C4’s latest social documentary doesn’t sound like much fun. It has all the signs of an irritating fly-on-the-wall filler show: middle aged women complaining about things, vacant shots of urban skyscapes, an alliterative title. But no - Benefit Busters is surprisingly good television.
The program follows a group of jobseekers at “a private sector training business” (AKA hopeless recruitment firm) called A4e. The program is a black comedy in that it depicts sacked and smug lorry drivers in their forties building papier mache animals with sticky tape and loo rolls, Blue Peter style, as a “teamwork exercise” while others sit around giving emotionally drained accounts of their decade long search for menial employment.
Interviews are also conducted with A4e bosses and government officials, some offering insightful limbs to the show’s running debate over the UK’s unemployment crisis, while other allegedly important individuals offer bafflingly inarticulate, contradictory and shapeless arguments.
The series is gripping because not only is it well 'casted' and extremely well paced, with its clear character division of those who earn and those who don’t, but the show's makers evidently care a lot for their subject. Racist opinions emerge regularly from various jobseekers, but their politically incorrect and incoherent prejudice is documented in the most respectful manner, almost structuring some kind of audience empathy for their hatred of “them immigrants like”.
Mark Pilkington (pictured below) is a sincere and yet cynical ex-soldier who desperately wants to work in a factory. He is one of the program’s most interesting narratives, as he curbs his temper and genuinely strives to cooperate with A4e’s administrational complexities. His dream is to have a reason to get out of bed early in the morning, enjoy the companionship and banter of some work mates, and to be able to buy his girlfriend some hair dye and a chinese take-away.
Matthew Cracknell, who composed from scratch the music that accompanies the series, manipulates the jaunting genre of documentary soundtracks very skilfully too, capturing the ebullient and care-free attitudes of streetwise lifelong jobseekers while also heightening the lament of single-mother-sob-stories. Who knew a council estate in Hull could evoke such romantic melancholy?
Interesting, funny, informative and eye-opening. Well done C4. You’re certainly proving your worth as a PSB to this blog.
Review of C4's Benefit Busters, Jack of Hearts, Jack Cullen