘Benefits Street’ flatters a very ugly picture

13 January 2014

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

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  • dana

    My base salary as an employed architect in Romania is much lower than the benefits received by mr.Thomas and his wife :) Don’t worry, I’m not planning to come in UK, just saying …

  • A L

    I wish to congratulate C4 on tackling this very timely issue. While the politicians are busy trying to be politically correct and interested parties are all making the expected noises ,they have shown the guts to show some of the realities. While a civilised society looks after the weak and the poor, in Britain unfortunately there is a large section of the population who is exploiting the system. They feel it is free money, there just for the grabbing – not willing to acknowledge that it actually comes from the tax paid by the lot of hard-working people. These people are no better than thieves and muggers.
    Please keep up the good work.

    • tomdaylight

      You didn’t watch the show then.

  • Raw England

    Immigration and multiculturalism has shattered our dying country. The foreign-occupied city of Birmingham (Birmingham is non-English majority) is a terrifying, sickening glimpse into our near future.

    Benefits Street is a glimpse into the future for English people; in fact, it’s already come for millions and millions of working class English. One day soon we will all be in that position, whilst the immigrant majority will rule our cities, and become the government. And any English that speaks out, then, will be set upon by thousands of violent immigrant mobs, arrested and/or brutally killed.

    I’m crying on the screen as I type, because I know this is coming.

    • alexander

      Birmingham is still a majority White English city. The White English working classes reside in the outer concentric ring of the Birmingham urban area in areas that are 80-90% White English with high birth rates in comparison to the Birmingham and UK average

  • sarahsmith232

    Well, well, well, check this from the Guardian –
    ‘Smith said the makers had not edited the programme to create a softer second episode because of the controversy that followed the first. But he said editing had been done after the makers had spoken to the police because they had a “significant duty of care” to those who had taken part.’
    Translation – police told them to edit it to make the Romanians look like the all ’round good guys of the street, so they did do.
    The Birmingham police have form with this. They sued a Channel4 documentary team that revealed what was taking place in Mosques. They believed that this was damaging for ‘community cohesion’ so they attempted to silence them by prosecuting them. They lost, saw the head of the police in charge, he was at a total loss, absolutely no idea why on earth the law found in the doc’ crew’s favour. Here they are, Birmingham again, at it again with all of this, yet this time they were able to head off free speech at the pass and successfully demand it be edited to their say so.
    So, turns out ‘flatters’ was the right word. This whole thing is all shaping up to show just about every single nook and cranny of all that’s wrong in this country.

    • sarahsmith232

      oh, yes, BTW, this also in the Guardian, turns out that they DID give people alcohol and told them to act up for the cameras. They’ve been denying it, but the people involved said they did. Oh, I’m going to go with believing them.

  • John Lea

    As a staunch right-winger and UKIP sympathiser, I have to say that the scene where the Romanian man – just off the phone to his wife – says ‘I didn’t want her to know how bad my situation is’ was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on TV. Felt sorry for those Romanian men, all of whom were keen to work but found themselves badly exploited. No sympathy whatsoever for the home-grown trash, sitting around drinking cans of lager – especially that mouthy black girl.

    • dana

      Welcome in the real world. Most EE people are employed by a subcontractor, meaning that if they call in sick or complain about working conditions they are immediately fired and also threatened and blackmailed by the so-called supervisors.

      • John Lea

        I do live in the real world, Dana. I was just moved by the Romanian man. Yes, I’m against mass immigration, but on a human level, I felt sympathy for his quiet stoicism. He was clearly struggling, living miles from home, separated from his wife and young daughter, yet didn’t want his wife to know that he’d hit rock bottom. Perhaps I’m naive, but I found it very moving.

        • dana

          Those who go abroad never tell us the truth until they
          came back home, because they don’t want to cause worry to their families , but also because they are ashamed of their failure so they would not admit it.

    • Raw England

      So your sympathy lies with the immigrants who have come to drain our country, but you hate the indigenous English who have had their lives destroyed by immigration and multiculturalism?

      Think about what you’re saying.

      • John Lea

        No, I have every sympathy for indigenous people who wish to work but have been undercut on the job market by mass immigration. However, it is clear that many on that street – including ‘Obese Dee’ – have absolutely no interest in finding work. Work seems to interfere with their ‘lifestyle’. I found myself for a brief period back in 2010. I spent the vast majority of my day completing job application forms – I averaged about 6 a day – and found another job within 2 months. Perhaps I was just lucky eh?

        • Raw England

          John: I’m referring to the whole situation on a deeper level than that.

          The reason crap people like Dee, and indeed all the other English ones on Benefits Street exist at all is because decades of immigration and multiculturalism has destroyed, rotted, drained, infected every level of our society in every way.

          Further: why would any native English citizen feel motivated to work/help the country when we’re being ruled by a repulsive, Left wing/non native political class who not only send 100’s of billions to foreign countries, and continue to allow mass immigration to destroy us, but also arrest, hunt and lock up native English for speaking their minds?

          Its no wonder many are not motivated to work and aid this cess pit of filth, mate.

