THE programme that everybody is talking about - as Channel 4
likes to remind us - is Benefits Street (Channel 4,
It has attracted ire from all sides. The Revd Steve Chalke, of
the Oasis Trust, has called on the pro-ducers to apologise to the
community, who feel that the street has been turned into a human
zoo. For the Daily Mail, the series confirms all our worst
fears about workshy Britain. Even tuning in feels voyeuristic.
We have had the episodes on Danny the shoplifter, with his 200
offences, and the wretched plight of the Romanians, tricked into
coming to Britain by a gangmaster and unable to claim benefits or
to work legally. Last week, the focus was on family life. Mark and
Becky are struggling to bring up their children, Callum and Casey,
with little money, and not much to hope for.
Frankly, it was all pretty desperate. Poorly educated, and
barely more than children themselves, they had met at school and
somehow stuck together through a drug problem (Becky's), and
long-term unemployment (Mark's).
They bickered constantly, and their parenting was chaotic:
Callum, in particular, was running rings around them, up half the
night and rarely attending nursery. They had got into a muddle
about their housing benefit, and were massively in debt. And now
the Social were coming round because of a missed doctor's
appointment. Becky talked sadly about the pros-pects of the
children being taken into care.
(This very scenario was painted for us by another young mother,
Sam, who lost the care of her son to his grandmother because of her
heroin problem. Every time her welfare payment comes in, she has to
fight the temptation to spend it on drugs. We saw her trying to
organise a visit to her son. But when she called to arrange a
visit, the grandmother said she was busy, and hung up.
Yet this visit from the social workers was a turning point for
Mark and Becky. Mark got himself a job; OK, it did not work out,
but he did try. Becky seized control of sorting out their debt; and
a lovely lady from the charity Home Start came to help them find
ways to cope better with their children. And the new strategies
worked, visibly. What happens next is anyone's guess; but I was
struck by their heroic determination in the face of almost
It may not be easy watching, but this is surely an important
series in reminding us what life is like for thousands of people in
the UK who have never known good role-models or a decent education.
What a different world we saw in The Grammar School: A secret
history (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). It was based on
fascinating archive footage, and a few inter-views with successful
alumni (Sir David Attenborough and Baroness Bakewell, for
As such, it painted a decent historical picture of how grammar
schools came into being, and the leg-up they offered thousands of
bright working-class children. The first episode took us to the
beginning of the 1960s. The second will show what followed: the way
the grammar-school system was dismantled by the very people who had
benefited from it most.