Channel 4’s smash-hit documentary series Benefits Street is back…with a whole new set of “characters”.
Last year we met the denizens of James Turner Street in Birmingham, with White Dee and Fungi becoming unlikely household names.
This year the cameras have been turned on Kingston Road on the Tilery Estate in Stockton-On-Tees, another area hit hard by recession and economic decline.
And here are the main players…
Julie is a single mother of six including a severely disabled son called Reagan. She and best friend Sue Griffiths – along with their gang of close-knit pals who frequently congregate on each others’ doorsteps to talk – look set to become the stars of the show.
Julie has lived on Kingston Road for more than 20 years. The matriarch of the street, she is the go-to person for residents with problems who respect her no-nonsense advice.
She used to work in the council as a community support liaison officer but had to leave the job 15 years ago when Reagan suffered a stroke aged just nine months, which left him severely brain damaged. “He nearly died in my house,” she reveals in episode one.
With the help of NHS nurses and carers, Julie has dedicated her life to Reagan ever since, providing him with round-the-clock care
Despite life being tough on the street Julie is vocal about the community’s spirit: “Tilery Estate is just marooned in the middle of nowhere and you know what, they’ve put the best people, the salt of the earth, here. People with morals and ethics.”
She is also clear that she did not agree to be filmed to get in the papers.
“We forged a relationship with the film crew. We didn’t do it because we wanted to become famous.”
Mother-of-four Sue has lived on Kingston Road for more than 30 years and says of life on the street: “Everybody is there for each other. If you said to me, there’s a million pounds, you wouldn’t move me.”
Life on the street often revolves around Sue’s front garden where everyone meets to drink tea and share problems.
Sue, 50, used to do bar work at the local racecourse but had to give that up after suffering a breakdown last year that has left her suffering from depression, anxiety and mild agoraphobia.
She feels there’s no shame in having to rely on welfare payments. As she says in episode one: “Just because you’re on benefits doesn’t make you a worse person. We all p**s out the same hole, s**t out the same hole and we come out the same hole.”
Sue told RadioTimes.com that she and her friends intend to watch the first episode together. “We will never fall out,” she adds.
Lee relies on his next door neighbour Julie and the other residents of Kingston Road now more than ever. With every appliance in his home broken, he can’t even cook himself a meal and in episode one we discover that his benefits have been cut.
Lee has been claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for the past year, living on £45 a week after being laid off by the construction company he worked for.
Now Lee, 32, finds himself in a constant battle with both ill health and the benefits system. He has been “sanctioned” for missing an appointment – a new government policy designed to encourage people to get off benefits. He denies missing the appointment but his benefits have been cut anyway.
At one point in the first episode, Lee points out that he is not a shirker. “I like working, me,” he says. “I’ve worked half my life, I’ve haven’t just sat on my arse since leaving school. I’ve worked all over the country. I need to earn some dollars. It’s no good walking the streets and that, I like work.”
Lee’s mum Chrissie, who lives nearby, is the unofficial ‘Bard of Benefits Street’ writing and performing her own poems, which comment on the various ups and downs of life on Kingston Road.
Known locally as the street’s “King of Kids”, Neil Maxwell is a role model to the young boys from the estate that hang around outside his flat. He divides his time between exercising, taking drugs and lying on a sunbed, and risks arrest by turning up late for a court appearance.
Maxwell, 35, has lived on the Tilery Estate for the past nine years. He has a string of convictions for fraud, resisting arrest, dealing drugs and shining laser pens at police helicopters.
In episode one, he is shown smoking a bong and openly admits to drug dealing. However, when it comes to the press that descend on the estate, he is less keen on the limelight. “If I want to be camera-ed, I’d ask you,” he tells a snapper.
Later, he says of the police: “Who do they think I am? Pablo Escobar?!”
Despite claiming that he’s taken “early retirement” from a life of crime, his flat on the corner of the street is still raided by police looking for drugs and weapons. Channel 4 has confirmed that Maxwell is currently serving time in prison for his part in a stabbing.
Nick Mirsky, the head of documentaries at Channel 4, has defended the decision to show Maxwell’s drug-taking, which he says “felt like part of the story.”
Dorothy “Dot” Taylor
Dot lives at the end of Kingston Road with her partner Kev. They have five grown-up children who have left the family home and boast a huge extended family all of whom live on the estate. Every Sunday Dot cooks a roast dinner for her neighbours.
The first episode sees Dot, 48, reacting to being labelled ‘Orange Dot’ in a national newspaper – an apparent reference to her skin colour. There were claims she used her benefits to fund an addiction to fake tan and sun beds. Dorothy is in fact mixed race – her father was Indian – and she told RadioTimes.com that she did not receive an apology for the report.
She says: “Have a look at my face, that’s natural. I think that’s shocking. My dad’s Indian. It’s a bit unreal really, isn’t it? Why would somebody who’s already a half-caste be wanting to put fake tan on?”
Series two of Benefits Street begins on Monday May 11th on Channel 4 at 9pm