My first thought about Tower Block of Commons, even before I watched the thing, was this: all those keen and eager minds that must have worked on the production, and none of them could come up with a better title. The concept, taking four MPs from their well-feathered nests and making them live for a week on high-rise council estates, is fine, a kind of political version of Wife Swap. But Tower Block of Commons? It's so clunkingly obvious, it might be the result of a brainstorming session in a primary-school classroom. Perhaps it was.
The four MPs were Mark Oaten (Lib Dem), Austin Mitchell (Labour), Tim Loughton and Iain Duncan Smith (both Conservative), at least until Duncan Smith had to withdraw after only a day, having received a phone call telling him that his wife had cancer. Clearly this was shattering news for the former Tory leader, but as a small mercy it offered a legitimate escape from the east London flat in which he was lodging, and where he looked precisely as comfortable as his landlady, 19-year-old Charise, might feel on the Opposition front bench during Prime Minister's Questions. On the other hand, maybe Charise would be just the ticket for PMQs, having shown her ability to wrong-foot a fellow by asking Duncan Smith how old he was when he lost his virginity. "I'm going to pass on that one, if you don't mind," he said. Spoilsport.
The remaining three MPs seemed scarcely happier, but Oaten and Loughton at least played the game, bunking down in the front rooms of flats in, respectively, Dagenham and Birmingham. Mitchell, sent to Hull, declined to do this. He said he'd only take part if he and his wife, Linda, could have their own flat, but then he is 75, so I suppose he can be excused. It was harder to excuse his jaw-dropping naivety. "You've still got older people living in the same block of flats as druggies?" he asked Selina, the 29-year-old former prostitute, former drug-dealer and recovering heroin addict assigned to show him the sights, which included used syringes on pavements and the inside of her methadone dispensary. Later, he confessed that he'd thought reports of widespread drug problems on such estates amounted to "folklore".
I've always rather admired old Austin, but so far he has done himself few favours in this series. Almost more damaging than anything, there was a clip of him at a friend's dinner party – during a brief, cheating sabbatical from the tower block – wearing one of those cardboard bibs with a painted bow tie. Can a veteran Labour MP, with decades of community service behind him, be branded a pillock on the basis of a glimpse of him wearing a novelty bib at the dinner table? I think he can.
Meanwhile, Oaten and Loughton were comporting themselves with a little more dignity. In the former's case, this is still a challenge following the revelations four years ago of his affair with a rent boy, which in Dagenham were unhelpfully dragged up by a gang of lads passing him in a corridor. But far more scandalous and worthy of the News of the World's baleful attentions, in the opinion of his host, Cathy, was his good fortune in landing, with his first-ever ticket, four numbers on the National Lottery. You only had to see Cathy's rotting, mildewed bathroom, to realise that she had a point. Still, to his credit, Oaten seemed genuinely outraged by the grimness of tower-block life. Before he got there, he'd assumed he'd be spending his week "eating lots of McDonald's and watching Coronation Street", an all-too revealing notion, doubtless prevalent in the insulated Wesminster Village, of how Britain's other, less privileged half live.
It might still come as a surprise to Mark Oaten, but it's possible to enjoy Coronation Street – and heck, even the odd quarter-pounder with medium fries – from the comfort of a middle-class, centrally heated home. Last night's double-header, indeed, represented one of those classic Corrie evenings in which nothing much happens, but fails to happen so exquisitely that you feel faintly sorry for those who don't share the habit.
In the cafe, Roy (the marvellous David Neilson) was warning punters off the lemon drizzle cake – "due to an unfortunate spillage in the baking process, it's more of a downpour" – while in the Websters' front room Tyrone (Alan Halsall) was on his seventh ginger cream but expressing his suspicion of the entire ginger-cream concept: "I love ginger nuts and I love cream, but putting the two of them together, it's just overkill." Elsewhere, Becky (Katherine Kelly) seemed to have come to terms with pregnancy, her initial concern being that she might prove as poor at parenting as her own mother, who conceived her in a stairwell and was prone to horrible tantrums, once dropping the video recorder out of a flat nine floors up when "it chewed up Tootsie". Fiction, it seems, has a better handle on the realities of life in some council tower-blocks than some, if not most politicians.
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