How the other half live
TV presenters poking their noses into the lives of Joe Public is nothing new. From telling them what to wear to noseying through their worthless heirlooms via picking apart their home decor and repainting everything in terracotta, the fascination with telling the viewing public what to do has been a staple of mainstream TV for years.
Recently, however, this has taken a new turn. Now we see a worrying trend where the super-rich are being encouraged to have a prod and a poke at some of the country's most unfortunate citizens. A few years ago, politician Michael Portillo attempted to 'raise' a family on benefits for a TV experiment. He was followed by fellow MP Ann Widdecombe raking through the 'lifestyles' of prostitutes and other unfortunates of society.
These invasive shows have now moved up another gear, with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, slumming it on an estate in Hull and nodding and smiling in all the right places as decades of desperation and misery are laid out in front of her. Last week saw iconic soap bitch and notorious Concorde and Champagne devotee Joan Collins commissioning a Bentley and zooming down to Plymouth to inject a bit of glamour into the tired lives of three women. It was hard to tell whether Joan's facial expression was due to bemusement or the years of surgical assistance her line-free visage has enjoyed, but as she quizzed drunk locals about their tattoos, I got the distinct feeling Joanie was out of her depth. Joanie's prescription for glamour seemed to involve going to Primark and picking out outfits she wouldn't be seen dead in. La Collins freely admitted that she shopped in M&S occasionally, but when pressed by her charges into revealing her other favourite shops, she had to confess they'd be more likely to line Bond Street than be found in a gloomy shopping precinct.
Just a week after Joan's relatively harmless crusade to wring glamour out of a New Look cardigan, TV is at it again. '7 Days on the Breadline' takes four famous faces and uproots them from their various bases in LA or London and plonks them in the middle of some of the roughest areas of Leeds, a city I know quite well.
Spice Girl Mel B, fashion fascist Trinny Woodall, rugby player and Strictly Come Dancing twinkletoes Austin Healy and, er, bon viveur Keith Allen have all taken up residence in council estates across the city for a so-called social experiment. Mel has been left in charge of a family of five with just benefits to see her through. Trinny has been paired up with a remarkable elderly lady who sleeps on the sofa as she can't manage the stairs. Austin is with a smaller family who seem to be relatively well-off, but the elder son smokes dope. Finally, Keith Allen is head of the household with a slew of boisterous boys (and one girl) to look after.
We're only one episode in, and this opener was mainly taken up with the celebs meeting their new 'projects' and being shown round their modest abodes. Trinny's pensioner, fantastically, didn't have a clue who she was which knocked the wind out of the style guru's sails. Trinny's not doing too well at fitting in: she was a liability when taken to the local bingo hall and she gasped in horror at the 'all you can eat' Chinese buffet she was taken to afterwards. To her credit, she did unflinchingly empty a commode- albeit down the kitchen SINK rather than the toilet; my mother would have been HORRIFIED- and seemed to genuinely feel empathy for her buddy. Perhaps her 'journey' will be the most revealing.
Elsewhere, Mel B sported an array of lurid tracksuits so she could stand out even more, endured endless catcalls from passing cars and bizarrely seemed to think that free gym memberships for all the brood would help lift them out of their doldrums. That Mel has been in LA too long was clear to see. She asked the extremely reticent children for hugs and spouted forth about 'getting to know each other' and forced family meals upon her squirming, embarrassed charges. All very admirable, but totally alien to your average Leeds youth.
Keith walked around his new home in abject horror, fighting a losing battle to clean and tidy it. The teenagers in his family cause trouble at school so they get sent home. They say they want to join the army. Keith doesn't quite know what to say so re-arranges the kitchen. A shopping trip to Asda is excruciating as Keith peers at every food's origin or fat content before putting anything in the trolley, pushed by a resentful teen who'd rather be in bed.
Austin's faring a little better so far. His works has thus consisted of gruffly calling in the teens for dinner and then having big manly chats about 'cannabis' over the meal, the awkwardness of his words ringing off the walls like a pealing church bell.
But why do we need these programmes? Do we need famous people undergoing a culture shock to make serious social issues more appealing, more entertaining? Would a hard-hitting documentary be roundly ignored?
Are these shows really highlighting the plight of the 7 million people who live below the breadline in the UK and bringing it into the wider consciousness? Or are we enjoying a little bit of poverty tourism, where we can watch in horror at the celebrities picking their way through dirty washing, thanking our lucky stars that we can afford our little luxuries? Before switching off and thinking about something else entirely.