A change is in the air across Britain. A new divide is opening up: not between the rich and the poor, nor indeed the poor against the poor; but instead between those on both ends of the political spectrum who remain outraged at the depiction of the impoverished on ‘Benefits Street’, and the increasing millions that are glued to their screens actually watching it.
The economically inactive are, as irony would have it, proving an extraordinary success for Channel 4. It shouldn’t be surprising – it was after a noisy week of petitions, protests, and pugnacious press pieces that the viewing figures rose from an already impressive 4.1 million to 5 million.
And it’s not just the media who are stoking this: ‘Benefits Street’ is a programme filled to the brim with ‘watercooler moments’, the foodstuff of office chitchat, thus guaranteeing that the only way to keep up with what’s being talked about in the workplace is to follow the lives of people who don’t go anywhere near one.
These moments are talking points because they do not articulate a Labour or Conservative point of view of how things should be. They do not label the programme’s subjects as scroungers or even as strugglers. They simply present matters as they are in a memorable way, and rather than ‘demonising’, as some on the left have charged, these moments paint a human face on people who have been otherwise shunned by our society. Rather than preaching one way or the other, these moments give us a rare chance to understand their situation as they see it, and apply our own individual interpretation onto it.
Moments such as the ones where Mark and Becky attempt to maintain their unusual status on James Turner Street as a couple who stay together in order to raise their family, attempts that bring them hurtling against the innumerate brick walls of a harsh reality: the difficult world around them, their undeveloped life skills, their lack of money, their inability to find a job that pays, and the ever-looming threat of social services that they fear might take their beloved children away from them.