Television Reviews: Beg To Differ and The Travel Show

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The Independent Culture
"I AM THE capitalists' nightmare - the educated intelligent person who just doesn't want a job," said Annie Byfield, introducing a new series called Beg to Differ (C4) last week. She was delivering this link, or something similarly smug, on the Dockland's Light Railway - a heaving illustration of the rat-race lifestyle she was denouncing. At which point one of the oppressed rodents told her to shut up because he was trying to read his newspaper. Byfield was outraged to have her diatribe interrupted, but I let out an involuntary cheer for this hero of bourgeois endurance. He could probably just about cope with the fact that his labour was paying for her indolence, but to be harangued for his dull conformity was more than flesh could bear.

Byfield had satisfied herself that she wasn't exploiting anyone by calculating that her weekly benefit only cost each working viewer 0.3 pence a year, and she illustrated what this miniscule sum might otherwise buy you - a tiny shard of Mars Bar or a four-inch square from a daily newspaper. This was unwise, I thought - as both looked better deals than Byfield's self-satisfied philosophising. In any case she does seem to want a job... as long as the job in question is presenting Beg to Differ, a television spin-off from The Big Issue which was described in the opening episode as "the show that gives a voice to Britain's underclass". This partly means soundbites from groggy men - ("11 men kicking a bag of wind about - it's a load of shite it is," slurs James. "Spare me the price of a cup of tea," mumbles Douglas) - which offer a service to any viewers who forgot to get shouted at on the way home. But it also means longer reports in which homeless reporters follow up some conceit - in last week's episode, for instance, a man tried to rebrand homelessness in line with Cool Britannia; the focus groups suggested hygiene might be the big obstacle to widespread public acceptance so the reporter went into Boots to buy a bag of mixed toiletries. "Tough on grime and tough on the causes of grime," he said before setting off to give grooming advice to Birmingham's down-and-outs. One man looked curious when offered after- shave, but lost his temper when he was told he wasn't allowed to drink it. This week, Byfield touted a designer's version of the cardboard box shelter round potential consumers (who pointed out that an inflammable purple foam igloo might attract the wrong kind of caller) and Peter Jones asked Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for tips on how to cook discarded food. Fearnley-Whittingstall mashed up a fruit smoothie with the help of a six-foot length of wood wrapped in polythene and ice begged from a fast-food outlet.

These items are entertaining and tangentially informative about life on the streets, but as a whole, Beg to Differ suffers from a certain confusion about whether ordinary life is an oppressive deception from which the homeless are lucky to escape or a basic human right unfairly withheld. The title suggests the former - these are free spirits not casualties - but the items themselves argue otherwise. In terms of sheer visual style and coherence, the best thing in these first two programmes has been a short item called "Objects of Desire", in which homeless people nominate their own desideratum. Last week, in a beautifully filmed 40-second slot, Sam Lyons spoke longingly of a photo-card, a sign of identity which is also a badge of employment, while this week Stan Burridge hymned the homogenising power of the business suit. Both pieces had a simple candour which was missing from some other contributions and both reminded you that for quite a few homeless people differing is not all that appealing. "Beg to Be the Same" might be a more honest title.

In an entertaining edition of The Travel Show (BBC2) Juliet Morris ended up in Almaty - capital of Kazakhstan and something of a challenge to the cliches of shopping opportunity and scenic splendour. Not since Andy Kershaw visited North Korea and discovered the only souvenirs available were blue plastic washing up bowls has there been a less appealing pitch for the tourist pound. "Almaty is not beautiful, but it feels very real," concluded Morris bravely - which was as good as saying "Don't go!" Reality, one feels, is something that the average Travel Show viewer cannot bear very much of.