Tower Block of Commons, Channel 4
True Stories: Moving to Mars, More4
Politicians who togged up for life in a local tower block seemed less at home than a Burmese family relocating to Sheffield
Sunday 07 February 2010
What's that? "A petard." And what are you going to do with that? "I'll be hoisting myself by it later." Excellent. What with one thing and another (one thing being the expenses scandal, the other Iraq), politicians aren't exactly flavour of the month. And that's among people who have the faintest idea of what they do ....
Scene: the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, east London. Two people sit awkwardly on a sofa. "I'm Iain Duncan Smith," declares the Woodford Green MP to his host, 19-year-old Charise, who clearly has no idea who this man is, nor why he thinks she should know. "I'm a politician." Exit Charise's eyes, rolling upwards.
One wonders quite what the four politicians who agreed to spend a week on various council estates were hoping to get out of Tower Block of Commons. IDS says he likes the idea of taking politicians out of their comfort zone and making them sweat a bit. Until he's made to sweat a bit. Forced to wear a Nike hoodie so he doesn't stand out (ahem), he joins Charise outside for a chat with her friends. "What age was you when you lost your virginity?" they ask. Cue much stammering and a polite refrain from answering. But why, Iain? Wouldn't it be an interesting sociological discussion to have with three young girls from east London? His inquisitors make up their own mind, anyway. "He was at boarding school, innit." Iain laughs gaily along.
Mr Charisma has to pop off after Day One, for personal reasons, but he leaves us with no doubt as to what he's learnt: "The high-flown, wonderful words that are used and the games that are played [in Westminster] are about as relevant as a hip-pocket in a shirt to these people," he concludes. To which the only possible response is: who says things like that? Is there a time warp in the Commons that sends us politicians from the 1930s?
Enter Labour MP for Grimsby, Austin Mitchell, a man born in 1934. Now 75, he's given a flat of his own rather than bunking on a resident's couch (it's like a second home, bada-boom-tish), and his wife comes with him. Is that petard ready yet? They've travelled all the way down the road from Austin's constituency, to the Orchard Park estate in Hull. "It looks a bit like a prison," says Mrs Mitchell, helpfully. "If I was Kirstie Allsopp, what would I say ...." Orchard Park is not meant for Location, Location, Location – and Linda is clearly not meant for Orchard Park. Noting a perfectly serviceable sofa, she decides she'd like something higher in the back and a different colour. Why not call in Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen while you're at it? Off to the furniture shop they trot.
To be fair, Tory Tim Loughton and Lib Dem Mark Oaten get on with the job, actually learning something from their hosts; Oaten even goes so far as to get a petition going to have the mould-ravaged tower block knocked down. But it's clear that neither is entirely comfortable in their new homes (no matter how hard you try to get down with the yoot with those crazy dance moves, Tim).
Settling down much better are two displaced Burmese Karen families, who travel from a refugee camp in Thailand to a new life in Sheffield in Mat Whitecross's affecting documentary Moving to Mars. Only a cynic would say Thaw Htoo had an inkling he'd be UK-bound one day (his and Tutu Paw's third child, after Tu Wah and La She Wah, is named Elizabeth), but he has an excellent English vocabulary (and knowledge of prime ministers – though how far that will get him is questionable), and the nous to know what to pack: alongside the books go five umbrellas.
Indeed, the cold and rain seem the worst of the problems experienced by the two families. Quite how long their "unmeasurable happiness" in this "paradise" will last is unclear, given the difficulty they have finding work, but what is certain is that they see hope for the future, particularly in their children's education. A hope that seems so sadly missing from those tower-block residents.
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