Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Benefits Street

The first episode of Benefits Street can be watched here on 4OD:
Benefits Street is a slice-of-life documentary about the residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham which is one of the poorest in the country. When I saw the trailers for it I was expecting it to be another piece of slanderous drivel to motivate the forces in the War On The Unemployed, another one like this toxic travesty: However it had a very different tone indeed. For the most part it portrayed the characters fairly compassionately and left the viewer in no doubt that they were experiencing genuine poverty. The people who live on the street appear to enjoy a healthy sense of social cohesion which is rare in this world nowadays. They often loiter in their front gardens and on the pavement chatting and even put furniture out there in nice weather. One of the women, "White Dee" has a family of her own, but has also taken on the role of community matriarch, acting as a surrogate mother to many of the young adults. I notice that one of her neighbours, a young woman known as "Black Dee", calls her "mum" although they're obviously not related. She helps people fill out forms, deal with telephone helplines and even looks after their money. One of her charges is a man called "Fungi" who gives White Dee every penny he takes out of the bank for safekeeping; she says she's trying to keep him off drink and drugs. Fungi does odd jobs for her in return for a cup of tea or a sandwich. There are many scenes in which the characters talk about the effect the Government benefit cuts have had on them, like the young couple Mark and Becky who have had their Job Seekers Allowance "sanctioned", a fate that has become virtually impossible to avoid, see: Black Dee is about to be evicted due to just £200 of rent arrears. At the same time her housing benefit doesn't meet the sum necessary. Some of the people in the street turn to crime, but not as many as The Daily Mail would have you believe. One man, Danny, is a qualified sports instructor and five-a-side football referee, but his only "work" is shoplifting to support his drug addiction. Fungi is his best friend and accompanies him on his escapades. Fungi's own scams for making a few bob are only borderline criminal and quite riotous. He takes a bunch of brochures from a travel agents and then sells them pretending they're the Big Issue! Amazingly some passing shoppers and motorists buy them before realizing that they're just free travel brochures. Many of the people in the street are trying hard to earn a living by legal means; one particularly admirable individual was a young man called "Smoggy" who is known as "the 50p Man" because he sells small samples of everything he can for just 50p from the boot of his car. Along with his initiative and sense of enterprise, his poverty has not robbed him of his kindness either, and he gives Becky some free products when he finds out her JSA has been sanctioned. Another man, filmed anonymously, is growing marijuana in his spare bedroom to pay his Bedroom Tax; I don't consider this criminal myself, but the statute law does.

It's interesting to compare the street in the programme to my own. In my street there is some poverty, I myself would be definitely categorized as part of the "precariat", but I think most people are working. However I know the name of only one person who lives outside my own flat, the man above me, and we're not friends. People tend to ignore each other when they're on the street and there's an undertone of distrust. The street in the programme is like a big family, and indeed White Dee says that at one point in as many words. She adds: "All the money in the world and you'll have nothing compared to what we've got round here." After Black Dee has just heard how her housing benefit will not be raised, she says how if she had all the money she needed she'd still live on the street; and she'd spend her money on her neighbours as well as herself. I found this a very ambivalent programme. On the one hand it was disheartening to watch the outcome of the brutal treatment of poor people in our world by the Government; some of the scenarioes in the programme were truly Dickensian. However alongside that is a homage to the human spirit; these people have a sense of camaraderie and mutual trust that is truly rare and precious. I wonder how many viewers envy that; I do. In this way Benefits Street is deeply poignant. It reminds me very much of George Orwell's book Down and Out in Paris and London which combines his furious polemic against poverty and social violence with his admiration for the dignity and humanity of the people suffering in the face of adversity. It's on Project Gutenberg and is well worth a read for comparison, see: This is just the first episode of Benefits Street and I'll look forward to watching the rest of the series.
(Edit: 22.24) I've had some feedback from this article and have been looking at some of the reactions to the TV programme from the rest of the alternative media, for example see: It's clear that I am definitely in a minority in my opinion. So be it. I have to call it as I see it; if I thought this was propaganda I would say so, see the above link to my review of On Benefits and Proud, but I don't think it is. Or if it is intended to be propaganda then it's an extremely bad job!

No comments: