Next month, as part of the Sport Relief season of programmes (I know, yawn), we lucky viewers will be treated to seeing the likes of the Dragon’s Den’s Theo Paphitis and some spoilt rich ‘star’ off Made in Chelsea quite literally slumming it with people living in ‘food poverty’ (whatever that is supposed to mean).
I, for one, will be relieved when Relief-branded charidee programmes are no more. But, with Pudsy still with us after all these years, I could be waiting a while. Despite this, I will be watching Famous, Rich and Hungry. Trashy voyeur that I am, it will be difficult not to tune into this latest instalment of what critics are calling ‘poverty porn’. It is made by the same production company responsible for The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee.
And, perhaps more pertinently, the recent Channel 4 hit Benefits Street. The latter ‘documentary’ series prompting two admittedly not-so-Great British Benefits Debates. I know the TV lights went out on Benefits Street a few weeks ago now, but they never really got switched on as far as the welfare debate goes. Still it caused no little anger on the part of supporters of the welfare state in the media. And its even more poor-bothering follow-up seems set to do the same. So it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the reaction to Benefits Streetas much as the programme itself. Because it really did show how divided we are as a country. Not so much between the haves and have-nots; but between us ordinary telly-watching folk and the supposedly left-wing and ‘liberal’ punditry-elite.
Lynsey Hanley, a Brummy like me, and author of the quite good if unduly sentimental look back at public housing in the UK, Estates: An Intimate History; was put out from the start by its portrayal of benefit-dependents living on the now infamous James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. An area, until recently at least, better known for its prison. She was clearly expecting something more worthy than what she got. Perhaps blinded by her misty-eyed longing for the Channel 4 of the 1980s (not unlike her longing for a return to an idealised past of council housing) Hanley was hoping for something much more ‘reflective and contextualised’.
Another Brummy, the effortlessly charmless former Labour MP and one-time government minister, Clare Short, was no less impressed with the ‘crummy and misleading‘ depiction of the run-down neighbourhood she once represented in parliament. She told The Guardian that it would only encourage apparently easily duped ‘viewers to judge and sneer’. And as well as lefty writers and ex-politicians getting upset, there were the habitually censorious who seemingly can’t help but be offended (always on behalf of somebody else) about anything and everything. There were more than a thousand complaints received by Ofsted and tens of thousands signed an online petition trying to get this reality show apparently responsible for ‘stirring up hatred’ on Twitter taken off air.
But let’s take a step back. Was it a reality show or the real people watching it that these critics and wannabe censors had in their sights? Was it that more than four million apparently idiotic viewers watched the first episode, a figure that went up to five million as the series continued, that really bothered them? I’ll admit I was one of them. I enjoyed it in much the same way as I did the baking and sewing programmes. (Not usually my sort of thing, but I learnt a thing or two about hemlines and soggy bottoms which is not bad for undemanding if agreeably distracting tea-time telly). And far from hating the stars of the show like I was supposed to, according to the critics, I rather liked them. Especially the street’s matriarch White Dee who was admirably no-nonsense but considerate, even if this jarred with her depressive-state dependency; and the no-less likeable if pathetically-tragic abused-as-a-child alcoholic Fungi, who she took under her ample wing.
But the critics are also right, of course, despite the slagging match … er, debate … screened at the series’ end, that Benefits Street didn’t help viewers to get to grips with what the welfare problem is all about. The trouble is, neither have they. And they’re supposed to be the experts. Not only have they outrageously tried to shut down the debate and removeBenefits Street from our screens, for fear that we’ll all be worked up into an anti-benefit-scrounger rage. They have failed to shed any light on the problem themselves. Worse still, they’re patronising. If I were a resident of Turner Street I’d resent the pity of the clueless commentariat far more than the no doubt ignorant but equally ignorable abuse of the none-too-representative man-on-the-tweet.
First published in Huffington Post