'Channel 4 made a fiction from a whole class' (Credit: Channel 4)

February 17, 2024   7 mins

James Turner Street in Winson Green, Birmingham, renamed Benefits Street by Channel 4 in 2014, was originally christened Osborne Street, and this makes me laugh. With its cast of depressives and drug addicts, fed and clothed by the state, and living in semi-affable chaos, Benefits Street, which posed as social commentary, did more to sell George Osborne’s policy of Austerity than anything. What could be done with such useless people but tax their spare rooms and cut their child benefit? It was cruel but effective television: a legendarium of the underclass. Benefits Street was a very partial study of poverty, and worthless for it.

Here I am, walking down Benefits Street, behaving no better than Channel 4 when it put a camera on a drug addict called Fungi — he named himself for mould — lamenting the loss of his child. This late Victorian street is fascinating, but TV can turn anything into Madame Tussauds. The houses are small, and neat, but the overriding aesthetic is bins.

Birmingham Council has a mad bin policy. Each tiny house has two vast black bins outside it. As if in fury at this mad bin policy, the street is filled with rubbish. When I discuss this with the residents — they all talk about rubbish — they blame each other. This is a very ethnically diverse area, and they blame eastern Europeans. If I were Channel 4, I would find an eastern European to defend himself — did you drop that nappy, did you? — but I’m not, and I don’t.

As if to delight Channel 4, the first thing I see is a robbery, and it is barely 10am. With sublime irony, it takes place opposite HMP Birmingham, which dominates Winson Green: there used to be a workhouse and an asylum too, but only the prison made it. There is scuffling, and a young woman punches her way out of a corner shop and hurries across the road. She was stealing food worth pennies, says the woman who works in the shop. She tells me not to worry. It happens every day. It’s easy for a tourist to find what they are looking for here: despair. I see a homeless woman near the tram stop, scrabbling on the floor for silver she has dropped. She is frightened it will be stolen, and she grapples with the dirt.

“I think of Fungi, later to become a ghostly tabloid staple. He died in 2019.” (Channel 4)

But James Turner Street is more functional than it looks: or, rather, it isn’t special. The man who owns the MOT shop — that is the industry here now, cars and corner shops — suggests that, if it were honest, Benefits Street would have been a franchise, with an outpost in every town. “What they [Channel 4] tried to isolate — ‘this is the dump of the UK!’ — it isn’t,” he says. “Every area you go to you will find a street where people are going through similar struggles. It is just another street. It’s in line with the rest of the UK. It has become worse [in the last decade]. The only ones who are benefitting are the upper class.”

We stare at business owners, landlords, driving Range Rovers past his window. He knew Stephen “Smoggy” Smith, “the 50p man” from TV, who sold household goods for 50p. He had a kind heart — he gave things away to struggling parents — but he moved on. Everyone who starred in the show has moved on, been imprisoned, or died. The only one I manage to contact is Sherrell Dillion, now a successful model. She sends me a courteous message on Instagram, but she can’t face talking about the show: “I’ve spoken about Benefits Street until my legs fall off.”

There is an Ofsted-rated “outstanding” school on the corner and, opposite it, the community garden. I am given a tour by a kindly old man. He shows me compost “fully rotted down”, which he sells for ÂŁ4 a bag, the wildlife sanctuary — birds, squirrels, “rats of course” — and the herb beds for local families. On Bonfire Night they had 200 people, and fire pits. “They [Channel 4] weren’t interested in anyone with a functional life,” he says. “They picked on people with benefits, they picked on the ones who were more colourful, so to speak. It helped to sell the programme.”

I see an elderly couple walking into a house. It belongs to the man’s brother, he says, who is in hospital. He is happy to let me in. And here it is: the fictionalised house. The decor is from the Seventies, when wages in Birmingham were among the highest in the country: they collapsed within a decade as manufacturing did, though Benefits Street didn’t talk about that. The carpets are dark swirls; the wallpaper is a pattern of red poppies; there is a horse figurine on the gas fire, and seascapes on the walls; the small Christmas tree is dying in its pot. The woman is cleaning a stain from the red velveteen couch on her knees.

He tells me that 2014 was an odd time in the history of the street. There were alcoholics and drug addicts here: “a period when they all seemed to come together”. His brother likes it here: “He’s not an adventurous person. He’s lonely, and he took to drink.” He tried gardening to ease his loneliness, by taking part in an allotment scheme: “It fell by the wayside and disappeared. No one is left from that time.” Or almost no one. They tell me to call on a lady four doors down. I knock, a face peers out of the front window, and an ancient woman opens the door a crack. She has lived here for 50 years, she says. “They [Channel 4] never came to my house. I don’t smoke cigs,” — and she laughs — “I don’t smoke ganja.” Her husband is dead and she tells me she thinks she will die soon.

