As I struggle to have anything resembling a social life I live vicariously, watching the characters in soaps. I lie on the settee as they attend works’ Christmas parties, sit in cosy pubs or posh bars, eat in cafés and restaurants or find work without leaving the street, square or village.
Then I wonder: why does no one mention the dole? No character seems to be simply unemployed or in need of Incapacity Benefit.
It turns out the average Brit spends a year watching soaps – an entire year imagining work is easy to find, benefits are abnormal and struggling nobly to make ends meet is better than taking a handout from the state despite having paid many, many years of tax and national insurance contributions … worse still, characters are fiddling benefits.
Last night Mo in Eastenders was found to be fiddling the benefit payments of Jean. How she does this is beyond me but it is the basis of many a soap view of people on benefits: cheating is the norm.
Meanwhile, Billy Mitchell spends every minute in Eastenders trying to earn a few quid, lives in a squat with his granddaughter and does any job thrown his way. Why doesn’t he sign on? He could have some money to rely on for him and whatever she is called.
In Coronation Street – where everyone finds work in the factory and they live ten to a two-up-two-down – no one seems to sign on. Little Chesney Brown sells Christmas trees outside his house or dog-related tat on a market stall while his pregnant girlfriend stresses about losing their home. Why does he not claim housing benefit?
Ali Spencer was on benefits in Emmerdale but gave it up to make ends meet and earn a living cleaning the Woolpack. This is, of course, fair enough but was an unemployed character willingly accepting benefits too much for a soap to show in 2011?
Characters’ problems are rarely shown in context with the economic situation – even when soaps make efforts to drop in last-minute references to the deaths of pop stars, as Eastenders did with Michael Jackson.
Some representations can be less sympathetic as benefit fraud rears its ugly head. Eddie Windass, in Weatherfield, was a taxi driver while fiddling Incapacity Benefit. Keith Miller, in Walford, was reported for benefit fraud. He was, though, later revealed to be illiterate, despite a fascination and ability to recite animal documentaries, to ensure some sympathy. Dawn Woods in Emmerdale took odd jobs to make ends meet but was shopped by an ex and spent three weeks in jail.
The 80s, of course, brought us many unemployment-related dramas in Boys from the Blackstuff, Brookside revealed the embarrassment of middle class unemployment (before everyone on the soap also lost their jobs) and Arthur Fowler, in Eastenders, was jailed for nicking the Christmas Club money while unemployed.
Today we consistently see Billy, Chesney and Ali as individually responsible for their situation: circumstances are against them, they’re unlucky, things can only get better.
One can’t help but think that soap writers are being fooled into thinking viewers believe the rubbish they read in the Mail and Express.
As soaps strive to have realistic themes – albeit in a shallow form – and have storylines about teen pregnancy, murder, incest, domestic violence, homelessness, rape let’s have someone struggling on the dole. I need a character to relate to while I’m stuck in watching TV.