Benefits Street

If you’ve been going about your business this week as usual, you may have been unaware of the fact that Belgium is currently in the throes of a national crisis.

The tiny country, which has survived two world wars and countless invasions, has, according to the Telegraph, been ‘gripped’ by perhaps the most daring crime in its history – the theft of the mayor of Brussels’ underpants.

The underpants were part of a collection by anarchist Jan Bucquoy, who runs a museum in Belgium dedicated to ‘exploring the relationship between politicians and their underwear’. Well I guess someone had to do it.

However, Bucquoy’s exhibition has hinged not so much on an unhealthy fascination with the undergarments of dignitaries and more to do with the idea that ‘all people are equal in their underpants, whether they are famous, rich, powerful or all three at the same time’.

Written starkly like that, as a political statement, I’m suddenly aware that these notions of equality and democracy seem a little trite. Hackneyed and clichéd. We’ve heard it all before, surely? We all believe it, don’t we?

Then I read this.

It’s a feature by the Daily Mail which came out on Tuesday, reporting the completely foreseeable news that the documentary Benefits Street was the most watched Channel 4 show in two years (beaten only by the Paralympic Closing Ceremony in 2012, if you want to know). Frankly, anyone who’s tuned into this show over the last couple of weeks must find this news about as unsurprising as this year’s Oscar nominations.

I’ll give Channel 4 their dues, the show is fine-tuned to perfection. Showcasing the lives of the inhabitants of James Turner Street in Birmingham – a street where over 90% of the residents are on benefits – it lingers upon the daily trials of life on the street in brutal, agonising detail. It’s dark, depressing and impossible to turn away.

So yes, we know how this happened. We know how Channel 4 got their ratings. But do we actually know how this happened?

Because I’ve got some questions. I want to know how they got people – ordinary people with lives and hopes and dreams like us – to give away pieces of themselves on screen, for our entertainment?

Apparently they weren’t paid; it’s claimed they were given ‘gifts’ to the tune of beer, cigarettes and McDonald’s. (As long as it’s all by the book, hey chaps?) I mean, did they just go around from house to house on James Turner Street and say, ‘Hey just so you know, we want to create a TV show that’s going to completely humiliate you and oh, maybe ruin your lives, but here’s a Dairy Milk McFlurry?’ How did they get them to sign away their faces, their stories, their lives? What did they promise?

Actually, I think I know the answer to that one. You see, the thing that struck me the most when watching Benefits Street was that, mixed with the quiet (and occasionally not-to-so-quiet) desperation on the faces of residents like Mark and Becky, a couple barely out of their teens, was a mute appeal for help. The kind of appeal made by those who feel they’ve already been beaten down by life.

Mark, a father of two who goes for his first job during the series, at one point heartbreakingly says: ‘I want my life to plan out and [I think about] what else I can do to make it better … but no answers yet.’ Meanwhile, another resident hopes that change will come when viewers, ‘take a step in our shoes and see how it is, living on benefits.’

And perhaps they’re being naïve, the residents of James Turner Street. Maybe they believe too much in the power of television; maybe in a weird way, they’re not quite so cynical and jaded as us. I think we’ve learned, mostly, to keep our head down (with the obvious exception of Russell Brand). We know how this plays out. We know that things can turn bad really, really fast.

But maybe if we didn’t have so much to lose, it might seem like a legitimate option. Maybe if I were living on James Turner Street, I too might believe that this might be a way out, a way to gain a voice in a society that repeatedly shuns and ignores me.

Well, the residents of James Turner Street are not being ignored anymore. Because I guess if we can turn what we find uncomfortable and confronting into entertainment, then it becomes a little less threatening, doesn’t it? When we feel that we have a semblance of control over what is happening – when the tragedies of James Turner Street can disappear with the click of a button – then we’re able to distance ourselves from the horrors of entrenched poverty that grips communities and neighbourhoods all around our nation.

I speak as a selfish and complacent member of my generation, but it’s worth acknowledging that we all at times play a part in this particular, systemic and quietly malignant oppression of the vulnerable and marginalised. I stand on the sidelines as much as anyone else. I’m as ready to be entertained as anybody.

But I want to challenge that in myself; because despite how clichéd it may be, I want to believe – I do believe – that Jan Bucquoy was right. I believe we’re all equal in our underpants.

This was written in January 2014, as part of the Friday Night Theology series

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