This article is a plea to my fellow residents of Stockton-on-Tees to boycott not just Channel4 but the whole C4 network of the duration that Series 2 of Benefits Street is broadcast.
The new four-part series will begin at 21.00 on 11th May, and will focus on the residents of Kingston Road in Stockton, the town which I was born in, where I still reside, and which I want to defend against this series which is often referred to as “poverty porn”, a term I think is unfair because even pornography has more dignity that this rubbish.
Also, don’t think you can justify this programme by saying: “What about freedom of speech? We shouldn’t censor the media.” I’m not saying we should prevent this programme from being broadcast, I’m saying we just should not watch it because it is a terrible programme.
I know that some of my fellow residents may be tempted to watch the show to see what it is like – please don’t. If you watch Benefits Street you’ll help boost the ratings, and it is the ratings and attention that make shows like this survive. If you want to stop Benefits Street, don’t watch it, or any other shows made by the network. Harm their ratings and their advertising revenue. I dislike the programme so much that I don’t want to even show images from it in this article.
As before with the first series which was broadcast in Birmingham, there is a concern about exploitation of poor people, but things look even worse in this series. The Independent reports that this new series will feature one person openly taking drugs before going into court. Imagine how you would feel if this was being filmed where you live – not very nice is it. Well, it’s happening where I live, and I can tell you it is horrible.
Benefits Street is not the first dodgy TV show to come to Stockton however. A little while back Sky1 had a show called Ashley Banjo’s Big Town Dance, in which the Diversity performer tried to get 5,000 locals to perform a large street dance – because as we all know, the best way to solve the current problems Stockton has with crime, poverty and unemployment is to make everyone in town to perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. What Banjo failed to realise is that it would be much quicker and cheaper to get everyone in Stockton motivated by offering everyone in the town free parmo.
For those who don’t know, parmo is the “national dish” of Teesside, consisting of meat (normally chicken or pork), smothered in béchamel sauce, covered in breadcrumbs and baked in an oven. Don’t knock it until you try it.
One of the major problems with Benefits Street is the way that it has already harmed what little reputation Stockton-on-Tees had with the rest of Teesside. All the other towns around us are so snobbish when it comes to Stockton. I realise “snobbish Teessiders” is a somewhat alien idea to most people, but most people are probably not aware of Yarm.
Yarm is a town between Stockton and Darlington, dominated by three things: cobbles, a large railway viaduct, and a desire to have nothing at all to do with Teesside. Yarm is the poshest town in Teesside. It is the sole reason why my parliamentary constituency of Stockton South has a Conservative MP (which in the north-east is the least cool thing you can possibly have), who is currently fighting to protect a majority of 332 in this year’s General Election. Last year in a non-legally binding poll Yarm residents voted to leave Stockton Council and join North Yorkshire instead. Thornaby, which is directly opposite Stockton on the other side of the River Tees also voted to join North Yorkshire in a similar non-legally binding poll. I have mixed feelings about this. Part of me doesn’t want to see these places leave as it would damage Stockton’s reputation even further, but if it means we won’t have a Tory MP again then Yarm can naff off to Yorkshire for all I care.
It’s not just snobbery. Stockton seems to be in the shadow of all the other towns around it. There is Middlesbrough obviously with its not-as-successful-as-we-wish-it-was football club (we couldn’t get automatic promotion to the Premier League, but at least we can go to Wembley in the play-offs), whereas Stockton comes second-fiddle with non-league Norton & Stockton Ancients, Norton being a village which is so much nicer and prettier than Stockton.
Then you have Hartlepool a town which a proud maritime history and is at least fun enough to elect their local football mascot H’Angus the Monkey as mayor to the annoyance of Peter Mandelson; Billingham, although not the prettiest town has its own folk festival and one of the few venues in Britain to combine a theatre, a swimming pool and an ice rink all in the same building; and even Darlington, which is famously connected to Stockton via the railways is better off because it is part of the East Coast mainline. Darlington’s station has many luxuries that Stockton’s station doesn’t have, like a roof and a ticket office.
All of this stuff knocks Stockton down, which is a shame because recently things have improved in the town. After months of work Stockton High Street, which is famous for being the widest in Britain (it’s so wide it actually has buildings in the middle of the street) has undergone a revamp. Amongst the additions is a huge fountain that you can sit around and children can play in, because when you’ve got a High Street as big as ours you might as well do something grand like build a fountain.
There is another aspect to Stockton which is totally different to Teesside’s industrial past, which is that Stockton-on-Tees is arguably the geekiest town in Britain, relative to its size. Venture off our High Street and you will find the Who-Ray! Shop for Doctor Who fans, and Hunter Toys for lovers of Star Wars; then there is the “Geek Quarter” containing the Beanie Games board and trading card game shop; and Sub-Zero Comics which buys and sells all sorts of geeky items. Add yours truly; the author of this website’s weekly anime column and the manga critic for MyM Magazine, and you can see just how geeky we are.
Outside of these you have all these other little business like The Golden Smog micro-pub, where you can get sample all their beers by being served four ⅓ pints on a specially hand-made wooden tray. Then there is the daddy of all of Stockton’s shops: Sound It Out, the last independent record shop left in all of Teesside and a haven for all those who love vinyl and live music. It was subject of a documentary back in 2011, later broadcast on BBC Four. Part of me really hopes that as a protest against Benefits Street the guys at Sound It Out get a set of speakers outside the shop and bellow out “Career Opportunities” by The Clash. Admittedly this might cause problems with some of the people around them, like Stockton Job Centre, but never mind.
So Channel 4 you can keep your poverty porn. If I want anything sexy I’ll buy the original 7” single of “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, a second-hand yaoi manga, and a romantic parmo meal for two.