Matt’s View: Channel Four’s Benefits Street is a ‘gratuitous riffing on other people’s pain’

Woman using television remote control. Woman using television remote control.

Sunday, January 19, 2014
3:07 PM

I don’t watch much British TV, and was reminded why last week when I had the misfortune of tuning in to Channel Four documentary Benefits Street.

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Aside from sounding like the title of one of David Brent’s ill-judged forays into the music industry, Benefits Street focuses on the lives of people living in James Turner Street in Birmingham. Here, you’ve guessed it, a lot of people are on benefits.

The first episode caused much angst in the usual places, as it showed residents casually talking about shop-lifting and drug use, as well as some manipulation of the benefits system.

I too found the show appalling, mainly because I struggle to see the point of it. While you wouldn’t condone some of the behaviour shown on the programme, we know virtually nothing about these people’s situations – is it right that they should be put on TV for the rest of the country to judge and, in most cases, condemn them?

Channel Four say Benefits Street is a “fair and balanced observational documentary”, but as with any documentary of this kind the key is the way it’s edited, so there’s no way of knowing whether the producers are giving a fair picture of life in the street, or if, as has been claimed by some of the residents, they have been stitched up and portrayed in an overly negative light.

Either way, it just seems like gratuitous riffing on other people’s pain – a window into a depressing world where hope and aspiration are in short supply. All it is doing is encouraging a divided society where anyone claiming benefits is sneered at.

I certainly won’t be tuning in again, and hope the programme’s run on our screens is a short one.

There are several things that depress me about growing up and owning a house, one of which is that occasional trips to Ikea are a necessary part of life.

You know how it is: you get short on candles, wine glasses or, in our case, a bathroom cabinet, and have to make a pilgrimage to one of those wind-swept retail parks on the periphery of London, where Sweden’s most famous retailer lurks like an illuminous yellow behemoth.

I have nothing against Ikea as a concept: their products are useful, reasonably priced, and generally of good quality, which is why our house is full of them. What I don’t like is the shopping experience, which sees you shuffle around their store on a pre-determined route along, crammed in alongside hundreds of other people and passing by loads of stuff you aren’t interested in as you hunt for that replacement garlic crusher. Then when you’ve noted down the products you do want, when you get to the warehouse half of them aren’t in stock anyway.

On our next visit I think I’ll just hang out in the canteen and eat Daim bar cheesecake.

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