When television production company Love Productions arrived on Stockton’s Tilery estate in late August 2014, their choice of location for series two of “poverty porn” documentary Benefits Street was probably more symbolic than they realised. Fifteen minutes’ walk from Kingston Road, through neighbouring Portrack and across the river into Thornaby, is the scene of Margaret Thatcher’s famous “walk in the wilderness” on the southern bank of the Tees in 1987. The iconic photographs taken that day captured for many the essence of Thatcher’s Britain: once a bustling centre of heavy industry, now a derelict post-industrial wasteland.
Thatcher visits Teesdale, September 1987. Photograph from the Evening Gazette.
The old engineering works of Head Wrightson, along with other industrial giants such as ICI and British Steel, once employed tens of thousands of workers across Stockton and Teesside, yet within the space of a generation they were gone. In Head Wrightson’s place today stands Teesdale Business Park, home to call centres and offices for the likes of Barclaycard, Churchill Insurance and Atos Healthcare, and though the concrete boulevards and riverside canals are more pleasant on the eye, the jobs there are far fewer and less secure. Taken together, Teesdale and Tilery exemplify the legacy of Britain’s transition from an industrial to a service-based economy, a violent historical rupture which transformed both the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants, many of whom were consigned to the kinds of 'low-pay, no-pay' existence charted extensively by local researchers in the decades since.
For whatever reason, though, this was not a backstory that Benefits Street felt able to tell. By the time it arrived in Stockton, the programme was already well known as a leading example of poverty porn, described by sociologist Tracey Jensen as “an all-surface, no depth visual culture of immediacy” in which poverty is framed as a life-style choice for the purposes of popular entertainment. Thus, as Imogen Tyler puts it, “the deepening precarity of the post-industrial working classes is narrativized as a ‘moral crisis’” and used to legitimize further cuts to the welfare state. Although much of the local opposition to Benefits Street drew on these discourses – including that of Middlesbrough football fans, for example – others protested only that the programme would cast Stockton in a bad light.
The furore surrounding the programme was widespread: Love Productions’ decision to film in Stockton was condemned not just by other local residents but also by councillors, MPs, business leaders, newspapers, charities, community campaigners, football fans, and academics. This was manna from heaven to the show’s producers, who were able to construct a narrative which pitted “Kingston Road” against the world – not for the purpose of any considered critique of alienation, poverty or social exclusion, but rather to heighten dramatic tension through the use of contrived set-pieces structured around confrontation and conflict.
I myself observed what was happening from a particular perspective when, as a constituency caseworker dealing regularly with queries regarding benefits, I visited Kingston Road with local Labour MP Alex Cunningham during the early stages of filming. In a seemingly perfect “postmodern” moment, we arrived to be greeted by the sight of half a dozen photographers and film crews all filming and photographing each other: the making of Benefits Street had become a media event in its own right.
We knew that the myths on which Benefits Street was based – namely the myth of so-called “workless communities” – were demonstrably false, and the people we chatted with on the day further reinforced this view. In scenes that were mainly edited out of the final programme, Alex Cunningham spoke with a group of residents which included the programme’s main participants, Julie Young and Sue Griffiths. Apart from explaining their reasons for appearing in Benefits Street, Julie and Sue also raised a number of interesting points about politics, class and the Labour Party. Though Alex acknowledged that he had not previously visited the street as MP, he listened to the residents’ grievances, debated some of their points and parted on good terms.
It was disappointing that a more extended version of this discussion didn’t make the final cut; indeed, the one that did was a testament to the power of editing. Although much was made by Love Productions of “giving people a voice” – a phrase used subsequently by the participants themselves – what struck me most about both the filming I witnessed and the final broadcast was the highly constructed nature of it all: the contrived confrontations, the “acting up” for cameras, the use of certain shots, words and music, and a certain narrative order, to convey particular meanings about politics, class and poverty in Britain in 2014. The 'voice' that was articulated, even when spoken by the participants, was structured very much by the requirements of the programme. But for what purpose?
The irony is that there were some beautiful, tragic, powerful moments in series two of Benefits Street, many of them focused on the story of Julie caring for her severely disabled son, Reagan, with the help of family, friends and neighbours. As Kim Allen et al. have observed, such stories remind us that it is strong, independent women like Julie (and star of series one ‘White Dee’) “who are filling the gap left by the British government's decimation of state-supported services such as childcare and care for the elderly”.
Yet the ideological framing of the programme was undeniable: residents were introduced as “living on benefits” and the opening shots of the series (and its trailers) saw talk of “claiming benefits” overlaid with quick-fire shots of drugs, alcohol and youths in balaclavas. Though the participants were treated largely sympathetically, the issues they raised – including pay-day loans and food banks, both of which have been locally documented at length by researchers at Durham University – were given no wider context and certainly no critical consideration. As Ben Lamb astutely observes, Cathy Come Home it isn’t.
In a recent talk on the “economics and ethics of dispossession TV”, Tracey Jensen makes the excellent point that many media workers themselves are only as good as their last job; their work shaped and regulated by commercial imperatives, and their own employment status as unstable as any in the contemporary 'precariat' (albeit within a more privileged institutional setting). It had occurred to me on my brief visit to Kingston Road that the young members of the Benefits Street crew probably hadn’t long graduated from the kinds of media course on which I was teaching at the time; what use all that critical theory, I wondered, in the face of a brutal capitalist realism which awaited them in the media industry?
And yet, despite that same market logic now extending into universities (media studies departments included), the furore over Benefits Street demonstrates that the politics of class and representation still matter. Though Love Productions may cry “censorship” in response to the criticism they faced, who knows how the second series of Benefits Street may have turned out without the intense public scrutiny to which it was subject by local people.
Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series in partnership with Goldsmiths.