Back for a second series, Benefits Street is a moral maze inside a hall of mirrors. The location may have changed – it’s now set on a council estate in Stockton-on-Tees – but many of the questions remain the same. Are the residents of Kingston Road genuinely living sad, wasted, feckless lives? Or are they simply unfortunate victims of circumstance, hung out to dry by the government and vilified for our entertainment by Channel 4?
Or maybe they’re neither of those things: maybe they’re actually happy. Unemployed mum-of-five Sue certainly thinks so: ‘If you said to me there’s a million pounds, you wouldn’t move me,’ she insisted.
In the brutally simplistic language of the red-tops, Sue and her best friend Julie (six kids, no job) might appear to be your classic benefit scroungers. Except it turns out Julie has spent the past 15 years caring for her son, Reagan, who was left severely brain damaged after suffering a heart attack as a baby. Still feel like throwing stones? Thought not.
Julie and Sue are also Kingston Road’s mother hens, offering a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to cry on and even home-cooked meals for neighbours who have fallen on hard times. Harder times. It feels suspiciously like a community.
And yet… let’s not get carried away. Maxwell is a 35-year-old druggie with plenty of ‘previous’ who claims to have retired and spends his benefits on daily visits to a tanning salon. He’s Iain Duncan’s Smith’s worst nightmare. He might be yours, too.
So much for the moral maze. The hall of mirrors comes from the fact the programme itself has become as much the story as the residents. This first episode featured numerous scenes of locals running tabloid journalists out of town – at one point, with an actual bucket of water, or worse – for portraying them as a bunch of shiftless wasters. But when the local MP turned up to protest about Channel 4’s exploitative treatment of his constituents, it was him they turned on, claiming Benefits Street offered them a voice, while he’d never set foot on the estate until accompanied by a local TV news crew.
So who is really being exploited by who? Your guess is as good as mine.
I spent the first half hour of The Affair – the steamy US drama about the dangerous liaison between a frustrated family man and a pouting femme fatale waitress (played by Brits Dominic West and Ruth Wilson) – wondering why it had triumphed at the Golden Globes, as it appeared to be little more than just another midlife crisis male fantasy. Then it turned out this was just one version of events – the midlife crisis male fantasy version – and things suddenly got a whole lot more interesting. Worth sticking with.
The fourth series opener saw Brit screenwriters Beverly and Sean (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) heading back to the Hollywood hills having learned their soul-sapping Matt LeBlanc vehicle, Pucks!, had risen from the dead – ‘like Jesus, if Jesus was a s****y sitcom no-one watched’. Meanwhile, their leading man was bemoaning the loss of half his Friends fortune with a masterclass in drunk acting.
Though the novelty of Matt LeBlanc playing Matt LeBlanc has dimmed, this still feels fresh and funny. And look out for an upcoming cameo from David Schwimmer.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 14, 2015
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