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.Reuse content