Last Night's TV: Home truths make for unsettling viewing
Evicted Update, BBC1; The Secret Millionaire, Channel 4
Thursday 29 November 2007
Sarah, one of the subjects of Brian Woods's Evicted Update, had found a neat way round the shortage of kitchen facilities in the B&B to which her homeless family had been consigned. Before she left for school in the morning she'd choose a suitable tin and leave it on the radiator all day. That way she could enjoy a tepid - possibly even a warm meal - when she got home at night. Heston Blumenthal it wasn't, but Sarah actually managed a smile at this dismally compromised version of home comfort. She showed some ingenuity when it came to the lack of communal space too - throwing open the doors of a wardrobe, lining the bottom with cushions and creating an impromptu schoolroom, where she huddled down with the little girls from the family next door and exercised what was clearly a natural talent for childcare. Happily, last night's film (a modestly revised version of the film that won Woods a Bafta for Single Documentary this year) revealed that Sarah is now pursuing a qualification to work as a nursery assistant. Unfortunately, it couldn't deliver an equally happy ending for all of the families featured in the original documentary.
Woods's film was built around the children of the evicted, a decision that effectively insulated your sense of outrage from any compromising inquiries about how the evictions had come about. There were some explanations as to how these families had found themselves on the street - mistakes made over housing benefit, the closure of hostels, the stringent rules of housing associations - but the explanations were a little sketchy. And had it only been the adults who were trudging from door to door, you might have fretted more about the details. Concentrating on the children - who sometimes set off to school with no idea of where they would be returning later that day - made you set such questions aside as temporarily irrelevant. And when you saw a father bursting into tears as he took his son's poster off the wall, his front of resilience suddenly crumbling, you felt it really didn't matter whether you were looking at a man brought low by bad luck, or by himself.
Nobody in this film actually had to spend a night under an open sky. One way or another they all found a roof by the end of the day, though the strain of never knowing where it would be located, or how long it would be available were immense. Liane, mother of Charlotte and three other children, was literally pulling her hair out - an understandable response to the Kafkaesque circularity of her plight. It is, for example, much harder to find private accommodation if your current address is a DSS hostel and next to impossible to raise a month's rent in advance when you may just have been evicted for being in arrears. Woods interspersed his interviews and filming with statistics in big bold print, the most startling of which was the revelation that at the end of September 2007 there were 1,634,301 families on waiting lists for social housing and that just 4,840 family-sized houses had been built in the last year. At that rate, by my calculation, we should have the problem sorted in 338 years. In the meantime, councils spend close to a billion pounds a year on short-term measures, money that could be far better spent on houses, but for the awkward fact that thousands of people would have nowhere to sleep until they were built.
By the look of things, Terry George, this week's Secret Millionaire, could have put up all three families in his own house and still been pretty sure that he wouldn't bump into them in the corridors. Here, though, he was roughing it, spending a week in one of the rougher areas of Penzance in the hunt for the deserving poor. "Is it genuine?" stammered one of his targets, when he finally unveiled his true identity and handed over a cheque for £12,000. It's a question that occurred to me more than once while watching this, as it has done in previous episodes. Can the participants really turn up in a strange place and light instantly on paragons of valorous struggle? Did Don and Cath, the sparky couple with a disabled daughter, really invite Terry round for tea after meeting him in the local chipshop, or did the production team invite them to invite him? And how could he possibly get a job at a local care home without any background checks or references? I don't doubt the authenticity of the scene in which Terry discovers at first hand how tough it can be looking after incontinent old people - when he'd dashed to the lavatory to throw up I think you could see stuff coming out of his mouth - but the degree to which he has a choice about who he sprinkles his money over is more doubtful. I take it it isn't an option to conclude that they're all whinging losers and he's going to give his cash to Oxfam instead.
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