Benefits Street reviewed: if anyone’s being exploited, it’s the taxpayers, says James Delingpole

Plus: Channel 4’s The Island With Bear Grylls has some interesting things to say about gender differences

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

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…

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  • willshome

    These are the young men who, in past times, would have been building their lives and starting families on wages earned down coal mines or in heavy industry. Now tell me again, who is it being exploited?

    • davidofkent

      Please don’t make me laugh so much!

    • LiamNewcastle

      Eerm, those of us funding their lifestyle of sloth and drug abuse I should imagine. Pretty insulting to those of us from the North East to suggest that if the state does not provide us with a job as a miner or factory fodder we are destined to life of a wastrel.

    • Maureen Fisher

      Please do not insult working class people by lumping them together with these lumpenproletariat.

    • Felixthecat

      I love the middle class nostalgia for the working man being down a pit in darkness for 9 hours a day.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Petricide? You cannot kill rocks.

    Edit – perhaps it was a wild Geodude?

  • Sten vs Bren

    “Benefits Street reviewed: if anyone’s being exploited, it’s the taxpayers”

    Benefits claimants are also tax payers. Typical false dichotomy from the ‘pole.

    • James

      Not if they aren’t working and never have.

      • GraveDave

        Well, you don’t know that either – do you? –

        • Peter Grimes

          Only 57% of adults pay any income tax at all – read the IFS analysis of election manifestos if you are able. Do you really contend that these layabouts are included in that number?

          • Sten vs Bren

            Clue; there are more taxes than just income tax.

          • Peter Grimes

            Taxes on consumption are just part of the price consumers pay – take it or leave it like Murdoch’s Sky and the BBC – oops, sorry you have to pay the latter come what may.

          • GTE

            There are. So where do they get the money to pay those taxes?

          • GraveDave

            But they’re not all layabouts -are they? And you do know the original Benefits Street wasn’t really full of Benefit claimants dont you? Mind, I expect some of you also believe there’s a town called Walford in the east end with pub called the Queen Vic , run by a landlady called -what’s she called – again? I haven’t bothered with it for years.

            But no wonder they call it the idiot box.

      • Sten vs Bren

        No, that’s not correct. You discount Council Tax, Road Tax, VAT, alcohol duty etc.

        • James

          Taxes paid out of welfare checks aren’t the same.

          • GTE

            Exactly. All their money comes from someone else.

        • Paul Evans

          People on benefits don’t pay their own Council Tax.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      If you believe that then I know a chap who has invented a perpetual motion machine that can generate electricity from nothing and is looking for investors…

      • Sten vs Bren

        Sorry but don’t flaunt your ignorance. Many benefits claimants are also income tax payers. Many others pay many other taxes, therefore it’s a false dichotomy typical of the author.

        • GTE

          So why are they being taxed in the first place?

          Take their money, and force them to grovel to get some of it back.

    • UncleTits

      If I give you ten pounds and then immediately take two pounds back, have you just paid me two pounds or have I given you eight? Of course they don’t pay tax.

  • GraveDave

    Still, it’ll give a few whiners something to froth at the mouth over for the next few months. ‘White chavscum’. ‘Beer and tattoos’. ’60 inch widescreen TVs and the latest smartphones and never worked a day in their lives.’
    And look at em -poncing off food banks again.Blah- blah- blah..
    Same old game. Turn us all against our own.

    • Peter Grimes

      If you are one of them you are unlikely to become angry, unless you get mad at anything minor at all, of course.

      • GraveDave

        Wherever they are welfare scroungers playing the system or decent conscientious benefit claimants struggling to find a job, it’s all one and the same to this sort of press media. And yes, I’ve been unemployed, for about six months back in the early 90s, when there was a recession (Tories). Meantime I did lot of community work and joined job-club. Then things picked up again (though not though job-club or the job-centres) . I just hate to think what I would have to go through if it happened now and at my time of life. My savings certainly wouldn’t be enough to get me through the next ten years.

        people like James are fortunate he doesn’t ever have to get his little pink hands dirty.

    • GTE

      So let me turn it round and ask you.

      1. How did they get into the mess?
      2. What needs to be done to fix it?
      3. How much has been spent ‘fixing it’?
      4. Is that a cost effective use of money?

      • GraveDave

        5. Why now?

      • MrJones

        They got into this mess because millions of people needed to be parked on welfare reservations, universities and public sector non-jobs while the europhiles elected a new people.

  • MrJones

    The europhiles needed to park millions of the native working class on welfare reservations while they imported millions of new voters.

    I wonder why they moved it the the north-east.

  • Simon Fay

    I wonder how typical these brazen/comic neer-do-wells are of the long-term unemployed (as opposed to the intermiitently-employed sort like me)? And by what process the sensation-hungry producers cast them?

  • G B

    There is something very sick about making a programme like benefit street. Poverty porn someone called it which is a pretty apt description. Most people in reduced circumstances are nothing like the group of people selected for this programme. Yes there is a small proportion of people who are ignorant, lack intellect, do not have life skills or the capacity to step out of the world around them but to use them to provoke anger or even hatred is despicable. I am not a touchy feely liberal but to render these people as sub-human in such a way makes them fair game for everybody to have a pop at them. These people may have been behind the door when talent was handed out but just be thankful that you were not one of them.

  • woohoo002

    What is needed is compulsory Education or Training for these people, or indeed any unemployed people, we do not need to import skills, we need to teach our own.