Daytime TV: Moved to action

A documentary about benefits makes Gary Day uncomfortable. Thank goodness for Timothy Spall

August 27, 2009

Credit: Miles Cole

The Statute of Artificers (1536) required the able-bodied to accept whatever work was offered them. Our attitude to the poor changes little over the ages. It's their fault they have no jobs, so why should we pay to support them? Ready-made ideas save us the trouble of thinking. And if you repeat them often enough, they appear true. If they start to go a bit stale, jazz them up. Restate them. Be controversial. That seems to be the thinking behind Channel Four's new three-part series Benefit Busters (Thursday 20 August, 9pm). Billed as a documentary, the programme played as propaganda. "Britain is now paying out more in benefits than it receives in income tax," announced the narrator.

Now why is that, you wonder? Could it be anything to do with recession? No, it's because people like Dawn, a single mother, can't be bothered to switch off Trisha and get out there. That, at any rate, is the view of Hayley Taylor, who runs a confidence-boosting course designed to get such women back into work. "Why aren't you queuing up at McDonald's?" she asks her group. "They've always got vacancies."

Hayley is part of A4e, a company that provides training for the long-term unemployed. She brightens their day by wearing colourful outfits and spouting even more colourful metaphors.

She held up two batteries to illustrate right thinking. "This one's positive," said Hayley, "and this one's negative." She showed a better grasp of the life cycle of a butterfly when explaining the transformation the mums would undergo on the course, but then spoilt it at the end by referring to them as "kittens".

The mums didn't seem to mind, or even notice. They took what they could from the course and their reward was a job in Poundland. But only after completing a two-week trial without pay. Hayley was ecstatic. All that time spent telling the mums not to sport face piercings had paid off. It's amazing what you can achieve when you ignore real problems, as Hayley did when the women tried to explain the difficulties they faced.

Hayley's make-up was a metaphor for ideology. So, too, was an image of her ironing. There must be no creases in her thinking. Facts and figures were in short supply. Where, for example, did the information for that extraordinary claim about benefits being more than income tax originate? Could it be The Daily Telegraph on 26 June? It, in turn, seems to have got it from Schroders, a global asset management company.

By itself the claim means little, since income tax accounts for about 30 per cent of all government receipts. That amounts to roughly £122 billion a year, which is far more than Britain's welfare bill of about £20 billion a year. Here's something else to complicate the picture. Tax avoidance, according to the Tax Justice Network, deprives the Exchequer of between £25 and £85 billion a year. And there are around 14,000 tax-avoidance schemes in operation at present. Perhaps one day there will be a three-part series called The Truth about Tax. But probably not. It just wouldn't fit with our thinking.

Richard Cottan's compelling drama Gunrush (ITV, Sunday 23 August, 9pm) restored faith in a channel whose staple fare is 60 Minute Makeover and Daily Cooks Challenge. Timothy Spall played Doug, a driving instructor whose daughter is shot dead in a supermarket. Uh-oh. The culprit is black. Is there a danger we might be dealing in stereotypes here? Even when they were falling apart, Doug's family were still gathered together in the kitchen.

Not so the black characters. Their family was the gang. Their kitchen was the pool room. Their space was not the home but the walkways and the heavily graffitied underpass. Perhaps that's just how it is for some kids. All the same, better have a black liaison officer to support the bereaved parents and a black outreach worker to help Doug recover the gun that killed his daughter.

The realism of the setting, at times reminiscent of The Wire, jarred with the melodrama of the plot: mild-mannered man forced to take action. It's a story that originates in Hamlet and was brought to perfection in the western. Not even a splendid performance from Spall, who always has the sad and uncomprehending look of a prince being turned into a frog, could save the drama from occasionally degenerating into The Bill. He was well supported by Deborah Findlay as his wife Jill and David Harewood as Robbie, an actor who can alter the atmosphere in your living room as soon as he appears on screen.

But whatever its faults, Gunrush at least had the courage to tackle something rotten in the state of Britain. Unlike Hayley, Cottan is in touch with reality.

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