You desperately want to stop watching because it’s all such a huge waste of life, but you can’t because it’s brilliant televisual soma.
The other day I had a very dispiriting conversation with a TV industry insider. It turns out that everything you see on reality TV is fake.
It’s the ‘everything’ part that really bothered me. Obviously, we all sort of know that most TV is faked: that close-ups on wildlife documentaries are sometimes filmed in zoos and that the meerkat they pretend is the same meerkat is actually three different meerkats; that the chance meetings with colourful characters and experts are all prearranged and that when they answer the door and act surprised it’s often the third or fourth take; that the glamorous parties and realistic, totally unstilted dialogue on Made in Chelsea wouldn’t happen if the cameras weren’t there; and so on. But some things I thought were sacred.
Storage Hunters, for example. It had simply never occurred to me that, when the man cuts the chain with the bolt cutter, the tarpaulin is pulled off, and the storage locker for which the successful bidders have paid just $300 contains a Riva speedboat, an original copy of the US constitution, Neil Armstrong’s space helmet and a jar of 1933 double eagle gold coins, there’s a possibility that at least one of these items might have been put there beforehand by the production crew.
Also dog training. For the past couple of years, I have been trying — without much success, it must be said — to teach our dog that I am its pack leader by always making sure to precede it through gates and doorways. Turns out, though, that this is just some complete rubbish that Cesar the alleged dog-training expert came up with on his now defunct series Dog Whisperer. Apparently — as subsequent research has shown — your dog doesn’t respect you in the slightest if you go through doorways before it does. This, certainly, tallies with my own experience.
Now we’re starting a new season of one of my favourite reality series, The Island with Bear Grylls (Sunday, Channel 4). In the past, this has got itself into trouble by helping out the struggling contestants with little cheats. One year, for example, the production crew brought on some pigs — tame domesticated ones: ergo, comfortable in a human’s presence — for the starving girls tearfully to slaughter. On another occasion, just when the group were on the verge of dying of thirst, they handily chanced upon a supply of fresh water from a rubber-lined pool such as is often found on remote, uninhabited islands.
Benefits Street: if anyone’s being exploited here it’s the taxpayers who fund these bludgers.
My favourite scene in the first episode of the new series of BenefitsStreet (Mondays, Channel 4) — now relocated to a housing estate in the north-east, but otherwise pretty much unchanged — was the one where the street’s resident stoner and low-level crim Maxwell has to attend a court summons.
Really, if the whole thing had been scripted and faked by the film-makers (as I’m sure it wasn’t: no need), it couldn’t have worked out better. With just 15 minutes to go before Maxwell’s court hearing seven miles away, his brother turns up to give him a lift on his motorbike.
But there’s one small problem. Maxwell’s brother is still under the influence of the vast quantities of diazepam he’s carrying with him in his bag. ‘I took ten last night. I don’t even know what day it is.’ The sensible solution, they decide, is to park the bike at Maxwell’s house, neck a handful more pills, and make their way to the court by bus. Unfortunately, en route, they are assailed by an urgent need to stop for a lollypop called an Ice Bucket. From inside the newsagent, the camera captures the bus they should have taken whizzing past. Maxwell and his brother appear mildly affronted by the stubborn failure of Reality to accord with the plan in their heads. Increasingly delirious, they stagger on…
I suppose if you were a Guardian reader — or indeed Maxwell’s local MP Alex Cunningham, who has been trying to get mileage out of this issue — you’d think this was exploitation. Here are ordinary non-working folk being wheeled out like performing monkeys for Channel 4’s latest ratings-grabbing exercise in ‘poverty porn’.
Actually, though, I think if anyone is being exploited here, it’s those of us who have to fork out for these epically useless scroungers’ welfare bills. Their housing benefit alone — in Stockton-on-Tees’s Kingston Road and its equivalents across the country — costs us nearly £24 billion a year. Add to that the disability benefit paid for dubious conditions like Maxwell’s — he suffers memory loss: not altogether surprisingly given the acres of weed he smokes each day — and the cost of his various court cases and you can’t help thinking that the bread and circuses of shows like Benefits Street are the very least we deserve in return for our compulsory generosity.
Anyway, the new gallery of characters in this latest Benefits Street don’t feel they’re being exploited, so what’s the problem? Not only — it’s quite clear — do they relish the opportunity of becoming the next White Dee, but actually the portrait the programme paints (when it’s not having a snigger) is of a community admirably cheerful and resilient in the face of hardship.
The street is bound together by its two matriarchs Sue and Ju — with 11 children between them, one severely disabled and very lovingly cared for. Yes, they’re all on benefits, but they’ve created a thriving micro-economy based essentially on barter and favours: free hair-dying for free roast dinners, and so on.
How accurate this slightly rose-tinted portrait is, with its tasteful soundtrack and its sometimes flattering photography — Sue and Ju, bathed in sunlight, spirited, indomitable and proud — you can never quite be sure. Well, actually you can: you know it’s a lie because all documentary series like this are, be they Benefits Street, Geordie Shore, Made in Chelsea or The Islandwith Bear Grylls.
There’s been controversy recently over The Island (Wednesdays, Channel 4) because it turns out that the pristine and remote islands on which the two groups of survivors (one male, one female) have been cast away aren’t quite as authentically wild as Grylls’s rugged, sweating pieces-to-camera suggest. Well, not in the case of the girls’ one, anyway. Those ‘wild’ pigs we saw the girls accidentally stumble across: the reason they’re so tame and acquiescent is that they are domestic animals that were put there by the producers to give the girls something to hunt and kill.
As a massive fan of the show, I can’t say I’m too affronted by this cheat, not least because of the hilarious light it has enabled the series to cast on the quintessential differences between men and women. On the boys’ island, the men have quickly found their feet as Lord of the Flies savages, successfully trapping and killing a quite big crocodile (an endangered variety, apparently, but tough). But the starving girls, on encountering two cute piglets, decided to make them their friends. They named them Sage and Onion and cuddled them in bed at night like teddy bears. Only later did it finally occur to them that if they didn’t get some protein soon, they’d all die. Cue a heartbreaking moment of double petricide…
One thought on “Benefits Street: if anyone’s being exploited here it’s the taxpayers who fund these bludgers”
FHA says:16th May 2015 at 12:44 pmOnce again, another begrudging Middle Class conservative invokes a false solidarity with ALL workers / tax payers when it comes to the issue of ‘welfare’. James Delingpole would have us all to believe that a well paid pen pusher is at one with those elements of the working population for whom social security exists. That the capitalism he is in love with allows wealthy landlords to feed off people’s basic biological imperative for warmth and shelter does itself represent parasitic behaviour, far more so than the injustice of ‘welfare’ he decries as a crime against ALL workers.In actual fact, the reason social security exists is to protect those who would lack the financial means of keeping body and soul together should they find themselves on the scrapheap of capitalism. So that means its existence is in the interest of those IN WORK (at the lower end of the pay scale) as well as those currently out of work. There’s nothing more laughable (and contemptible) than listening to Millionaires’ row on the Tory front benches talk about how they represent workers as one collective group. Be in no doubt, the minimum wage slave who must whore himself at the holy alter of capitalism and be grateful for his crumbs has more solidarity with the benefit ‘scrounger’ than he does with the whinging hard done by middle classes.