Last Night's TV: He can't pocket all of the credit
The Secret Millionaire, Channel 4; CSI: Miami, Five
Wednesday 06 August 2008
For the opening five minutes of last night's The Secret Millionaire, I worried that I might be suffering from format fatigue. James Benamor, the first millionaire of this (third) series, acted like an unpleasant contestant from The Apprentice. He swanned about in his sunflower-yellow Lotus, strode the aisles of his office with a mobile clamped to his ear, stripped to the waist for a round of boxing training, and told the viewer with a hirsute, but entirely straight, face: "There isn't a company out there that we compete with, that I don't want to see smashed into the ground."
Hardly a sympathetic figure then. It turns out the business with which he's amassed his £77m fortune, aged only 30, is a credit company offering loans to people who've been refused them by banks. Scrawled on the office whiteboard, in full view of Benamor's team of twentysomething telesalespeople, was a mantra straight out of the Glengarry Glen Ross playbook: "Don't oversell. Short 'n' sweet. Capture, confirm, close."
So what made Benamor a suitable candidate for Channel 4's instant philanthropy format? After all, he admitted, "I spend my life trying to block out people's need." But as he swapped the Lotus for a Nissan Sunny, and his Bournemouth mansion for 10 days in a Moss Side terrace, we learned he'd been a teen tearaway, getting into scrapes with the law before finding his feet as a young entrepreneur. In Manchester, the city with the highest number of teen Asbos in the country, he was hoping to find troubled young men that he could put on the same path.
Posing as a classroom assistant at the Manchester Settlement, a centre for boys excluded from mainstream education, he came across a young wag named Aidan, who argued with him about the correlation between GCSEs and future wealth. Aidan produced one of those unscripted gems that reality-TV producers dream of: "You're not earning lots of money," he told Benamor, "I've seen your car." The millionaire laughed, and so did the rest of us.
Next, he sought out Ann and Terry, a retired couple whose home is a haven for troublesome boys. In the pair's manifest goodness, you could instantly see people worthy of Benamor's money. Their tender, good-humoured relationships with some pretty mean-looking young men were astounding, and the millionaire was visibly moved, though not to tears.
The requisite "crying bit" came later, when he met Miranda, a member of the local charity Mothers Against Violence, for those who've lost loved ones to violent crime. Miranda, whose 19-year-old son was shot and killed, showed Benamor the boy's school photo, pointing out two more of his classmates who had been shot. But while the hard-nosed Benamor finally blubbed, she just chuckled at her memories and offered to make him a cup of tea.
This show always throws up its fair share of moral quandaries: Should rich people give poor people big cheques and leave it at that? Should we congratulate them for it? Shouldn't they just vote for higher taxes on their own incomes? If the millionaire wants to keep his munificence so mysterious, why's he doing it on television? Not exactly Bruce Wayne, is it? And, as Benamor said after meeting Miranda, "I don't know if it's my place to put a price on a human life."
Sensibly, he chose not to do that; rather than hand Miranda or Aidan cash, he wrote out cheques to the charities that could really help them. When he finally revealed himself as a millionaire (which, by the way, felt "fantastic"), the Settlement, Ann and Terry, and Mothers Against Violence each felt the warm glow of Benamor's generosity – in all, more than £130,000 of it. Cue more crying, this time with added hugs.
Benamor, if not a "better" person by the end of his stay in Moss Side, was certainly one more aware of how the other half lives. But then, handing over money is easy for a man with his bank balance. Much as the secret millionaires are the protagonists of the programme, real heroes are rarely Bruce Waynes. They're "little old ladies" called Ann.
There were troubled youths and everyday heroes over on Five, too, in the first of another series of CSI: Miami. A wealthy businessman turned conscientious parole officer had been shot dead by one of his teen charges, and despite solving the complex crime before supper, David Caruso found time to take off those sunglasses and put them back on again at least 38 times while the Foo Fighters chugged away in the background.
In a world where more and more of us have seen The Wire, CSI simply doesn't cut the mustard any more. It's meant to be a police procedural and, except for the odd burst of sexual tension between implausibly attractive cops, the plot is all about process. But when that process is so utterly preposterous – and we're talking science fiction here – the whole thing just ends up feeling a bit like Midsomer Murders, with tits.
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