Benefits Street antidote ‘will not be a safe space for audiences’

Jackie Hagan standing, smoking a cigarette, in front of a wall

By John Pring Disability News Service 25th January 2018


An award-winning disabled poet, performer and stand-up is hoping that her new show – based on more than 80 interviews with disabled and working-class people and benefit claimants – will provide an antidote to reality TV “rubbish” like Benefits Street.

Jackie Hagan’s This Is Not A Safe Space combines poetry, stand-up, story-telling and “just gabbing for the audience”, and several sections where the audience hears recordings of her interviewees.

The aim, she told Disability News Service, is to show the people she interviewed as “real fully-rounded humans rather than two-dimensional things you would read about in the newspaper”.

Hagan says she first became aware of how some people had a “horrific attitude” towards council estates and benefit claimants when she moved from her home town of Skelmersdale to attend university in Manchester in 2000.

She says: “It was like, boom! Culture shock! And it took me a long time to get over it. It made me really ill.”

The anger has been “rumbling” all her adult life, and she adds: “It has taken this long to get to a point where I can write about it because I’ve just been too angry for so long.”

Those thoughts came together after she saw Ken Loach’s much-praised film expose of the disability benefits system, I, Daniel Blake.

She says she is “happy the film exists” but was still left “fuming” by the realisation that Loach had been forced to portray the main character as “a saint” who does not smoke or take drugs or “have a massive telly” so he could secure the audience’s empathy.

In her poem, I Am Not Daniel Blake, part of her new show, she says: “Don’t dismiss us as backward.

“What we are is knackered, from cold, broken homes and a world that says you’re pointless, worthless, should give birth less, shouldn’t spend precious little cash on fags, booze, crap food, drugs, things that make it temporarily better.”

Her new show was commissioned by the disability arts programme Unlimited and Contact Manchester and will be touring the UK in March and April.

Hagan’s writing is beginning to attract serious attention.

She has just been announced as one of five writers selected for the Your Voice, Your Story development scheme run by the hugely successful television production company Hat Trick, known for sitcoms such as Drop The Dead Donkey and Father Ted.

Sky Arts has also shown interest in This Is Not A Safe Space.

Her solo show Some People Have Too Many Legs won the 2015 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show, while her play Cosmic Scallies was commissioned by Graeae and ran at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer.

In previous shows, such as Some People Have Too Many Legs, she says she has tried to “look after” the audience, rather than shock them, and attempt to “make disability fluffy for people”.

This time, she wants her audience to feel “unsettled” and “unsafe”, just like her interviewees, who told her that “people like us need safety nets, but the government thinks they can’t afford them”.

She says: “The interviews I did, safety kept coming up… people worrying about losing their homes, it just kept coming up all the time. Their life is not safe. The idea of safety nets being pulled from underneath us.”

There are two types of people she is hoping to attract to the show: those she wants to educate; and those who are under-represented in theatre, disabled working-class people, who she wants to come and see their lives portrayed on stage.

Although she does not see herself as a political artist and says she has no “grand political plan” with the show, she says that “getting people to change their views on working-class and disabled people is definitely a political thing”.

She hopes to undermine what she sees as the “othering” of people like her – viewing them as less than human – who are working-class, disabled and claiming benefits.

She says: “It’s like people are trying to do that with people who need support, so they don’t have to give them that support, so they don’t need to deal with the problem.

“It’s like if we ‘other’ people enough then people don’t have to feel guilty or a sense of responsibility. My role can be to ‘de-other’ people.”

But she adds: “My skill is not shouting at people, it’s making sure that people understand that these are real people, and that you can empathise with people who aren’t saints, because none of us are.”

The first interviews she carried out were with people she met at the Bluesci arts and wellbeing centre in Trafford, Manchester, where she runs creative writing and poetry workshops, but she then also interviewed people from her home town of Skelmersdale, often finding them by word-of-mouth.

What surprised her in her research, though, was that the interviews were not unremittingly bleak.

“People’s weren’t like, ‘woe is me,’ people were really getting on with it in the face of utter shit,” she says.

“I expected it to be quite gruelling emotionally, but I had a laugh with most people.”

There were “grim” exceptions, such as the landlord who described how six sex workers in the road outside his pub had died in the last year, with one of them freezing to death.

Hagan represents this in the show with a pair of gloves on a table, and her fingers inching towards them.

She uses this kind of “object manipulation” throughout the show, with different objects representing the people she interviewed.

Underlying much of what she heard were concerns about the benefits system, with interviewees often needing to be reassured that their personal independence payment (PIP) claims would not be put at risk by their voices being recognised during the performance.

“People are so scared of PIP and the benefits system,” she says. “If they put a word out of place, [they think] they are going to get done and [they will be] on the streets.

“I wanted to use people’s voices, though, because people are just so interesting. The way people really speak. It’s just so human and nice.

“I think sometimes that theatre misses out on that because it makes things too slick.”

Her own PIP assessment was due to take place this week, and the show features two extreme and contrasting versions of an imaginary assessment.

She says: “I’m partially-sighted, I’ve got one leg, my hands don’t work and I’ve got bipolar, but it’s not enough anymore [to qualify for PIP], is it?”

She has said she wrote the show because she was “sick of seeing people like me misrepresented on rubbish shows like Benefits Street and ignored by theatre” and was “sick of people thinking we all just need to try a bit harder and stop spending our time drinking lager and watching our massive tellies”.

She went through a period of watching Benefits Street. “I felt like I was seeing myself in it, to some degree, but then I realised how other people were viewing it. Not with warmth.

“It was the fact that it was feeding people’s attitudes, that was what was terrifying, [the idea that] people on benefits are pointless.

“You have really got to lead people by the hand into not hating people.”

This Is Not A Safe Space will be at Creation Space, Basingstoke on 1 and 2 March; at the DeStress Fest at the Attenborough Centre, Leicester, on 23 and 24 March; at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, on 30 March; and at Camden People’s Theatre, London, from 17 to 21 April. All performances will be BSL-interpreted

Leave a Reply