Of Benefit Street, Birmophobia and Benjamin Z

MAX CARLISH is working on a film with poet Benjamin Zephaniah and local social entrepreneur Jason Turner about finding work for former offenders. He finds it raises a great deal of questions about Birmingham, its profile….and, of course, the curse of Benefit Street. Benjamin Zephaniah

When writer Benjamin Zephaniah agreed to present a film promoting employability for ex-offenders, our social enterprise scheme, called isore media, couldn’t believe our collective luck.

We knew that his involvement would be a huge help in addressing the problems of crime, drug addiction and unemployment shown in Benefit Street, known officially as James Turner Street.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s life and achievements are the perfect antidote to what I have called the ‘Birmophobia’ of Benefit Street, parts of which which depict Brummies as shiftless, workshy, ignorant and dysfunctional, even though we have a proud industrial heritage dating back to when Birmingham was ‘the workshop of the world’ and the ‘city of a thousand trades’.

The reason we believe that our modest film is important to society is a simple and pragmatic one. As research has demonstrated, ex-offenders who are in employment are 30-50% less likely to re-offend, an outcome that even the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade must welcome as the going rate to keep someone in prison is at around £40,000 cost to the taxpayer a year. And that’s not even counting the enormous benefits and ripple-effect to offenders and their families who do find employment and become productive members of society.

We think our film, made by the social enterprise scheme isore media, will be even more powerful and inspirational is because Benjamin is himself an ex-offender who served time as a young man in Winson Green, before turning his life around and going on to reach the pinnacle of literary achievement, including turning down an OBE. As he says: “Who hasn’t made mistakes? I have. But after making many mistakes when I was younger I always told myself that I had to learn from them, and help other with my knowledge and experience. I see my participation in this film as an opportunity for me to use my experience to help others, in a real concrete way.

“We should all be valued, we should all value ourselves, and we value our lives when they are productive and we have food to eat. I have my heart in this film. This is not show business, this is keeping it real business.”

James TurnerAnd the sad fact is, that although the now infamous Benefit Street series did make people confront some unpleasant corners of British society, such as the merciless exploitation of immigrants, Benefit Street is primarily a piece of ‘showbusiness’ that manipulates reality to tell a dramatic story and attract a bigger audience. In some ways it’s as simple as that.

But if you come to Birmingham you won’t find anywhere called ‘Benefit Street’. By calling it that (did they tell the participants beforehand?), the producers reveal that they knew the kind of programme they were going to make, before their crews even arrived in Winson Green.

Also, it would be interesting to know whether any of the production team share the background of their subjects – or are they well-heeled mainly London media types, getting off on seeing how the other (lower) half live, and who really could be accused of being ‘poverty tourists’ ?

People have compared Benefit Street to another Channel 4 show, Shameless, but they are different because Shameless is coming from a place of love and affection, from someone (the creator) who knows that place and its culture.

What’s also suspect about Benefit Street is that one can all too easily guess what the people behind the cameras are like. And actually we don’t have to guess, because I used to be one myself.

As a maker of fly on the wall documentaries for organisations such as the BBC (I believe they even have a Head of Values now – as shown in their new incredibly brave documentary about themselves), I always knew that however well-meaning and compassionate I and the production team were toward our subjects, the BBC executive would come in at the editing stage and ruthlessly recut the first episode so that there was ‘more blood on the carpet’, in order to get as high as possible in that all important indicator – the first week’s viewing figures.

I’m prepared to believe – and have heard on the old TV producer grapevine – that one of the people in the production team on Benefit Street, who had the best relationship with the street’s inhabitants had a trust (both their’s and the participants’) betrayed by what eventually ended up on the screen. But really, like the parable of the frog and the scorpion, if you know the scorpion can’t help but sting you, you don’t offer to carry it on your back over a raging river – or get involved with making a primetime programme called Benefit Street.

I heard someone who should know better referring to the inhabitants of James Turner Street as “oiks and urchins”. The last time I heard those words, used in that way, was at Oxford University in the mid-80s, but that was from unreconstructed Hooray Henrys, like David Cameron’s mates in the Bullingdon Club, whose membership – like the best English cream – was rich, thick and full of clots.

And you can’t help feeling that schadenfreude – the need to look down on people – is one of the reasons Benefit Street has been so successful.

Last year, the series host, Channel Four, fell to an average of 11% share, a disaster for a channel which survives by selling advertising. In particular the C4 ad sales department prizes its penetration of ELVs (elusive light viewers) ie broadsheet readers, in order to better target its ads for BMWs, soft furnishings and other upscale products.

Is it then such a coincidence that Benefit Street – which has given its broadcaster a much-need ratings boost with a 17% share – panders to the fashionable middle-class fear and contempt of the lower orders, because it actually economically benefits the channel?

This is all a long way from Channel 4’s original, admirable remit, surprisingly laid out by arch-Tory (though he was a ‘wet’) Willie Whitelaw in 1982, when he was Home Secretary. The purpose of Channel 4, he said, “was to represent the views of people not represented elsewhere”.

