Archives for posts with tag: channel 5

One of the more bizarre consequences of Brexit is the plan for a one-off special of noughties reality TV show Wife Swap. For anyone unfamiliar with concept, a woman would swap family lives with another with a different lifestyle. It was nearly always a case of some middle-class yummy mummy swapping with a significantly less posh type. What was initially a case of exploring issues around parenting and how the other half lives became just an arena for judgement, albeit an explosive one.

Channel 5 have taken a march on this yet-to-be-aired comeback by commissioning Rich House, Poor House. The big difference is that rather than just one member, it is the entire family who lives a different life. It is also more local – the first episode saw two families just 50 miles apart, but tens of thousands of pounds different in wealth. The Williams of Weston-super-Mare are in the bottom 10% in the UK, with just £170 of spare cash a week. The other family (sorry, blank on the name here) live in one of the poshest parts of Bristol and have £1,700 spare a week.

I went into this very cynical. I expected the poor family to be unambitious and lazy terrors and the rich family to be saintly but spoilt. Whilst the latter was to a degree true, I could not have been more wrong about the Williams’. Firstly, dad Anthony works a full-time job. Neither parent smokes or drinks because they can’t afford to. They celebrate their children’s achievements at school. Whilst they did splurge the cash they got, they did so in an understandable way. A new necklace for mum, for example. One of the most heart-warming scenes was seeing Anthony buy his son new football boots so he could play the sport again after growing out of his old ones last year.

There was also some interesting insights. Firstly, even though the rich family spend three times as much on their shopping, they hardly found themselves starving living on a reduced budget. They just had to shop smarter. The dad, seeing how difficult it was to make the money stretched, turned odd-job man round the house, fixing the Williams’ broken bathroom door and getting rid of the sofa out the front garden.

One of the most interesting revelations was about the rich family’s dad. Now a semi-retired software engineer, he started out at comprehensive school as his poor counterpart, but managed to climb the social ladder. It is a shame that the programme didn’t shed more light on this – was it sheer hard work? Or did he just have the fortune to walk into the right interview room at the right time?

The one other drawback is, unlike Wife Swap, there was no time for the families to swap notes. In fact, there was little time for reflection at all, the only moment being when ‘poor mum’ confirmed she hadn’t been that much happier with the money – things may have been easier but she couldn’t truthfully say they were better.

I hope the rest of the series is in the same positive vein. There are too many programmes where we simply gawp at those poorer and richer than us, and to actually feel we are meeting genuinely nice people who are just living different lives gives me a glow.

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A big fashion here in the UK is TV shows about people on benefits. Some brand this ‘poverty porn’, and in many cases you can see why. It often becomes nothing more than a chance to ogle at those at the bottom of the social heap, a means to release our rage at the skivers who cost ‘hard-working families’ (an empty piece of rhetoric if there ever was one) money. I don’t know if there is a similar fascination in North America or the rest of Europe, perhaps Britain has a unique attitude to welfare that means this genre thrives here more.

So most of these shows basically show the long-term unemployed bemoaning their lot in life while working their way through a daily pack of fags. No sympathy allowed, bar in exceptional cases. The vast majority are undeserving of what they receive, with no interest in breaking the cycle.

The Great British Benefits Handout is a little different though. The premise of the show is that six families on benefits receive £26,000, no strings attached bar one – they must come off all benefits they receive entirely. The money is to be invested in getting them back into work, either to fund qualifications or start businesses. This is a grant, not a loan, as the government will make money back on the tax they receive when the participants are earning enough.

Naturally, many of the participants start by making silly decisions. One grandmother, who had spent her entire life on benefits, got botox and collagen lip implants. Another went on a mad clothes shopping spree. This, of course, causes spasms of rage in the viewer. But then if you have spent your entire life counting out every last penny, you are hardly going to be monk-like when you get some real cash.

