As London-based TV producers patrolled a North-East road trying to persuade unemployed residents to take part in a new series of the controversial Benefits Street programme, Chris Webber talked to the street’s hard-working people.
TWO young women, both dressed down in leggings and jumpers but with cut-glass southern accents, smile and joke with the everyday people of a Stockton street.
Describing themselves as TV producers, they are here to cajole some of the residents of Stockton’s Dixon Street to take part in the next series of Channel 4’s Benefits Street.
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Eager to talk to most, they are tight-lipped when approached by The Northern Echo. Every question about stigmatising people in poverty and hurting the image of the town is batted away with an easy, “no comment.”
But the pair of young TV fixers had clearly impressed one young man, Brian Hayes, 26, who has been searching for a job for three years. “They said this could improve my chances of getting a job,” says Brian, “I’m game for it. Maybe it could mean I would get on Big Brother.”
At that point one of the young women from Love Productions, who make the hit show for Channel 4, breaks her silence. “We haven’t promised anybody a job,” she insists.
The original series, which at one point was pulling in nearly 6.5 million viewers - Channel 4’s biggest audience since the Paralympics - might not have secured anyone a job but certainly did make stars of some of the people of James Turner Street in Birmingham and it's easy to understand why TV executives are scouting around the country, looking for another street.
One resident of James Turner Street, known as White Dee, even earned a spot on Celebrity Big Brother. Others, though, reported being abused as workshy.
While it is easy to find people on benefits on Dixon Street there is no shortage of evidence of people prepared to work, and work hard too. One married father-of-two, Simon, didn’t want his surname mentioned, but says he worked 13 hours day as a chef in nearby Yarm.
He often worked a 70-hour week only seeing his two-year-old and nine-month-old children for brief periods of the day. “They’re saying the new series won’t just be about being on benefits,” he says, “but why do they call it benefits street then? Most people here work.”
But then, as Government statistics show, most people on benefits are actually in work. People like Jina Westwood, a single mum on Dixon Street, who works 16 hours a week as a cleaner, but still can’t make ends meet. “I’m talking to the telly people,” she admits, “but I don’t know about, it makes some people look bad, but I think it’s worth talking to them.”
Further down the street, out of earshot of the TV producers, there is vehement opposition to the idea of Benefits Street.
Shannon Timofte, 18, said she would move to another area of town if the programme is made.
“I’m already stereotyped as a teenage mother and that’s bad enough,” she says, explaining she has a three-year-old son and is pregnant again. “But people don’t know I’ve gone to college and got my Level 3 qualification in health and social care.
"They don’t know my fiancé works 12 hours a day, five days a week to provide for us. I like it here and I love our home, but I’m not having my son stigmatised as being on benefits street. There’s already been people coming down just to look at us.”
Claire Blackburn agrees. She was brought up on Dixon Street and her grandfather still lives there. “My granddad worked for 60 years, from when he was just 15 and bought his house here,” she says. “He’s retired now, but I’m not having them saying he is a benefit scrounger.”
Shannon and Claire’s opinion is echoed by their MP, Alex Cunningham, who has written to Channel 4 executives asking them to abandon the show altogether. He explained the TV producers had previously tried to persuade residents in North Ormesby and Brambles Farm in Middlesbrough to take part, but had been “given short shrift,” and he hoped the people of Dixon Street would do the same.
“I think it’s terribly sad that people find entertainment in other people’s misery," he says.
“The number of people who are unemployed in my constituency has gone down, but we’re talking by a few dozen. There’s still 9.7 per cent unemployment and we’ve lost 1,500 public sector jobs. The new jobs that do get created are sometimes second rate.”
Asked if he thought there was a lack of empathy towards unemployed people, compared to previous recessions, Mr Cunningham said: “I think that has changed in our area in the last six months. When people actually know people who have lost their jobs, there is sympathy.
“But in middle-England, leafy suburbs, I think there’s still the attitude that everyone on benefits is a waster. Benefits Street reinforces that idea."
A spokesman for Channel 4 said that, contrary to Mr Cunningham’s opinion, the first series of Benefits was a “fair reflection of the reality of life on a street where the majority of households receive benefits.”
The channel wasn’t buying in to right-wing, anti-benefits agenda but the programme had inspired “an important discussion about benefits with opinions aired from all sides.” Benefits Street was “sympathetic and humane...the reaction from people was overwhelmingly positive.”
Spending time on Dixon Street, it doesn't take long to work out that good, well-paid jobs, would be preferred to TV attention, sympathetic or otherwise.