Mary Queen of Charity Shops, BBC2

My Monkey Baby, Ch4

Mary's no-nonsense attitude would clean-up the Commons, but her new show also has plenty of dirty laundry

Don't even think about Joanna Lumley and Esther Rantzen. If there is one female celebrity I would like to see whip the House of Commons and, indeed, the country into shape, it's Mary Portas. The first episode of the pin-sharp retail guru's new three-part series Mary Queen of Charity Shops (BBC2) would make a pretty good campaign reel.

The show reprises the original Queen of Shops formula, which usually pans out along the following lines: arrive at clothing shop that has apparently been teleported to Britain from Soviet Russia; lock horns with surly staff while dispensing radical advice such as be nice to customers; increase profits by 1,000 per cent; return home garlanded with glory.

This time around, Portas has set herself the trickier task of reversing the miserable fortunes of an underperforming branch of Save the Children in Kent. The charity shop twist is apposite, but one wonders whether the programme-makers realised the extent to which it would surpass its vogueish make-do-and-mend niche. For, at its most engaging, it became a troubling exposé of notions of charity today.

The endearing but unruly band of elderly volunteers who staffed the shop turned out to be the least of Portas's problems (though whoever came up with the "children and animals" adage clearly never worked with OAPs). The real sticking points that hindered Portas in performing her usual magic stemmed from the curious collision of charity and capitalism at the heart of such an operation.

Most of us will happily put some no-strings cash into a collection tin, but an entirely different circuit board lights up in the brain once we get inside a shop, wherever the proceeds may be going. Shoppers are, more than ever, hardwired to look for a good deal, so the assortment of tat that Portas encountered as she helped sift through dirty underwear, mud-caked rugby boots and a semi-fossilised leather jacket was never going to cut it.

Portas's solution was to get volunteers knocking on doors to impress the need for decent stock upon the community. Good idea, but what did they get? More of the same, only slightly less grimy. With the boom in sites such eBay and Freecycle, it's easy for people to just flog anything that's worth selling, and pocket the cash, leaving only dross for donations.

It might have been a depressing demonstration of what the haves think the have-nots deserve, but it left me wondering if it's really our charitable spirit that's at fault or the charity industry itself – for that's what it is – that has mushroomed in recent years, mixing business with benevolence to confusing effect. Perhaps people would have donated more thoughtfully if their money had been going directly to those in need.

Regional manager Nick, a David Brent-alike who I assume is on the payroll, was enough to make me think twice about giving to charity in future if even a penny of my cash is destined for his wage packet.

Of course, Portas too stands to gain from her involvement, but when the pragmatic exterior slipped and she got a bit teary-eyed in frustration as she went back to the drawing board at the end of the show, I believed that she genuinely cared. Downcast but undefeated, she vowed to battle on.

I came over a bit teary myself watching My Monkey Baby. Expecting a few sly sneers at the folly of the three monkey-owning couples featured in the programme (apparently there are many thousands more in America these days), what I got was a portrayal of a distorted kind of parenthood, undercut by profound sadness.

There were plenty of moments of abject ridiculousness. Sixty-something Lori shopping for frou-frou outfits for "Jessie", who ate doughnuts and sherbert but refused bananas. Hippy-chick Mary-Lynne handing her mobile phone to "Silly Willy" for him to talk to an animal psychic. Young couple Jesus and Carmen pushing the newly-adopted "Butter" around a supermarket in a pram.

But it was the gently procured, very human, personal histories that illuminated and moved. Lori had five children but hadn't spoken to them in years. Mary-Lynne, who had had a medically necessary hysterectomy, cried as she read out a letter from a step-child from a previous marriage. Jesus elected to have a vasectomy at 22 as unspecified problems with his father had left him convinced that he should not risk the same by having offspring of his own.

Adopting a pet as a child substitute is nothing new. But there was something disturbing in the choice of animal. For while the primates' genetic and physical proximity to humans made them all the more beguiling to their owners, I was struck by the pets' apparent indifference. There seemed to be none of the engagement or comprehension manifest between a dog and its owner, which made their parental adoration all the more pathetic.

One of my great fears used to be dying alone, surrounded by cats. Now I think it is dying with a pet monkey.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album