Also, many of the participants prove to actually be real grafters when they knuckle down. The aforementioned grandmother set up a market stall selling children’s clothes and, after a little guidance, proved to be quite adept at making her money back. Likewise, another couple who had been stuck on benefits whilst one of them recovered from cancer and the other cared for their disabled son, smartly take their self-tanning business to a gym, whilst the dad also used the money to get a new HGV licence to help boost their income whilst their business slowly was being built.

The grandmother also offered a genuine bit of insight into how she ended up where she was. Trapped in the care system, she often was happier on the streets than in a home. For all the talk of everyone getting a fair shot, she never stood a chance. Now, she does, and it’s working.

This show reveals the biggest flaw behind our welfare system – it is only designed to get people from one bill to the next. It never allows people to invest, to get the qualification or unpaid work experience to get the job that will get them off benefits entirely. Perhaps we need to be more radical and trusting. Maybe there are more people who could surprise us and repay our faith in them. Perhaps this could be more than a TV stunt, but an actual ideology of breaking the benefits cycle forever.

‘Poverty porn’ is one of TV’s most controversial genres at the moment. There is a debate about how much such programmes are a look at life at the bottom of society’s scrapheap in terms of highlighting issues, and how much they are exploiting the less fortunate. Added to this is the fact these shows naturally target the most extreme examples of those on the welfare examples, whether it is those bringing in tens of thousands of pounds (often in the way it is framed unfairly so) or those struggling to make ends meet.

Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole is one such example of this genre, and compared to Benefits Street is a lot less worried about hiding its exploitative side. This week’s episode covered three particular welfare claimants in seaside towns: single-mum Stacey, EDL-supporter Dave, and ‘welfare veteran’ Debbie. In at least 2 of the three cases the viewer was actively encouraged to be angry at the claimant.

In the case of Dave, this for me at least came in his constant bashing of immigration. They were stopping him getting a job for agreeing to work for less money, had houses built for them and were discriminating against him, he claimed. But a keen-eared viewer would see that things didn’t add up with his story. Dave said he had given up work to look after his sick mum, yet bar one very short scene he never showed that he was. And besides, if he chose to give up work, surely he can’t blame an immigrant for not having one? In a bizarre turn of events, by the end of the episode he had actually started working for one in a kebab shop. I would have liked a catch-up at the end of the episode to see how he was faring, but we were denied. I would also like when people like Dave blame ‘non-indigenous people’ for their plight to be more openly challenged, or for at least for their opinions to be delved into a little more, but I suppose that denies the sound bite we as viewers apparently crave.

Debbie was arguably framed in even worse terms by the editors. We were told repeatedly about the thousands of pounds she earned on benefits, as she rolled her fags, drank her beer and threw dinner parties for her neighbours just to make space in the fridge for buying too much food from shopping. It was harder to feel sympathetic for her plight because she did not appear to be suffering, hence why her rants about how posh people look down on her became edited into comedy. Frustratingly, whilst she may represent what middle England most fears about the welfare system, she was the only one to take the battle to the rich. If tax avoidance wasn’t such big news right now, many people would just disregard her comments as those belonging to just another ne’er-do-well. A more cogent person making these comments would certainly have garnered more respect from the viewer.

Stacey’s story was a little different. Out of work bringing up a baby in a flat smaller than your average kitchen, she genuinely came across as someone who needed a helping hand, as opposed to being on the take. Her dreams for her young soon – school, college, university, a career – are simple enough in practice but a million times harder for her to achieve in reality than we would give credit for. The sheer joy on her face at just being able to take him swimming melted my heart that had remained icy throughout. But even here there were nods from the editors that it was her fault. Again, the shots of fags, the numerous tattoos etc. All this silently telling the viewer ‘well she must have got the money from somewhere’. I resisted this trap, and only wish her well. The right support could see her and her son really get something out of life. Sadly, you feel that it just won’t happen.

For me there is no debate about these types of programmes. In failing to go beyond the surface and sensationalising what they find, the producers encourage a divide between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. These extremes are treated as the norm, and quite frankly insult the intelligence of the viewer and of the individuals taking part. We need proper debates about welfare, not tittle-tattle. Until then, being poor will mean big business for TV execs.