          • John Lea

            Disagree with your first point: I would argue that the evolution of an overly generous welfare system that encourages people not to work has been primarily responsible for creating the likes of Dee. Mass immigration has merely made a bad situation even worse.

            Agree that the metropolitan political class are responsible for creating a climate of fear, where legitimate concerns about immigration/multiculturalism are immediately dismissed as racist or bigoted. Don’t accept, however, that the people on Benefits Street are refusing to work as part of some moral protest, because they’re disaffected with politics and politicians. From what I could see, the majority were just lazy, drugged, useless (or all three).

    • sarahsmith232

      Really wish I could also live in your naïve, unknowing world. The reason why the Romanians (not seen it yet, but they were made to look sympathetic?) moved you is ’cause the police had a word with the crew and ordered them to re-edit this weeks episode so as to ‘flatter’ their reputation. (A couple of comments down I’ve uploaded the quotes about this)
      Their ‘exploitation’ is a Reality TV Show storyline, it’s faked, they would have been paid (either in alcohol or money) to act out a storyline. The storyline is manufactured, they film re-takes asking their ‘actors’ to do it this way, that, angrier, more crying next time, shout that insult this time, all of that.
      Thing that bugs me is that the Left is all only too happy to foam and froth about how faked it all is when these shows damage Left wing ideology but where was their rage about the same teams ‘Make Bradford British’ Reality TV Show? This ‘Love Productions’ got up to all of the same tricks with that one but ’cause that one played into the Left’s hand they were lauding it.
      The Left, as ever, an absolute joke.

      • John Lea

        Watch the scene and let me know what you think. I’m not naive or unknowing, and I share your scepticism about reality TV programmes, but that scene had a ring of truth about it.

      • dana

        Low educated people from Romanian rural areas are easy to handle and manipulate through informal mafia-like structures (gangs) so I’m not surprised if they face slave labor there. It happens in Spain, Germany., UK … Even if you say this particular storyline is manufactured, force labour in UK is still a reality.

    • Airey Belvoir

      Neither of the ‘Dees’ come across well, although Obese Dee is getting an easy ride as the street’s sympathetic’mother’ figure – not mentioned is her criminal record for theft, reportedly £17,000 embezzled from the Council, which presumably also resulted in her unemployment. Channel 4 mentioned the criminal backgrounds of other figures, but not hers. A deal with the programme makers, perhaps?

      • tomdaylight

        Focusing exclusively on what we see on the screen, I think “White Dee” generally comes across very well. Obviously, as my article tries to convey, the programme is painting a rosier picture than the one of reality – quite the opposite of what some have been claiming.

    • sarahsmith232

      John, luvey, I’m sorry but nothing that you saw was real. It REALLY was all acted and faked. This is how these productions operate. They storyboard pre filming, they set out their narrative structure pre setting foot on the street to do any filming, then tell all the participants to play their parts. No different form the way movies or TV dramas are made, they just add lib instead of have some set dialogue to say.
      They got an African to play the part of the member of the community that played the – compassionate and considerate of the Romanians part. Then cut to white Fungi playing the part of the hostile, uncompassionate, angry about how much money they make part. They’d have given him drink and cig’s to play his part. Same with quite a lot else, they’re paying them to bring to life stereotypes to play their parts in the productions storyline. It’s a REality TV show, nothing more than that.

  • DWWolds

    The only people who come out of this situation “looking rather more dignified” are those decent people who have lived in James Turner Street for many years and who are unfortunate enough to still live there as their surroundings disintegrate into squalor.

  • Mynydd

    Why as nothing changed after Mr Cameron’s 31/2 years in power.

  • wycombewanderer

    everyone agree with Toynbee that it’s the tories who are at fault don’t they?

    Well you’d think so given the level of censorship to the comments on her pathetic article this morning!

  • John Smith

    It displays how 21st Century Welfare Traps people on taxpayer’s money & worklessness. It also shows the modern phenomena of self entitlement

  • voidist

    thats the Problem with our comrades of the left…..they just dont like to
    be told how they bred loafers who leech on to the other productive members
    of Society……..

  • Seldom Seen

    Benefits Street is a telvision programme and television programmes, despite so much evidence to the contrary, are – primarily – about entertainment not social justice or the lack of it. They can be presented in some deeply earnest wrapping, espousing all sorts of high-minded blah-blah-blah but, ultimately, they’re there to grab viewers for the channel on which they are shown. Benefits Street is one of these as much as Strictly or Eastenders and to meet the entertainment remit it needs to distort the banality of life on benefits to make it more ‘entertaining’. Fact is, these sorts of places are as dull as ditchwater – until the cameras move in.

    • sarahsmith232

      Agreed. Don’t know why my first comment was blocked but it was saying the same thing. This is a ‘Reality TV Show’, it’s 90% faked, they’ll have paid the drinkers in alcohol to act up for the cameras. They do re-takes, tell them start fighting with each etc.
      Yet read the coverage on it here and they seem to genuinely believe that this is a serious piece of ‘investigative journalism’ (sure Fraser Nelson used those exact words!!!). I commented that it’s about as real as an episode of ‘Real Housewives’, they ‘document’ rich women in their ‘real lives’ and the Channel4 one ‘documents’ ‘real poor people’ in their ‘real lives’. Other than income, there’s no difference between their ‘reality’.
      Ha! Can’t believe people are writing about it like this isn’t the case???!!!