‘The channel’ as everyone called it, was explicitly intended as a pressure valve for the kinds of disaffection and disenfranchisement seen in Brixton, and our own Handsworth, where Benjamin grew up, which seem so familiar again today and which explosively expressed itself on burning high streets across the land a couple of summers ago.

However, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that television which gives everyone someone to look down on is so popular and successful: with shows like Towie, Geordie Shore, the X Factor and other ‘reality’ TV which have long been mining a rich vein of poverty porn designed both to appal and titillate the middle-class viewers who are all commercial broadcaster’s golden goose as far as the all-important advertisers are concerned.

But the show business of ‘schadenfreude’ is nothing new. It’s an old journalistic principle that goes all the way back to (and before) the birth of the first truly mass market newspapers.

Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Mirror and The Daily Mail, was once asked what the most important thing he did was: “I give people their daily hate”, he said, and no doubt he would approve of the stance taken by the current editor of at least one of his former papers gleefully jumping on the ‘we may not like Benefit Street, but it’s an inconvenient truth’ bandwagon – which does demand a response.

Of course, the series was not all bad and the makers will argue that the 50p man Smoggy was offered three jobs as a result of the series, which is true and laudable and, yes, there were moments both in the series and the ensuing debate where I thought Dee was a magnificent Boadicea of a woman, who you would definitely want on your side in a war, let alone a battle with Brummie bureaucracy.

And yes, it’s true that someone got a job through the series, but this seems to ignore the fact that actually far more TV workers, from runners to assistant producers and execs, have also got jobs as a result of the show.

And the really inexcusable and cheap journalistic trick of Benefit Street is that it is pandering to a national contempt for Birmingham – what I have dubbed ‘Birmophobia’ – that unlike many other forms of prejudice, apparently remains acceptable, in ways that people don’t even mock the scousers these days.

I remember growing up when Brummagem (the very word is an early example of Birmophobia and means cheap, trashy jewellery) was a shortcut to getting a laugh – especially if Brummies were depicted as stupid, lazy and mean, with awful architecture, living in a concrete jungle post-industrial wasteland.

Historically this has led to a toleration of open season on offensive rampantly Birmophobic stereotpyes – like Mr McGuffy in Grange Hill, Honk in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, and even the lumpen cro-magnon Brummie in the nineties Prudential ad, who’s sassy Scouse wife is silently voicing cool and adventurous aspirations like “I wanna travel the world”, while he – in a grotesque caricature of a moronic Brummie accent mindlessly repeats “Whoy wanna boy tugeva” (“We want to be together” for anyone who isn’t fluent in Brummish).

What’s even more shocking is that the excellent Brummie actor, who featured in this ad, was complicit in the oppression of his own kind – and took the Prudential’s dollars in order to contribute to the stereotyping and ridicule of his fellow Brummies.

Of course, as Brummies or Black Country types (and it’s said there’s a huge difference) it’s partly our own fault. As the famous and authentic local joke goes – a Black Country man was asked to define the difference between ignorance and apathy – “I don’t f*ckin’ know and I don’t f*ckin’ care.”

What Benefit Street and these other depictions of Brummies as comic and uncouth monsters have in common is that they think they can get away with it because the rest of the country will join in – that it’s only a stereotype of Brummies because it’s true.

But these representations – even the real, factual ones – in Benefit Street are misleading and are playing to prejudices as unfair as the one implicitly repeated over and over again in the TV series, and even in its title – that all people on benefits are unemployed (it’s actually about 5% and they receive around 3% in total of the overall benefits bill).

The founder of isore Media, Jason Turner, five years ago was himself a literal and metaphorical dweller on Benefit Street. Local no-go zone Chelmsley Wood’s public enemy no 1, a prolific offender and chaotic drug addict, Jason spent four years in prisons (Winson Green among them) for fire-arms and burglary. As he says himself, “I was a crackhead, smackhead, burglar from Chelmsley Wood, who thought the system owed me a living”.

Five years later, and some tough love from the Probation Service, as well as his twelve-step programme, Jason is now a successful local businessman, university undergraduate and pillar of the community – his achievements acknowledged by Prison Governors, Probation managers and Police Commanders alike.

Jason has also personally been responsible for the detox at his own home of a number of heroin addicts who had come to a dead end and whose options were in the words of the NA serenity prayer ‘institutions, prisons or death’.

It’s no coincidence, that with their backgrounds, Jason and Benjamin have in common a unique ability to connect with what’s called in the business ‘hard-to-reach-groups’, like ex-offenders, chaotic drug addicts and the long-term unemployed – some of the inhabitants of Benefit Street, in other words.

But their ability to reach people who have been let down by everyone and everything also comes from Benjamin’s and Jason’s passionate belief in the positive chances of change – even in these most deprived and disadvantaged of areas.

Rather than sitting in the wings or doing what so many in the media are doing and simultaneously condemning and pandering to the showbusiness of Schadenfreude, we want to make a film that is as useful for ex-offenders as it is for society.

And that in the great words of Benjamin’s is “not show business but keeping it real business.” Can we have some more of that from broadcast television?