On Benefits and Proud: The show where 'deserving taxpayers' stalk 'proud benefit claimants'

Channel Five has plumbed the depths of human decency with its latest scapegoating programme.

Sometimes, when I want to feel better about myself, I switch on the television and judge people.

The BBC and Channel Four have both really helped with this lately, like true public broadcasters should. They’ve given me We All Pay Your Benefits, in which two people known for a show based on a fight to be the grubbiest capitalist encouraged ‘taxpayers’ to stalk ‘benefit claimants’. And who could forget Benefits Britain 49, where we inflicted misery on the sick and elderly for no real reason at all.

Still, not be beaten in tastelessness, Channel Five came in last night with a late entry: On Benefits and Proud. As the title implied, this was a show in which we tracked down people who use benefits to help them live and who weren’t feeling the necessary level of shame about it.

This was obviously televisual gold. There’s just something particularly brilliant about the poor. Ideally uneducated, definitely unemployed, and (if possible) fat and/or northern. It’s so very now, isn’t it? Because people are actually unemployed and working out how to pay the bills. Knowing that added an exciting element of reality to it all as I sat on my sofa and laughed/tweeted angrily/tweeted angrily whilst laughing at what I tweeted. 

Heather Frost, an unemployed 37 year old who has eleven children, was our central target. Sorry, interesting participant. The big news was that Heather has eleven children and the soft local council were helping them not be homeless. This was something I was sure I was meant to be terribly angry about and luckily, we saw that news of the family being re-housed was greeted with public outrage. 

“If it was someone [dealing with this vilification] who suffered from depression they would have jumped off a cliff and killed themselves," Heather said to the camera, as we cut to a statistic on how much single mothers were costing the taxpayer.

Admirably, the producers quickly threw out any attempt at subtlety. Annoying, fat Londoners and Scousers were rolled out, accompanied by plodding music and puns. “Their only hard graft is working the system,” trilled the narrator. “And all those kids!" we snarled in uniform with him, as if working class children were rats.

There were repeated shots of televisions and references to satellite packages, as if this was a Channel Five exclusive. People on benefits in this country are not in fact entertaining themselves with shadow puppets. You saw it here first!

The general idea seemed to be that, despite living in houses with wiring showing, everyone involved was actually bathing in benefit slips. We were shown “just how much cash they’ve got coming in!”, like…um a single mum who receives £115 a week. “It’s time to spend!” yelled the narrator, as we watched people on sickness benefit and JSA go to pay the electricity meter.

Even the producers seemed to get bored of producing banal anti-benefit propaganda at one stage, as we spent five minutes watching Heather not feed her children vegetables.

In case the audience was similarly losing it, we were repeatedly reminded both that Heather was on benefits and had eleven children. ELEVEN. ON BENEFITS. Throughout, it was unclear what the solution to this was supposed to be. Taking away their support and letting the children go hungry, or going back in time and stopping the working class woman procreating, possibly with forced sterilisation? What was clear was that, like the others, she should feel very bad about herself and she was absolutely representative of the average benefit claimant.

This was perhaps the best/worst thing about On Benefits and Proud. Like previous programmes, from the outset it was held up as a piece of analysis that was genuinely going to help us work out once and for all the complexities of social security.

It would be more honest to call them opportunities for scapegoating and give the audience some rotten veg. After all, Heather wasn’t using it to feed her eleven kids. 

Benefits claimants, ripe for the shaming. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred