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Hoping for more of the warmth and humanity.

Byline: Outside the box GARETH LIGHTFOOT

THERE was a heart-rending moment in Benefits Street (Channel 4) when we saw former community worker Julie Young singing to her 15-year-old son Reagan.

She cried as she told how he suffered a cardiac arrest at nine months old and died in her arms. His life was saved but he was left with permanent brain damage needing around-the-clock care. He died in January this year.

This was the scene where you got the best sense of the human emotion, warmth, love and pain in Kingston Road, Tilery.

Here, the first episode in the second series truly did its job and explained why people were on benefits in the first place.

It's early days but I came away from this opener to the Stocktonset series wishing there had been more moments like this.

The portraits of the residents were broadly sympathetic.

There were glimpses of sadness when it came to Lee, and you could not help but feel for him as it was revealed how he fell on hard times with a job loss, a terrible bereavement and health problems.

He was left to rely on neighbours.

And what neighbours.

"Soul mates" Julie and Sue, residents for 20 years, were shown at the core of the street's tight-knit community cooking people roast dinners, getting their hair done in return.

"Everybody's there for each other.

If you said to me 'there's a million pound',' you wouldn't move me," said Sue. Her priceless "same hole" line was the show's quote of the week.

The crew also spent time with Maxwell, who was claiming about PS700 in benefits per month because of memory loss.

It's fair to say Maxwell was not the best advert for Kingston Road.

He was filmed smoking a bong quipping: "There's breakfast out of the way." He told of his drugs tolerance and, perhaps not the wisest move, showed us his cannabis stash.

"Just short of an ounce," he said.

"That there'll put you in jail, that."

We heard his criminal record - "robbery, fraud, resisting arrest, drugs and shining laser pens at police helicopters" - but none of his behaviour was glamorised.

There was a dash of comedy as he told how police raided his home - "you smash me doors down, you take me stuff off me, you bend me up like a chicken" - then put a leaflet through his door telling him: "Cannabis is still illegal."

He, in turn, had stuck the leaflet on his drugs tin. Cheeky.

His antics grew more shambolic and risible as he strolled to court in his vest and shorts, missing his bus and turning up late.

But these snapshots of the residents increasingly took a back seat to the show's focus on the inevitable media attention to the street.

The Gazette made the opening shot as Maxwell greeted the phrase "poverty porn" - an admittedly daft phrase long used by Benefits Street's detractors - with baffled giggles.

"We're porn stars!" laughed one of his neighbours, Dot.

The local press seemed to get away fairly lightly in terms of criticism, even if our photographer had an egg hurled at him for his trouble.

Objections mounted to the presence of cameras on a street already in the glare of a national TV crew.

More and more, the show came down to watching people filming people filming people, taking pictures of people taking pictures. A slightly surreal viewing experience.

The press mostly came across as a pretty mild-mannered bunch - our reporter made a perfectly polite approach to the TV cameras - but got a major kicking in the show.

For having the temerity to turn up and try to find out more about what was happening, to do their jobs, they became the villains of the piece.

"It's a public street," a journalist replied to one objector.

Now, thanks to the makers of the show, it's a very public street, but this episode's press-bashing served to absolve them of any responsibility.

Still, Julie was formidable as she stated outright that the residents were not being exploited, in a first visit from MP Alex Cunningham.

"They're actually giving us a voice," she insisted. "Nobody's made to go on this programme."

In depicting the street as exploited by the press and forgotten by politicians, Channel 4 and Love Productions appeared to stake their claim as the people's champions.

After months of debate, you got the feeling they wanted to get something off their chests. It was entertaining, but it added little understanding of the residents themselves.

The show treads a fine line. Some of the quick-fire opening shots didn't exactly scream "sensitive portrayal".

But they were set against the vital words of Julie, Kingston Road's real champion: "They've put the best people, the salt of the earth, here.

"I can't think of one person around here who's out of work just because they can't be bothered to get a job.

"Just because we're a little council estate in the middle of nowhere, people just stigmatise.

"We're just decent people." The street's poet Chrissie summed it up as she proudly sang: "I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses."


Julie Young... warmth, emotion and sense of community in Benefits Street ian mcintyre
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Title Annotation:News; Opinion; Columns
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:May 16, 2015
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