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.