The Duchess on the Estate, ITV1
The X Factor, ITV1
The Duchess of York dips her infamous toe into life on a notorious Manchester housing estate
Sunday 23 August 2009
Why does Sarah, Duchess of York, bother? She bothers because "as long as she can help people get a voice out" (sic), she will never stop "putting her head above the parapet". It's an admirable sentiment, though one she may wish to revise once the controversy surrounding ITV's The Duchess on the Estate (insert Royal Family meets Royle family gag here) blows over. So the "Fergie backlash (part two)" is upon us, but what has she done this time? She has had the temerity to make a television programme that confronts "broken Britain".
You'd think she would have learnt by now. Through It's a Royal Knockout, a cameo in Friends and a stint as a health and nutrition crusader in The Duchess in Hull, we never forgot the time she, in a change from putting her foot in her own mouth, let someone else do it for her during a dalliance with her financial adviser John Bryan in 1992.
And now the Duchess has decided to bestow her benevolence on Northern Moor, an area of Wythenshawe in southern Manchester that contains one of Europe's largest housing estates. Gun crime, knives, hoodies, boarded-up shops, unemployment ... Northern Moor has it all. Never mind the fact that if you mention Fergie round these parts people will assume you're talking about the United manager, the Duchess has a "broken Britain" bee in her bonnet and nothing is going to stop her on her mission to inject some community spirit through the founding of a local community centre.
Is the area as bad as the programme makers wish us to believe? Let's just say that since the first episode aired more and more residents have gone public in saying that it is no better or worse than many places in Britian and certainly you could find the same bleary-eyed, beer-bottle-carrying young people on almost any of our cities' streets. "Is it boring?" the Duchess asks one. "No. It's not boring. It's shit."
Another, more articulate, member of the gang chips in with: "Don't you think the Government wants it to carry on like this? It keeps everyone happy." But Fergie is in no mood to discuss politics. She mutters something about "empowerment" and how it's "too easy to blame" before moving on, supremely conscious of the minefield she is tip-toeing across.
And how she must have to bite her health-and-nutrition-adviser tongue when she meets her community contact Dawn McGeown. Dawn wastes no time in introducing the Duchess to a family friend, David. Bounding over to meet him, Fergie falls comfortingly back into royal mode and offers a hearty "And what do you do?" David, caught off-guard and desperate for an answer, any answer, eventually splutters, "Er, gardening?"
Luckily, unemployed-mum-of-three-with-a-heart-of-gold Dawn is never far away. Not that Fergie is staying with her. "I could sleep anywhere: a park bench, a bedsit ..." she tells us after having spent the night in a comfortable guest house nearby. In one of the few dramatic moments, Dawn fesses up about her own criminal record. "I don't have one myself," Fergie reassures her, "but I know what it feels like."
Other inadvertently hilarious moments abound: Fergie tells us, "Young people go out with mobile phones and knives. They can't even do joined-up writing, let alone joined-up sentences." Yes. Damn those greengrocer's apostrophes. Not that there are any greengrocers.
This week's conclusion will show how much a community centre really can change the problems at the heart of a society in which the separation between the haves and the have-nots is wider than at any time since Scrooge peered in at Tiny Tim's window. At one point, Fergie realises that "putting Britain back on track" is going to take more than a jolly-hockey-sticks attitude. "I can't imagine," she told us, "what it must be like to live without hope." It was the programme's only genuinely believable moment.
Life without hope? Have these people never heard of The X Factor? This year's array of eccentrics started parading themselves in front of the nation last night, and already the series has built up enough pre-hype to ensure that this summer's extravaganza will be another success. Men in chicken suits, a fragile kid with Asperger's to reboot the whole Susan Boyle debate, the Britain's Got Talent-style live audience at the auditions. All this and the chance to see what effect her pledge to wean herself off Botox will have on Dannii Minogue's face. Should she start melting down under the glare, there is a solution. Someone tell Simon Cowell there is a Duchess ready, waiting and determined to keep her head above the parapet.
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