My favourite scene in the first episode of the new series of Benefits Street (Mondays, Channel 4) — now relocated to a housing estate in the north-east, but otherwise pretty much unchanged — was the one where the street’s resident stoner and low-level crim Maxwell has to attend a court summons.
Really, if the whole thing had been scripted and faked by the film-makers (as I’m sure it wasn’t: no need), it couldn’t have worked out better. With just 15 minutes to go before Maxwell’s court hearing seven miles away, his brother turns up to give him a lift on his motorbike.
But there’s one small problem. Maxwell’s brother is still under the influence of the vast quantities of diazepam he’s carrying with him in his bag. ‘I took ten last night. I don’t even know what day it is.’ The sensible solution, they decide, is to park the bike at Maxwell’s house, neck a handful more pills, and make their way to the court by bus. Unfortunately, en route, they are assailed by an urgent need to stop for a lollypop called an Ice Bucket. From inside the newsagent, the camera captures the bus they should have taken whizzing past. Maxwell and his brother appear mildly affronted by the stubborn failure of Reality to accord with the plan in their heads. Increasingly delirious, they stagger on…
I suppose if you were a Guardian reader — or indeed Maxwell’s local MP Alex Cunningham, who has been trying to get mileage out of this issue — you’d think this was exploitation. Here are ordinary non-working folk being wheeled out like performing monkeys for Channel 4’s latest ratings-grabbing exercise in ‘poverty porn’.
Actually, though, I think if anyone is being exploited here, it’s those of us who have to fork out for these epically useless scroungers’ welfare bills. Their housing benefit alone — in Stockton-on-Tees’s Kingston Road and its equivalents across the country — costs us nearly £24 billion a year. Add to that the disability benefit paid for dubious conditions like Maxwell’s — he suffers memory loss: not altogether surprisingly given the acres of weed he smokes each day — and the cost of his various court cases and you can’t help thinking that the bread and circuses of shows like Benefits Street are the very least we deserve in return for our compulsory generosity.
Anyway, the new gallery of characters in this latest Benefits Street don’t feel they’re being exploited, so what’s the problem? Not only — it’s quite clear — do they relish the opportunity of becoming the next White Dee, but actually the portrait the programme paints (when it’s not having a snigger) is of a community admirably cheerful and resilient in the face of hardship.
The street is bound together by its two matriarchs Sue and Ju — with 11 children between them, one severely disabled and very lovingly cared for. Yes, they’re all on benefits, but they’ve created a thriving micro-economy based essentially on barter and favours: free hair-dying for free roast dinners, and so on.
How accurate this slightly rose-tinted portrait is, with its tasteful soundtrack and its sometimes flattering photography — Sue and Ju, bathed in sunlight, spirited, indomitable and proud — you can never quite be sure. Well, actually you can: you know it’s a lie because all documentary series like this are, be they Benefits Street, Geordie Shore, Made in Chelsea or The Islandwith Bear Grylls.
There’s been controversy recently over The Island (Wednesdays, Channel 4) because it turns out that the pristine and remote islands on which the two groups of survivors (one male, one female) have been cast away aren’t quite as authentically wild as Grylls’s rugged, sweating pieces-to-camera suggest. Well, not in the case of the girls’ one, anyway. Those ‘wild’ pigs we saw the girls accidentally stumble across: the reason they’re so tame and acquiescent is that they are domestic animals that were put there by the producers to give the girls something to hunt and kill.
As a massive fan of the show, I can’t say I’m too affronted by this cheat, not least because of the hilarious light it has enabled the series to cast on the quintessential differences between men and women. On the boys’ island, the men have quickly found their feet as Lord of the Flies savages, successfully trapping and killing a quite big crocodile (an endangered variety, apparently, but tough). But the starving girls, on encountering two cute piglets, decided to make them their friends. They named them Sage and Onion and cuddled them in bed at night like teddy bears. Only later did it finally occur to them that if they didn’t get some protein soon, they’d all die. Cue a heartbreaking moment of double petricide…