  • Son of Hayek

    What made Birmingham a wealthy city? Where has this industry gone? Do service industries provide long-term prosperity for a country? Discuss.

    • Seldom Seen

      The Marxist-backed unions drove industry away from Birmingham, during the 1970s. The city never recovered once the car industry on which it relied for employment was blown out of the water by Red Robbo and his crew.

  • swatnan

    Talk about the idle rich; this was a perfect example of the idle poor.
    But scratch beneath the surface and and that so called ‘community spirit’ isn’t so when it comes to the work ethic which the Romanians had, who claimed they didn’t seek benefits but worked in the scrap trade to earn a pitance. Its all they cpuld do, because the culture, apparently doesn’t encourage children to study or attend school, but instead get married underage. That kind of ‘culture’ however must not be tolerated in Britain, and people need to speak up. The Gypsies are not the only group, where unsavoury practices and culture has to be challenged.

    • John Smith

      Fat chance of that, the successful British culture will be washed away on a tide of moralless behaviour

  • spinfight

    Some on the left may be demonising the producers though I suspect far more reflected the anxiety, guilt and shame felt by the wife, a long time old labour advocate.

    When the result of your vote is put into such stark contrast I think many on all sides of the political spectrum had a bad night.

  • alexander

    De-industrialisation and the shift from the manufacturing to the service sector in the 1980’s has meant that in Birmingham a city that was heavily reliant on skilled manufacturing jobs for employment a permanent underclass has now been created.

    At some point in the 1980’s a whole section of the working class across Birmingham and other former industrial cities thought f**k it and chose to live a relatively secure life on benefits than a low paid uncertain existence on the un-secure, un-skilled manufacturing and service sector jobs that had replaced the previous secure employment.

    Is this shift in jobs since the 1980’s a reason for a section of society to become criminals and live a life on benefits? No everyone makes personal choices, but it goes some way to explaining the negative social trend in Birmingham and former
    industrial cities.

    • Bonkim

      People were poor but honest and dignified, prepared to work – the present lot appear to have lost their way on easy-street.

      • Daniel Maris

        Yep and Dixon of Dock Green used to solve all the crime as well.

        • James Strong

          What point are you making?
          I agree completely with Bonkin because I knew scores of poor but honest and dignified working class people, and now I see 2, in a few cases 3, generations that have no desire to work and have lost much dignity and self-respect.
          And yet you, instead of trying to point out any mistake by Bonkin, just make a silly, smart-arse comment about a 50 year old TV show.
          So, what point are you making?

        • voidist

          still Dîxon was better than your benefit friends from

    • John Smith

      I did not see one skilled person in this programme. It once again raised the spectre about why we let yet more unskilled folk into the Country

    • Makroon

      That was presumably after they had spent two decades pandering to the “Red Robbos” of their world and trashing the businesses that gave them a good livelyhood by mindless and destructive “militancy”.
      Ship-building, coal-mining, and steel-making, were all largely brought down by low-cost competition, but the collapse of Brum metal bashing was mostly “all their own work” (with a modicum of incompetent government thrown in).

      • alexander

        The factors that you mention are true. The Industrial working class communities and industries that had developed from 1850-1930 in Birmingham, the Black country and other places have been decimated. Working class culture and life in these areas permanently erased and changed beyond recognition.

        The fallout is mental health problems, crime, unemployment, benefits, low skilled, low paid un-secure jobs and a drug culture. The transition could have been more effectively managed by the government instead of shifting straight to the financial service sector as the focus of the economy

  • HookesLaw

    if people are in ‘slave labour’ – and I do not say yeas or no, I take it at face value – then someone should be arrested and Ch4 should be contacting the police.

    I must say that I find it ironic that the left are demonising Ch4. Whatever else there is to say about this programme and its other output it all comes from a corrosively left of centre viewpoint.

    • tomdaylight

      I just find it ironic, after the left have plunged so much capital into claiming that various benefits reforms harm the poorest in our society, that when a TV programme tries to investigate this they are up in arms and calling for the producers’ heads.

    • Daniel Maris

      We might also wonder why they don’t arrest the Romanian man with the 15 year old child bride. The Police are useless as zero FGM prosecutions demonstrates.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Oh leave him alone. Drop the age of consent to fourteen. It is de facto anyway. That goes for homosexuals too. ‘Younger than she are wives and mothers made’ so don’t go on about modern degeneracy. If she were ten, perhaps a problem. But then it would be a cultural issue, wouldn’t it?

        • Ridcully

          “If she were ten, perhaps a problem.”
          Maybe now, but what happens when fourteen becomes thirteen, thirteen becomes twelve, twelve becomes…?

      • Guest

        maybe in UK the age of consent is 15.

    • sarahsmith232

      Not seen it yet but it’ll be very unlikely that they’ll be any arrests ’cause it will be very unlikely that what was shown was real.

  • John Davies


    • telemachus

      And the best advert for the party of reason that I have seen

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