TELEVISION / Prize fight

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The Independent Culture
'HE'S of no fixed abode . . . we found him on the streets of London . . . Jimmy Gallagher will you COME ON DOWN AND OUT]' And to the sound of synthetic whooping the studio audience disgorges an individual for his 15 minutes of fame in Channel 4's game show for the homeless. The titles were great - a jaunty, stop-action animation which showed figures lofted on to little clouds with houses on them and then one unlucky soul tumbling downwards, past little icons of domestic bliss, until he ends up in a cardboard box on a rubbish heap. Zoom into a door drawn on the front of the box and welcome to your perky host, Andrew O'Connor. Over the next 30 minutes Jimmy will compete with a single mother and a bankrupt businessman for a dream home.

Whatever else Channel 4 was doing with Come On Down and Out it was certainly not skimping on the pastiche. As most viewers had probably discovered by the time the programme was broadcast, the whole thing was a spoof, designed to tweak our consciences. As spoofs go it went extremely well, presenting an impeccable dead-pan for the first half and then increasingly tugging at your credulity. Even a very trusting viewer would probably have been alerted by the Beadle-like practical jokes (taking the single-mother's child into care) after which the studio audience were asked to vote on who they felt most sorry for. By the time the finalist was fobbed off with a set of patio furniture ('at least they're weatherproof') it was pretty clear that this was Swiftian in spirit rather than Sadistic.

I would guess that homeless people have a lot to worry about before they begin agonising over the propriety of a television show which is attempting to increase awareness of their plight (though The Big Issue, the newspaper run by the homeless, did attack the programme). But the principal defence for all such exercises is whether they work and this way of delivering the grim facts (the homeless are 150 times more likely to be assaulted and suicide is the principle cause of death) seems likely to be as effective as a documentary. But I couldn't shake one nagging thought - if it had been real we would know that there was one less person on the streets and how many documentaries could boast that?

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