Telly bosses aren’t daft. The welfare system has long been a hot topic, and so they knew that airing this series would provide much debate across the country - but could they have anticipated just how much fuel it was going to add to the fire? Probably not.
Benefits Street first stunned audiences five weeks ago, following the exploits of ‘White Dee’ and the other residents of James Turner Street, in the Winson Green district of Birmingham, one of the UK’s most benefit-dependent thoroughfares. In that short space of time, it has become one of the most talked about programmes in years, providing plenty of content for social media, endless column inches for the newspaper industry and even questions in Parliament.
The programme simply set out to explore the day-to-day routines of a close-knit community, and highlight some of the challenges they face, including poverty, illiteracy and drug and alcohol addiction, but, as it would turn out, it’s done so much more.
According to the politicians and media coverage, benefits pay for a life of luxury and easy living among those unwilling to work, all at the expense of the hard-working tax payer.
However, this controversial programme prides itself on showing the realities of life on benefits, and the residents’ attempts to find their way through life on the bottom rung of our economic ladder.
Among the residents are the aforementioned Dee, who’s happily taken on the role of the street’s matriarch, offering her shoulder to those with addictions and money woes, self-confessed alcoholic James Clarke (whose story is particularly sad) and young parents Mark Thomas and Becky Howe.
Between them all, they have divided opinion and provided, erm, lively debate up and down the country.
And if you want further evidence that Benefits Street has stirred up controversy, this episode, the last in the series, is being followed by a debate addressing some of the issues raised. Chaired by Richard Bacon, it will see a panel representing views across the spectrum - including those of the people featured in the series - taking questions from a studio audience.
Of all the hype surrounding the programme, Channel 4 Head of Factual, Ralph Lee, says: “This is a series which reflects the reality of day-to-day life for some of the residents of a single street who, for the most part, rely on benefits to survive. It does not and never has set out to reflect the experiences of every person who receives benefits yet it has triggered a national debate about state welfare at a time in which further welfare reforms are being proposed. We feel it is timely to provide a forum in which these issues can be raised and discussed.”
And with the debate airing live and the interactive aspect allowing for viewers to submit their own questions, chances are this touchy subject won’t be wrapped up and laid to rest within the hour slot.