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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Money Talks. Unfortunately.

I’m not normally one to prattle on about stuff on the telly, on the grounds that I’m not a TV reviewer, and I couldn’t be as funny as Charlie Brooker if I wanted to be, but I’m making an exception for last night’s Secret Millionaire.

This was, without doubt, one of the most offensive and insulting pieces of television I’ve seen in a very long time.

Channel Four has always been good at giving airtime to people with socially unpleasant attitudes – the recent 100% English documentary, in which the programme-makers were threatened with legal action by an English bigot whose DNA was proved to be, to her obvious horror, Romany gypsy – is a great case in point. However, the purpose of that programme was to show its subjects the error of their ways, to prick their pomposity.
In Secret Millionaire, things couldn’t be more different. The concept of the show is this: a wealthy person goes ‘undercover’ in a poor community, in order to judge which of the people they meet they regard as ‘worthy’ of their financial help. Yes, really.

So what you get – or certainly what we got last night in north east businessman John Elliott – is the wholly uncomfortable sight of a bigoted,narrow-minded curmudgeon being given an entirely non-critical platform to vocalise his ill-thought-out prejudices. Instead of gently dissuading the man of his illogical and offensive beliefs however (as Andrew Graham Dixon did so effectively in 100% English), Elliott is actually supposed to be congratulated for his efforts, on the grounds that he makes a paltry £17K donation at the end of the show (from what they tell us is a personal wealth of £60m. £60m and he still chooses to drive a BMW. Draw your own conclusions). It makes me nauseous.

This is a man who goes to a centre for asylum seekers and, despite cheerfully admitting to knowing nothing about their lives, nonetheless expresses his surprise when what he finds there is – gasp! – actual real life asylum seekers, and not, as he puts it, “scroungers”. He meets a man from Kenya, a qualified accountant (“I don’t know whether he can’t get a job because of racism, or because he’s just not good enough,” muses John in one of his least offensive monologues) who politely explains that the reason he is living in England is because he was persecuted in Kenya, and imprisoned, for organising pro-democracy student demonstrations. “Ah, so you were a bit of a troublemaker?” asks John, with all the political sophistication of a small wet whelk.

This is a man who gets invited round for dinner at the home of a local family and, having had a plate of home-cooked food placed in front of him, proceeds to ask questions such as, “so, how many adults do you have living in this house?” in an almost painfully earnest, clodhopping and insensitive manner. I was quite surprised he didn’t ask whether they were forced to pee in a bucket in the yard and eat coal for breakfast. So clunky was his approach, in fact, that I swear the daughter of the house rumbled him: one “we have two children and we can’t afford the deposit for a house” conversation later, and she has her deposit, thus proving inaccurate Elliott’s seeming assumption that poverty and intelligence are mutually exclusive things.

This is a man who doesn’t even have the emotional or intellectual sophistication to examine the concept of ‘deserving and undeserving rich’ alongside his entirely immoveable belief in the notion of ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ - although what’s perhaps more amazing about that is that the programme-makers don’t even force him to. Throughout the programme, Elliott does several short pieces to camera, in which he by turn bemoans the fact that there aren’t enough cap-doffing, lickspittle proles around upon which to shower his meager offerings (the idea that a person could be both poor and proud doesn’t seem to have occurred to him), and expresses his surprise upon finding that immigrants are not all hunchbacked thieves and urchins. Who’d have thunk it! However, not once does the programme suggest that some contrition on his part might be in order. He’s RICH, remember, he doesn’t have to apologise for anything!

Secret Millionaire (at least judging by this episode) is, in conclusion, a horribly obsequious programme, about the kind of people who see nothing even vaguely unpleasant about wanting to ‘vet’ a person’s worthiness of charity before they’re prepared to put their hands in their pockets. I don’t seem to remember Bill Gates, Ted Turner or even Anita Roddick insisting on personally checking people’s charity-worthiness before committing billions to helping those who need it. I mean, it’d probably be a bit impractical for Bill and Melinda to assess whether or not each AIDS sufferer or African farmer that they help support is “deserving” or whether they could be “doing more to help themselves”, after all.

Everyone knows that a large part of people’s motivation for donating to charity is to feel good about themselves, and to assuage their guilt at being on the favourable side of a grotesquely unequal world. However, to give a man with such tedious Daily Mail views as John Elliott’s his own ‘I’m a great guy I am!” show, to allow him to prance about like Father Christmas, ‘revealing’ that he’s got a few quid to spare, and basking in the resultant adoration of his selected recipients? Ugh. Grotesque. Channel Four, really, you must try harder.
Oh, and how sizeable was Elliott’s “helping change people’s lives” cheque for the asylum centre, you ask?
£7.5K for a voluntary-funded asylum charity, John? You want to be hailed a hero for £7.5K? Sadly, the centre is desperate for cash and so was forced to gratefully accept your paltry handout-with-conditions-attached. Shame – the only way this programme could’ve ended with any dignity at all would’ve been if they’d have filmed the centre manager sticking the cheque up your pompous, overfed arse.

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