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TV review: Channel 4's Benefits Street

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: January 21, 2014

By Jonathan Whiley

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I'd love to be a fly on the wall at a meeting of Channel 4 producers.

I imagine they have a spider diagram with the words anger, provocation and exposure plastered all over it like a proud badges of honour.

Nobody does office cooler TV like Channel 4. Nobody does TV so geared and marketed so blatantly for the age of Twitter which has transformed our viewing experiences.

Suddenly watching a show is like having the nation gather on a collective sofa and you can be part of the baying mob should you wish.

And of course Channel 4, never one to miss an opportunity, quickly latched on to this concept and spawned Gogglebox - a reality TV show about watching people watch reality TV. Genius.

In the natural line of progression on the TV schedules we'll have Gogglebox featuring people watching other people in a house (Big Brother) which of course features a room with two of the housemates watching their fellow housemates in the same house on TV.

Reckon that there George Orwell was on to something with that thing he wrote a while back on the kindle.

And so to Benefits Street - a dystopian nightmare which, by some miracle, is in fact reality.

Welcome to James Turner Street in Birmingham which has 99 houses; a problem, it seems, in each one.

It's the norm not to work here; the benefits state laid bare with close-ups of Special Brew cans, children running wild and swearing so frequent it could give the Wolf of Wall Street a run for it's money if of course anybody had any.

I'm not piddling on the poor here; I don't need to. They're trapped, often victims of circumstances in a vicious cycle that generally involves teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drugs in one, or all, forms.

The mother hen of the street - 'White Dee' - a kind of chain-smoking Vicky Pollard figure that could cut it as a low rent Bond villain in a spoof remake - certainly has plenty to say for herself.

Among the offerings she coughed up in a voice that manages to somehow combine Darth Vader and Batman villain Bane was that the street was just like 'one big dysfunctional family'.

Trouble is that's a bit of a tad misleading; it's like saying the Himmler family weren't 'overly friendly'.

There's nothing to my mind remotely family orientated about the people who live in Benefits Street aside from the endless arguments. Mind there are some touching moments including a flick through family photo album.

Perhaps, I thought, we'll see a nice picture of the sea with sandcastles, ice cream and donkey rides and we'll lose White Dee in a haze of nostalgia.

"Remember that first ever poo?" she says, holding up a picture of her daughter perched on the toilet.

The sense of hopelessness is a sad state of affairs in this street; a constant battle to give some form of meaning to their life.

There's no escape and no incentive to escape either and although quick to focus on cheap entertainment - there are many moments that offer up comedy gold - Channel 4 had an opportunity to make a much wider point here.

Those living in Benefits Street are like neglected animals at a zoo; forever pacing around without ever achieving anything while the wider public stare at them with a heady combo of fascination and pity.

Of course you can't help but feel incensed; it's hard-wired to wind you into a state of fury where you'll take to twitter and hashtag furiously.

This is reality TV in its grimmest most gripping form and the producers, just like the viewers are lapping it up.

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