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Poor and struggling

17 April 2014

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IF PASSIONTIDE is all about being at the mercy of others, then last Thursday was a good time for Panorama to screen Don't Cap My Benefits (BBC1). A film crew followed the fortunes of families in Brent, as the Government's new benefits policy begins to bite.

Basing the calculations on national averages means that London is simply unaffordable for the vulnerable. As a harsh inducement to make the feckless and workshy get a job, it fails if there are no jobs available - or at least none thatthe applicants might reasonably manage - and fails even more when they turn out not to be workshy, but struggling with circumstances beyond their control which make the prospect of regular work impossible.

The camera crew shadowed a few families, so that we got to know them, and to share their hopes and then the dawning realisation that they were going to be evicted and decanted to the nearest place that Brent Council could afford to house them - in many cases, Birmingham.

This sombre viewing did not over-sentimentalise the plight of its subjects: the camera held, as it were, a steady gaze, allowing us to decide whether they held unreasonable expectations, and were refusing to face reality. Amid the pain and heartbreak, human dignity was nurtured by Brent Council's staff, seeking scrupulously to apply a policy that was not of their making as generously as they could.

Television can be relied on to help turn us away from bitter truth by offering a soothing dose of escapist nostalgia (until, that is, the bailiffs come to take away the TV). Two excellent such series began last week. Suzy Klein's Rule Britannia! Music, mischief and morals in the 18th century (BBC4, Monday) showed how after the Glorious Revolution music-making was central to the project of developinga recognisably modern national identity.

The aristocratic craze for Italian opera was subverted by the popular balladeering of The Beggar's Opera, cultural xenophobia worthy of Nigel Farage, pandering to patriotic myopia that was prepared to find in Handel's sublime operas covert Roman Catholic propaganda, Jacobite insurrection, and sodomy.

Ian Hislop's Olden Days: The power of the past in Britain (BBC2, Wednesdays) employed some of the same material, but was, for all its merriment, a more searchingexploration of the power ofbogus history, and of the persistence of myth as a basis for self-understanding.

In this first of three programmes he traced the development of the significance of two of Britain's founding personages, one real and one rather less so: Alfred the Great, and King Arthur.

Hislop's account was fresh and illuminating. Even the historical Alfred has been subverted at times into a wholly mythic figure, for example by the Reformers, who saw him (despite his wholehearted allegiance to Rome) as a kind of proto-Protestant, forging a nation independent of the continent. At times, the fabled romance of Arthur's doomed Camelot has inspired people to endure hardships and live courageously.

History is here a slippery concept, its interpretation far more significant than boring old facts.

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