Benefits Street, The Spongers and welfare realityPosted: February 9, 2014
This week’s final episode of Benefits Street made me go back and rewatch another programme with a provocative title about life on social security.
I was 17 when The Spongers was first transmitted in January 1978 and I still remember it as the single most stunning and harrowing piece of television I have ever seen. The 90-minute programme was a Play for Today – the famous series of one-off dramas that ran on the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s – and tells the story of Pauline, a single mother from a council estate near Manchester. It opens with the bailiffs arriving to seize her furniture because she is in rent arrears and upsetting her eldest daughter, Paula, who has Down’s Syndrome. That’s swiftly followed by a scene outside where workers are erecting giant heads of the Queen and Prince Philip ready for the Silver Jubilee celebrations. Cue the opening titles. You can watch it here:
As that scene suggests, The Spongers is firmly in a tradition of political and realist TV drama. The producer was Tony Garnett, who worked with Ken Loach on Cathy Come Home. The writer was Jim Allen, who went on to work with Loach on films like Hidden Agenda, Raining Stones and Land and Freedom. The director was Roland Joffé, who was later nominated for Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission.
Like Cathy Come Home, The Spongers was a drama that challenged conventional representations and used documentary techniques to give a deeper impression that what we are seeing is real. In contrast, Benefits Street is a reality TV documentary that borrows dramatic techniques to develop characters and narratives. As in Big Brother or any other reality show, the participants are acutely conscious of the fly on the wall and perform for it. Sure enough they have become tabloid celebrities in their own right. There are even rumours that White Dee will come off benefits and into work: on the next Celebrity Big Brother.
Four episodes in to the series it’s evident that it’s become something of a blank slate on to which viewers can project what they already think about people on benefits. After the first episode, many on the left took to twitter to campaign for it to be taken off air because it misrepresented people while those on the right thought it confirmed all their prejudices and some of them took to twitter with crude threats against the ‘scroungers’. Iain Duncan Smith thinks it proves that everything he is doing on welfare is right (but you get the feeling he thinks that about everything). As the furore erupted on Twitter and in the media, it was not hard to imagine the executives at Love Productions and Channel 4 counting the viewing figures and the cash.
Paul Taylor wrote an interesting blog after episode 2 in which he argued that ‘apart from the unfortunate title, Benefits Street is pretty good’: it’s TV that is designed to shock – and we fell for it. Paul also argues that there are important lessons for social organisations to learn about the power of communities to come up with their own solutions and above all about the power of narrative, the way that real people’s stories communicate issues more effectively than statistics.
These are very good points but where I disagree with him is that the only problem is that ‘unfortunate title’. The Spongers had an even more provocative title but that was a choice made deliberately to challenge the preconceptions of the audience. In contrast, Benefits Street seems to set out to confirm our prejudices right from the start of the first episode.
In the opening sequence, the jaunty off-screen narrator tells us that James Turner Street has 99 houses, 13 nationalities ‘and many of its residents are dependent on benefits’. The woman we’ll get to know as White Dee says that ‘there are probably 5 per cent of people on this road that are working’. But times are getting tougher – ‘my housing benefit is being cut, what kind of nonsense is that’ – and people are having to get by with less and rely on each other more. This impression was duly amplified in headlines like this the next day about ‘the street where 9 out of 10 households are on welfare’.
This is of course a vast exaggeration and even the more weasly formula used by the commentator and Channel 4 that ‘the majority’ are on benefits turns out to be incorrect. As Declan Gaffney has shown, James Turner Street spans two Census output areas. On Census Day in 2011, the proportion of people aged 16-74 in employment was 43 per cent in one and 38 per cent in the other. However, those figures include pensioners and students. Once you exclude them and focus on the non-student, non-retired population, 52 per cent in both areas were working.
