The Weekend's Television: The Secret Millionaire, Sun, Channel 4
Chris Moyles's Quiz Night, Sun, Channel 4
How the other half gives
Monday 23 March 2009
I don't know where Sir Fred Goodwin is right now, and whether he's currently working on a plan to make it safe for him to walk the streets without body armour, but he, or his image consultants, might do worse than take a look at The Secret Millionaire, Channel 4's outreach programme for very rich people who want to feel a little better about their standing in society.
It might be objected that Sir Fred's problem is precisely that he's not a secret millionaire at all, and that it would be tricky for him to pass unrecognised (or unstoned) through the mean streets of Britain. But for every 20 people whose lips curl as they say his name, I imagine there's only one or two who could actually pick him out in an identity parade, and not many of those are going to be found desperately trying to scrape it through the week on income support.
The idea of The Secret Millionaire is simple: somebody who is cash-rich but self-respect-poor trades a little of the former for a bit of the latter. They go undercover in a deprived area, talk to local charities and needy cases and then finally unveil themselves, scattering cheques on the deserving poor, who (understandably, given the fairy-godmother nature of the reveal) tend to fall upon them in tears of gratitude. Put like this, it sounds repulsive, and I haven't yet seen an episode that hasn't contained a queasy flutter of condescension and self-aggrandising display. But the series is preserved from contempt by three things: it shows you elements of British life that only very rarely make it on to prime-time television; it illuminates the work of people for whom charity is a tough, daily sacrifice; and, finally, it is virtually impossible not to tear up a little when those people discover that the world has given them a break for once.
Sir Fred shouldn't be worried that he has no established track record when it comes to putting the needs of others before his own. That's an advantage for the format. As is a blinkered ignorance about how the other half lives. Kevin Morley, a former Rover executive, was something of a prodigy in this respect. "Do real people live in a place like this?" he said aghast, as he looked round the drab but perfectly serviceable Haringey flat in which he was going to lodge during his trip to the underbelly. Like that and far worse, Kevin, as he was just about to find out. He was so startled to find that there was such a thing as a male single parent that he kept returning to the subject wonderingly: "I can't get me head round single dads... single mums, yeah... but single dads!" As he railed against the provision of decent housing and the lack of decent play facilities, I found myself hoping that someone might ask a searching question: "We're thinking of putting the top rate of tax up to 45 per cent, Kevin... would that get your vote?"
But he could hardly be accused of stinginess when it came to handing out the cash. The local playgroup organisers got £15,000 for new equipment and £60,000 to cover staff costs, a homeless charity scooped the jackpot with £150,000 as the deposit for a house to serve as emergency accommodation, while Neil, a single dad whose existence Kevin had been forced to accept, got £10,000 to furnish his new house. "Who would ever think they're going to meet a millionaire and they're going to go, 'Here's £10,000,' and completely sort your life out for you?" Neil said, all choked up. An ever-increasing number of people, I would have thought, given that this is already the fourth series. I'm assuming that every charity worker in Britain now starts getting their hopes up when a well-spoken volunteer turns up with a camera crew in tow. But if Sir Fred is quick, he could just get in there before the kudos-for-cash deal has to be finally withdrawn.
The DVD for the pilot of Chris Moyles's Quiz Night came with some stern small print on it: "Content and guests must not be written about from this non-broadcastable pilot," it said. And since last night's transmission was after my deadline, I can't really comment about what was in the programme that actually went out either. But the pilot would have had to go into a kamikaze dive if last night's show turned out to be a dud, because the dry run that I saw was anything but non-broadcastable. It pains me to say this, since I still carry the scars of earlier Moyles forays into television, but the format inventively taps into the appetite for tabloid trivia and gossip, and its presenter is sharp, fast and funny, and considerably less self-indulgent than he is on his Radio 1 show. If you like Moyles, you'll probably love it. But even if you loathe him, you might find it startlingly bearable.
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