It’s back. Tonight sees the return of Benefits Street on TV screens. Series 2 focuses on Kingston Road on the Tilery Estate in Stockton-On-Tees.
Channel 4’s promotional blurb claims: ‘Benefit Street reveals the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of streets in areas hit hard by the recession invite cameras into their tight-knit communities.’
Putting it as gently as I can, if this is true then it would suggest both a departure in tone from the first series and from what we know so far about the second series. When the first series screened last year, Ofcom received nearly 900 complaints from people who felt the show vilified and misrepresented benefits claimants.
Much more likely is that, like the original series, the second series of Benefits Street will represent families receiving benefits about as much as contestants on Channel 5’s Big Brother represent the British public.
Reality television is based on the idea that what you’re watching is real and truthful but the first series of Benefits Street hid the fundamental truth that people on benefits are people like us – people who have worked, are working or will work again in the future. One in six of us has claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance at least once in the last two years. The majority of children in poverty live in working – not workless – families.
Understandably, TV producers zero in on people with big personalities and outspoken opinions. Less forgivably, some mould stories in the edit room to fit tabloid stereotypes.
TV has tremendous power to educate and entertain. It’s nearly 50 years since Cathy Come Home’s dramatic portrayal of a family ripped apart by poverty and homelessness shocked the nation.
We shouldn’t expect everything on our screens to be a modern-day classic but we are entitled to ask why there seems to be more truth in a fictional drama produced a half a century ago than in the reality TV shows today.