WOULD you like to live like a millionaire? It’s a question guaranteed to make you stop and think. When it is asked of you at the school gate though, by a researcher from a television company handing out flyers, you have to do more than pause. You have to start asking some questions yourself.
This woman informed me she had been sent to find “hardworking low income families” to take part in a reality show for ITV. This would involve the chosen family swapping places with a millionaire’s family “to experience the lifestyle and see what they might learn from each other”.
Is it just me or is there something offensive, even repugnant, about this proviso? There she was with her London accent punting at a school gate in a village in the Barnsley district. What brought her here, except the prospect of ramming home once again all the hoary old clichés about my home town on national television?
I asked her why this school gate, and why Barnsley. She said she was looking at a number of locations. I can imagine how Barnsley was chosen though. Somebody at her production company will have heard that we have high levels of social deprivation, poor examination results, youth unemployment, obesity and all the other indicators which give us social problems. And they will have thought – bingo – there must be someone here desperate to swap the pound shop for Harvey Nichols.
I was insulted by this assumption for a start. I was insulted too at the prospect that if she did manage to find someone, as soon as they got on TV, we would all be made to look like ignorant, illiterate fools. Cue the Hovis music and laugh at the dim northerners who only just manage to recognise a bathroom.
Okay, you might think I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. Perhaps I have, but it’s for a reason. And I can assure you that my dismay goes beyond that. There is something morally wrong in offering to transform a family’s life for a fortnight by allowing them to “live like a millionaire”. And then what? Back to the council house and the scratch-cards? The flyer even had a picture of money on it. I presume the television company assumed that some of us up here can’t actually read. And what of the “millionaires” themselves? What kind of self-aggrandising individual wants to open up their home to “ordinary” people just to prove how well they personally have done in life? Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Above all though, what kind of message did it send to those children piling out of the gate? No need for hard work at school, no need to pass exams, no need to get a job. Just wait around long enough and your fortunes will be transformed by a researcher from reality TV. What about raising aspirations? Encouraging young children to become entrepreneurs and make their own money?
I don’t suppose that makes good television though. If she did manage to find a willing family, I can guarantee you one thing: they would end up used and abused on the cutting room floor. They would be made to look daft as well as desperate. And the end result would be a confection of half-truths and sensationalism dressed up as entertainment.
If that woman really is interested in exploring social equality, I’ll take her just a few miles away to Wombwell. Some of you might know this small former mining town just outside Barnsley. One recent Saturday morning, I sat on a bench to watch the world go by as I waited for my daughter to finish her dancing class. As I observed the early-morning drinkers outside the pub, and listened to the tattooed mothers haranguing their children, I saw the Labour candidate for Barnsley East, Michael Dugher, crossing the road to take up his position at his campaign stall.
As I watched him negotiate the buses and the laden pushchairs and the horse and cart trotting up the road, it struck me that Wombwell really is a million miles from Westminster. How does its MP begin to even start to explain such a place to his Parliamentary colleagues from Slough say, or Surrey Heath? How can they understand if they only ever see places like this through the distorted lens of the television camera?
I’ll tell you what though, just a few miles from this dilapidated town centre I could take you to several houses which I know for sure belong to millionaires. These are the homes of self-made men and women who have worked hard all their lives, and ploughed their enterprise into their families. They did it stolidly. They did it without seeking publicity or expecting the world to fall at their feet. I could take that woman to meet them too, but they wouldn’t dream of asking the cameras of reality TV into their kitchen to prove a point. If she really wants the true story about the haves and have-nots round here though, she should look much further than handing out flyers at the school gate.