For a programme that purports to show the ‘reality’ of life on benefits this is a bit of a problem. Benefits Street may be real in the sense that real people are filmed saying things but it is an edited version of reality with no context. We don’t see people who are working (one such couple say they were filmed for a year and then dropped from the series) and we are only ever given the participants’ impression of how the benefits system works. There are vague references to the bedroom tax but we are never told who owns the houses in the street (landlords include a Tory millionaire and a Labour deputy police and crime commissioner). A reality shorn of that kind of context is a very flimsy foundation from which to construct a case about what’s wrong with ‘Benefits Britain’, but that is exactly what the programme has encouraged. For an alternative TV documentary approach to life on benefits there are still a few hours left to watch These Four Walls on iPlayer.
On Newsnight in January, Channel 4’s head of factual programmes Ralph Lee appeared to argue that there is a difference between reality strands like Benefits Street and Skint and documentaries like How to Get a Council House that show the issues from both sides. The scheduling of Monday’s final episode after a documentary about the bedroom tax and the hurried rescheduling of a live studio debate to next week to follow a programme giving residents the last word strongly suggest that Channel 4 knows it can’t maintain this line.
However, if we can’t trust the edited ‘reality’ shown in documentaries that borrow from drama, can we trust the authenticity of dramas that borrow from documentary? Back with The Spongers, that title sequence and the track record of those involved signal that it’s political and is coming from a very left-wing perspective. However, the plot plays out under a Labour government and a Labour council: The Spongers is more about the system and the bureaucracy of social services and social security that let down Pauline and Paula with tragic consequences.
Watching it again I was expecting to find the politics laid on a bit too thick and the message a bit too didactic but it was just as powerful as I remember it and it stands the test of time remarkably well. I’m not alone in that opinion either: Jimmy McGovern describes it as the best TV programme ever made while Christopher Ecclestone says it is the single most important drama and the one that made him want to work in TV.
Yet, unlike Cathy Come Home, The Spongers changed very little. Things were about to get a whole lot worse for people like Pauline in the years that followed 1978. Allen and Joffé went on to make United Kingdom, about residents of the same estate organising to fight rent increases. Two of the supporting actors, Peter Kerrigan as Pauline’s father and Bernard Hill as the idealistic community worker who in the end is powerless to help, went on to star in Boys from the Blackstuff and if you’ve seen that it’s impossible to watch now without thinking of George Malone and Yosser Hughes. Tony Garnett set out why he thinks The Spongers is still fiercely relevant in a piece for the BFI last year. ‘Little did I know I would still feel as angry,’ he says.
The title of the programme also tells us that the stereotyping of people on benefits is nothing new. Somewhere along the way they became scroungers rather than spongers, just as ‘the social’ became ‘welfare’, but the underlying attitudes and the stigmatisation of claimants are the same. So is much of the experience of dealing with the system for lone parents and disabled people.
There are also some powerful echoes of the way the system works now and may do in future. One of the reasons that Pauline has run up rent arrears is that there was direct payment to tenants, exactly what is proposed now under the universal credit. ‘What has happened to the rent allowance we’ve been paying you,’ the benefits officer tells her. ‘It’s there to pay the rent.’
Another claimant desperate for money is told her only option is a food voucher: ‘I won’t take that, it’s degrading,’ she says. Today of course many claimants have no choice: those who fall through the safety net have to rely on food banks.
And the way that officialdom justifies cuts and decision making is also familiar. The chair of social services tells other councillors: ‘I’d like to stress this is not a deterioration, it’s an alteration in the way we use the money.’ When Pauline challenges what happens as a result, she’s told that ‘the decision was made quite properly by the proper officers’.
The Spongers and Benefits Street both caused huge controversy, both went to great lengths to convey reality and both have deliberately provocative titles. But one set out to challenge everything you thought you knew about the stereotype in the title while the other uses it to maximise viewing figures. One is fiction that set out to give a voice to people who did not have one, the other is reality TV that uses their own words but puts them on public display.