THE BLOG

The Return Of Poverty Porn: Benefitting Who Exactly?

14/05/2015 17:18 BST | Updated 12/05/2016 10:59 BST

If the Tories want to get more people off benefits and return them to work, thereby helping to save the odd £12 billion, then Benefits Street seems as good a place as any to start. After all, if series 1 was anything to go by, it's a natural stepping stone for the long term unemployed, or frankly anyone else, who's chasing a career in the media.

Those thinking of embarking on a university degree in Film and Television studies might as well quickly forget it and enhance their chance of finding a job in their chosen field by instead getting a council house on Kingston Road in Sockton-on-Tees.

As Deirdre Kelly (aka White Dee) proved when she featured so memorably and controversially in the initial run of the show back at the beginning of 2014, such TV exposure can be a passport out of poverty.

To be currently found (probably) residing in the same Shoreditch apartment block as Russell Brand, she's now a reality star, not to mention a political and social commentator. OK, her much trumpeted clothing collection hasn't yet come to fruition (Victoria Beckham can breathe a sigh of relief for another season or two) as it's had to be put on hold while she campaigns to be the next Labour leader. You can imagine Lord Mandelson saying: "I'm sorry to disappoint you Yvette, but you don't have the same woman of the people appeal that Dee has".

The latest series which has just started airing brings to our attention the class of 2015, all eager to leave their unfortunate pasts behind them to take their rightful place in the mercurial spotlight of fame.

One such cast member is Chrissie Nutley. An earthy poet, her words of wisdom speak to the nation in a way that Pam Ayres never could.

The opening few minutes of the first episode sees her surrounded by her rapt literary disciples as she recites the following:

We are the people of Kingston Road.

We are here for each other and help people when they are down.

Look around you, there's not a lot of that around.

We sit around counting our pennies. We ain't got money at the readies.

We feed our kids the best we can. Sometimes we are desperate Dans.

And to be frank, I don't give a hollocks.

Because between you and me, our community is the dog's bollocks.

It's easy to be deeply cynical about the whole thing. All of the "stars" are a little too knowing. They seem to be more than aware of what they've actually signed up for. You can't help thinking that half of them have probably already got agents waiting in the wings.

Julie Young, 53 and Sue Griffiths, 50 are the two matriarchs. They look much older, particularly Sue. Fingers crossed she doesn't log onto www.how-old.net. She might be in for a shock. "106? What the fuck? No way do I fucking look 106". No worries though. A quick chemical peel as part of a This Morning celebrity makeover and she could easily pass for 78.

Depending on who you choose to believe (maybe not me), between them Julie and Sue have 96 children and 237 grandchildren or something like that. That's bound to age anyone, isn't it?

Doris Taylor, 48, meanwhile has already been in the papers. Christened mistakenly by The Sun as Orange Dot, she isn't apparently overly fond of a sun bed as they implied. Her father was in fact Indian. Cue another poem from Chrissie. Oh goody.

Orange Dot were a larf.

It won't wash off if she takes a bath.

It's plain to see like the nose on your face, Doris is from a mixed race.

Doris is brown. I am white

The media is full of shite.

Well, it's one way of putting it.

Another character who agreed to be filmed is Lee, 32, the son of Chrissie. Almost Dickensian in appearance, he has recently been sanctioned for missing an appointment and has therefore had his £90 every fortnight cut to zero. This leaves him to rely on handouts from his neighbours and food banks, apart that is from the production company's catering truck which is presumably kept out of shot so as not to ruin the effect.

"Mum, they've only bloody gone and run out of creme brûlée again. Suppose I'll have to make do with the lemon posset".

Also worthy of mention for all the wrong reasons is Maxwell, an ex drug dealer. Although only 35, he's retired; a privilege normally reserved for investment bankers and tech entrepreneurs. To keep his hand in, he still dabbles in narcotics while claiming £700 a month. He's the equivalent of Danny from Withnail and I with a similarly incredible high level of tolerance to illegal substances. Although how he'd cope with the Camberwell Carrot is anyone's guess.

Not from mixed-raced parentage, Maxwell, unlike Dot, genuinely loves getting a self tan and can do a mean headstand to boot.

The press rather predictably are portrayed as the bad guys and are frequently harangued by the locals as regional and national photographers attempt to take pictures.

Coming out if it even worse though is Alex Cunningham, the recently re-elected MP for Stockton North who puts in a guest appearance when he realises that a camera crew has descended on the area. However, he rapidly loses interest and leaves when it dawns on him that the residents are rather keener on Channel 4 being there than he might have originally hoped for.

The question you really want to ask after the first episode is precisely what does this manipulative and exploitative program (everyone seems to be manipulating and exploiting each other) have to say about the benefits system in Britain today? Sadly, the answer is absolutely nothing.

Worse still, those taking part/playing their roles to perfection are such stereotypical caricatures, it's hard to feel real sympathy for any of them. Only Julie's son, Reagan warrants true compassion. And perhaps Mitzi the dog who belongs to Lee.

Benefits Street continues next week. Poetry lovers might be best advised to tune in elsewhere.