Orphaned Episodes: Episode 3 (Benefits Street)

The introduction to this series of posts can be found here.

So far there have been various reasons these shows have been broken up or become unavailable. I wasn't going to do this show (there are a couple of episodes on YouTube) but have decided I will, simply because of this episode's unusual reason for being orphaned: because it was so controversial at the time of its first broadcast. I am also delighted to say that it is reality TV and is about the residents of James Turner Street in this great city. 

But first some background. You didn't think I'd actually get straight onto the subject did you?

Winson Green is a loosely defined inner-city area in the west of the city of Birmingham, England. It is part of the ward of Soho. 

It is the location of HM Prison Birmingham (known locally as Winson Green Prison or "the Green") and of City Hospital (formerly Dudley Road Hospital) as well as of the former All Saints' Hospital.
The area has a very multi-racial population, with large Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. There is a nearby large Tesco supermarket and attached Victorian library, Spring Hill Library. Source

What a damning Wikipedia page. I should say that the reason the prison and the two hospitals (respectively the original workhorse and Birmingham's first asylum) were built there was that at the time (in the middle of the nineteenth century) the area was a green area well outside of the city.

The name of this district is over a thousand years old and may derive from an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Wine's dun may mean Wine's Hill. Alternatively the name may be winn dun meaning 'meadow hill'. The Anglo-Saxons had various words for hills according to their shape. A dun may be described as whale-shaped, though it is difficult to determine where this might have been. The element 'green' added during the Middle Ages suggests that this land was common grazing for local livestock owners. Winson Green was a location at the west end of Birmingham Heath. The heath lay roughly between the Dudley Road and Soho Road. In the 18th century, such waste was seen as an agricultural development opportunity when, in common with many heaths elsewhere, it was enclosed. The green of Winson Green lay near the junction of Winson Green Road and Handsworth New Road.

There was some industry here prompted by the Birmingham Canal which cut through the southern part of the heath in 1769. Between Heath Street South and the canal, Park Glass House was built by Isaac Hawker in 1787. Originally a glass cutter near the Bull Ring, he found the canalside out-of-town site more convenient for the transport of his delicate products.  

In 1798 Birmingham Heath was sold off by the manor as separate fields. Urbanisation began with a few high-class country houses built here away from the smoke of the industrial town, but close enough for easy access via the Dudley and Wednesbury turnpikes.

In the middle of the 19th century a large part of this area was used to build borough's prison, lunatic asylum, workhouse and fever hospital. Land in the crowded town was at a premium.

By 1888 the area was built up largely with working-class housing joining up with urban development from Smethwick and Handsworth. By this time the name of Winson Green no longer referred to a location but to district which covered most of the former Birmingham Heath. Although large parts of the district were redeveloped from the 1960s, Victorian streets can still be seen here. Source

I would have loved to tell you who James Turner was but nobody seems to know! 

Anyway the TV programme featured the residents of the street.

Benefits Street is a British documentary series broadcast on Channel 4. It was first aired on 6 January 2014, and ran for five episodes. The show was filmed by documenting the lives of several residents of James Turner Street, Winson Green, Birmingham, England, United Kingdom, where newspapers reported that 90% of the residents claim benefits. It shows benefits claimants committing crimes, including a demonstration of how to shoplift, and portrays a situation in which people are dependent on welfare payments and lack the motivation to seek reliable employment.  
The show was controversial, with the police, Channel 4 and the media regulator Ofcom receiving hundreds of complaints. There were Twitter death threats made against the residents of the street. Channel 4 was accused of making poverty porn. Many of those taking part claimed that they were misled by the documentary makers. Ofcom launched an investigation into whether the programme had breached the broadcasting regulations, but ultimately concluded its rules had not been broken. Source

I'm not going to beat about the bush with the benefits controversy as such because it will take me away from the subject of the show but I will just say this. The sort of poor, disenfranchised people in this show form an underbelly in all areas of Britain, generally more in the north than in the south. Again I'm going to avoid going into reasons for this or what can be done to help. But purely on the basis of this show I can tell you one thing for sure - none of the people who feature in this show could miraculously get their act together to suddenly work full time, manage themselves and their money, look after their children, and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. And benefits alone can't possibly be the reason for that. 

This episode focuses on a couple called Mark Thomas and Becky Howe. I was rooting for them because I thought they really wanted to make a go of their family. They revealed that they got together in the final year of school as a result of a bet one or the other had with their friends. Despite this inauspicious start I have to say they came across like they loved each other, they tried to work things out. It was very clear that they were out of their depth looking after their children and social services were involved.

I also really don't think they should have been on the show. It was painfully apparent that they neither had many living skills but it was afterwards revealed that they both had some form of learning disability the linked article says they both went to Selly Oak Trust School which is a special school, and you don't get in there for no reason. Even if they were able to consent to being on the show, we beyond poverty porn this is humiliation. Despite Channel 4 saying participants could view the show before it was screened, that's no good if you can't judge the long term implications for your life. As you can tell this is why I wasn't sure about posting about this one. Usually if I think a show shouldn't have been made, it's because it's rubbish and you won't read about it here. This is good television but really not ethical.

Of course the residents weren't happy about their portrayal, especially after tourists started turning up to take their pictures with the sign:

Residents of Benefits Street have told the makers of the TV programme: Go home - we don't want you back here.

At a public meeting on Wednesday night residents who live in James Turner Street launched a poster campaign to stop Love Productions returning to film a second series.
The programme, aired on Channel 4 in January, propelled the Winson Green street to worldwide fame and made 'celebrities' of residents including White Dee, Fungi and Smoggy.
Rumours are now circulating that Love Productions wants to return to the area to make a second series.
At the meeting at Oasis Academy Foundry, around 30 locals packed in and said if the producers came round again, they would be sent packing.
Gareth Streeter, of the Oasis charity which runs the school, said:"We know for a fact Love have been round here trying to sign up residents for another series. Source

And this isn't just the people who appeared on the show. Channel 4 interviewed people with jobs or retired people and cut all that out.

It was disastrous for the participants. Mark and Becky got disowned by friends and family. Other family members begged them to change their names. Another participant ended up dying homeless after being on the show - his mental health deteriorated after it and he went into a declining spiral. Prison and suicide also featured in these people's lives - you might say those could have happened anyway but they wouldn't have been reported in the national press. Participants in the show got death threats.

Should this show have been made? Possibly, but not like this. This particular version was too humiliating and used people without much in the way of resources and living skills, who may not have been vulnerable in any legal way but still...

Finally you are lucky to have a local guide so I'm just going to give an impression of Winson Green that you won't get from the media when it focuses on the negative. In fact people tend to be surprised when they see alpacas being taken for walks in the area (they belong to the Newbigin Community Trust) and here they are actually on James Turner Street:

Oh alright, I know you're not satisfied just with a picture.

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