Benefits Street is back but it will never be the same again

Channel 4’s controversial documentary Benefits Street started its second series last night and it has set quite a different tone, with the film crew (from Love Productions), press and photographers featuring heavily in the first episode.

The media attention isn’t surprising given the huge success of the first series. Around 5 million of us tuned in last year to watch the inhabitants of Birmingham’s James Turner Street, all of whom appeared to be on benefits and to spend their days drinking, smoking, taking drugs and trying to avoid the police.

The new series has moved 175 mies north to Kingston Road’s Tilery Estate in Stockton-on-Tees. The opening scene of the first episode sees some of the inhabitants laughing at the description of the series in a local paper as “poverty porn.”

It’s impossible for the new series to have the impact of the first. For starters, while the Tilery Estate residents appear to be apprehensive then increasingly hostile as they become aware of the media intrusion into their lives, they watched the first series like the rest of us and also saw its resident matriarch and standout star Deirdre “White Dee” Kelly go on to become a celebrity. Kelly came fifth in Celebrity Big Brother and is reported to be well on her way to making her first million from appearances and interviews.

So they know what they’ve got themselves into, or at least they should. Kelly appeared on This Morning last year to reiterate comments made by many of her fellow James Turner Street residents: that they signed up to the show believing it was about community spirit and were only told it was to be called Benefits Street a fortnight before it aired.

“I think we went into it very naively to be honest,” she said. “Obviously we went into it believing it was [about] community spirit. I know people are probably sick of hearing us say that now, but we were told that how we live was how children used to live years ago, where they could all play out together, where we all helped each other, when someone is ill, someone else looks after their children…”

“I think it has given quite a bad impression of our street, because it has just focused on predominantly four people who live on a street of 100 houses who happen to be on benefits,” she went on. “They haven’t focused on the people they recorded who work or the pensioners.”

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In response to Kelly’s comments Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, defended the show and the choice of title. “It’s a fair reflection of the street,” she told the Guardian. “Most people on that street were living on some kind of benefit and in that sense it’s factually accurate. I don’t make any apology that it’s a noticeable and noisy title. That’s one of the reasons it got the audience it did.”

This time round there’s still the danger that the residents will end up feeling exploited, even though they do know that it will be about people on benefits. A danger that it will be nothing more than entertainment for the masses rather than a thought-provoking — or even positive — study of people on benefits.

These people all have tales worth telling, often extremely moving ones, such as Julie Young, the former community support liaison worker caring for her 15-year-old son Reagan, who at nine months old suffered a stroke which left him severely brain-damaged.

Then there is 35-year-old Maxwell, who is clearly going to be one of the main players and doesn’t seem to have quite so emotive a back story — although it’s early days yet. Known on Kingston Road as “King of the Kids,” he takes and deals drugs on camera and has a string of convictions for fraud, resisting arrest, drugs offences and shining laser pens at police helicopters. Maxwell receives disability benefits for memory loss and his scenes do feel a little exploitative. Is he completely aware of the consequences of his actions? Is he being led astray by the presence of the TV cameras? Or is he, in fact, playing up to the cameras, keen to make the most of his time under the spotlight (however that portrays him)?

Perhaps, therefore, it will be the media who end up being exploited. There’s no White Dee this year but there is Little Dot (48-year-old Dorothy Taylor) and it seems she has her eye firmly on the prize. She’s already hired Deirdre Kelly’s manager Barry Tomes, who told MailOnline: “She will be a big star because she’s only 4ft tall. But we took on her management quite a while ago and we have already got four or five projects lined up for her. If we’re talking about what she can earn, put it this way: I do not take people unless they earn £100,000 per year.”

“What I want to do is buy [my] house and put a swimming pool in the back garden,” said Little Dot.

Video credit: Channel 4/YouTube

Benefits Street is back on Channel 4 on Monday, May 18 at 9 p.m.

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