Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?
Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?
Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.
So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.
Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.
Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.
My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.
It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?
The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?
In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.
Of course I watched it. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but ended up breaking my own cardinal rule (‘don’t watch school related TV programmes, they’ll only make you angry’) because of staffroom banter, most of which was fairly positive. Educating Essex, a warts and all documentary based in an Essex comprehensive, is compelling viewing and, as I thought it might, it has polarised opinions in the most predictable way.
Just as the insouciant and strangely indomitable Mr Drew, deputy head of Passmores, predicted in episode 1, people who still work in schools have recognised the daily ebb and flow of working in school and have had a fairly warm reaction to the frank portrayal of behaviour, routines and behind the scenes camaraderie. Those who don’t, including the more right of centre press, have focused not on the school’s relentless drive to build self esteem and effective relationships, but rather on the occasional footage of teachers calling their students “scumbags” and behaving in what they consider to be a frivolous fashion behind the scenes. The Daily Mail is particularly outraged.
Is the show a realistic and useful presentation of comprehensives in the 21st century, or, as some colleagues have pointed out, a final nail in the coffin for any respectability the comprehensive system may have remaining? My own reaction has been surprisingly gentle. I have watched two episodes now with the sincere hope that people see the school for what I believe it to be – a happy place, where children are allowed to be children and where the pressures of society are not only acknowledged, but dealt with by people with years of experience, who genuinely care about young people and their futures.
The ‘backstage’ humour, the conversations that staff have with each other are all immediately familiar. Is it even fair to criticise the staff for maintaining a sense of fun in what they do? Since when did having a bit of a laugh and a joke at work become such an issue? I have visions of teachers and I know and love maintaining their teacher personas in the staffroom at break time. “Miss Kara, do you intend to drink that coffee or are you going go let it go cold?” An pointed enquiring stare at the cup, and a look that instructs me to drink up as I have very little time left of break. It would be ludicrous because we know, those of us who teach, that the teacher persona is simply that, a persona that is created for the benefit of children and cannot be maintained indefinitely.
Critics have argued that allowing the backstage to be seen, by raising the curtain on the banter and relationships, the show inadvertently or otherwise, influences children to behave in a similar way. And I should hope so. I hope that children grow up to work in environments where they can socialise with their peers, make bad jokes – perhaps even rude ones – because that’s what people do. As this issue has caused the most controversy, I asked my students what they thought. We watched extracts from the show, including some of the silliness by the staff. The response was pretty unanimous. One child, a Year 10 student, said: “I’d love to go to that school.” When I asked why, he said: “Because they look happy.” I showed them the footage of the teacher dismissing a class, calling them “scumbags”. My students dismissed this immediately. “If he didn’t have a good relationship with them, they wouldn’t let him call them that,” they explained. “you’d probably see them kicking off or swearing or something.” Fair enough, I thought, a good point. I remember a teacher affectionately calling us “nuisances” when I was at primary school. I don’t remember being that bothered, to be honest.
If anything, Educating Essex shows the broader public the human side of teaching; in the current political climate, this can only be a good thing. People need to know that even schools designated as ‘outstanding’ are run by real people who face real dilemmas and who deal with them with a combination of seriousness and humour. People need to see that their own experiences of school, in some cases as parents and as people who went to school a long time ago, are entirely different from today. The show allows people to see the daily struggle to educate children who are individuals and not just categories – Free School Meals, ethnic minority, boy, girl, literate, middle class, deprived. It also allows teachers and their students, those who experience the education system first hand, to have a voice.
I’m sure there are other arguments as to why Educating Essex is a terrible idea – inevitably, the viewing public will disagree about editing decisions, the personalities, the school’s discipline system – a whole host of things. The fact remains that Passmores shows teachers who care about their students, regardless of their behaviour or their background. They get good results and they believe in what they are doing. Why else would they have allowed the documentary to be made? This isn’t a whistle blowing operation by disgruntled supply teachers looking for vengeance. This is pride in achievement and an unbending belief that Passmores provides quality education and support.
We should be celebrating them, if only because not many of us would be brave enough to do the same. I can’t wait to see what happens next.