“Everything has changed here. It was lovely,” — and she points down the street — “Mrs Shaw lived there. And,” — she squeezes her forehead up — “I can’t remember her name. It’s my home. I paid for it. Not council. My husband was a bus driver. We had hanging baskets: lovely plants. There is rubbish everywhere. God forgive me. I am not telling a lie. I won’t do anything about it because I will soon be gone. We all have to go sometime. This street has gone to the dogs — that’s what I say. We are human beings.”

She points down the street: “They are gone. They are gone. They are gone”. She opens the door wider. Her small living room is very hot, and gaudily decorated. She points at a photograph of her hanging baskets in bloom: so I will believe that they existed.

I bump into a man who worked for 47 years as a lorry driver. It is important to him that I know this. “I refused to go on [the show],” he says. “They didn’t say they wanted people on the dole. I can show you the paperwork. They never said nothing about a job centre, [about] benefits. They didn’t tell people what they were doing. They said it was about the community.” He shuffles off in anger, still smarting at the insult. But still he turns back and adds: “I have been burgled 28 times.” Then I meet Jay, a youngish man with paper bags of new goods. “It’s a shithole!” he exclaims. “No matter what street you pick, it is definitely the shitter end of Birmingham. But you could have thrown a dart at any major city in Britain: Birmingham, Liverpool, London, and you would have hit a James Turner Street. We drew the short straw there and ended up on the telly. I should imagine it would ruin your life if you were on drugs.” I think of Fungi, later to become a ghostly tabloid staple. He died in 2019.

Lee Nutley, another star of the series, who died in 2016 (Channel 4)

He points towards HMP Birmingham: “There are more criminals this side of the fence than that side. You could have picked any street in any big city and found characters like that. Apparently, some of them did well out of it.” I follow him home. He lives in an HMO [house of multiple occupation] “with three men from Gambia who smoke weed”. We sit in the living room, which has a vast red sofa and a vase of plastic flowers. It smells of bleach because they are cleaning up after a mouse infestation. It got so bad the landlord moved a cat into the front bedroom. I also meet Minnie the English bulldog who, Jay says, “saved me”. She places herself between us, and growls. Minnie is trained to bark at people wearing face masks and carrying pipes. I also meet his flatmate, who is masked, though Minnie doesn’t bark at him. Jay introduces me as his probation officer.

Jay shows me his housing benefit papers: the landlord gets £1,000 per room per month from the taxpayer, or almost £50,000 a year for a house worth £100,000, with no hot water downstairs “apart from the shower”, cockroaches, and mice. This stuns me but Jay wants to talk about crime. He’s been in HMP Birmingham — “one of the best prisons in the UK” — for violence and theft, “though I’ve calmed down now. It’s much better than Strangeways. The drug scene is terrible here. Crack, heroin, cannabis: you name it. These HMOs aren’t helping.” Drug dealers steal from each other. They find cannabis plants using heat sensors and smash their way in, but no one is arrested because you can’t telephone the police and say your cannabis plants have been stolen.

Jay went into a spiral when his mother died. He split up with his partner, his children were taken into care, and he started drinking. “I think I’m coming out the other end of it,” he says. “I could do with moving from here to be honest.” He stares at me: “If you’re looking to start again this isn’t the place to do it. People keep themselves to themselves. It’s hard to start a new life here. It’s hard to live on benefits. Most people are on benefits, and I don’t know how. I look around me, and everyone I know is on the sick. There are five people living in this house and not one person works. How can that be? I don’t see anyone putting into the pot. How can everyone I know be taking out?”

“It’s hard to start a new life here. It’s hard to live on benefits.”

He was offered a job at the carwash round the corner, he says, for £10 per six-hour day in mid-winter. The minimum wage is £10.42 an hour, not £1.66, but the owner trusted the taxpayer would intercede. Now Jay is off for depression: “They will sign anyone off for that. I have been on the sick for two years.” He used to fit ventilated wall systems in London and wishes he could again, but he lost his licence for drink-driving. “The gaffer wouldn’t touch it. I shamed the company.” The next day I go back to say goodbye. His housemate answers the door. Cannabis smoke flows around him like a special effect. He says Jay is asleep and can’t be disturbed.

I leave, knowing that there are variations of Jay in the inner suburbs of all of our cities, but we don’t see them. Channel 4 made a fiction from a whole class — and a fiction can be easily ignored. It was. It still is.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.