Famous, Rich & Jobless; Retail Therapy…

by John Boland

Prime Time and The Front Line are always fretting about unemployment, but who needs their dry analyses and numbing statistics when instead you could be watching celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin scrounging for a living?

That, at any rate, was the premise of Famous, Rich and Jobless (BBC1), which invited four celebs to abandon their customary creature comforts and seek work while forced to survive on  the job seekers’ allowance of ten quid a day.

Celebs? Well, I’d never heard of interior designer Meg Matthews, though apparently for her sins she was once hitched to Noel Gallagher. Nor was I familiar with Emma Parker Bowles, niece of Camilla and, according to the breathless narrator, former drink-and-drugs “wild child.” And given my aversion to EastEnders, I’m afraid I also knew nothing of sixty-something actor Larry Lamb.

So that left Diarmuid, who, we were told, had memories of unemployment that “still haunt him” – a time that Diarmuid himself recalled as “depressing, demoralising, horrible.” That was in the past, though, and since then the landscape gardener is living in “a €1m mansion in rural Ireland” and has generally been doing rather well for a chap whose basic tools are a trowel, a rake and a cherubic expression.

Each celeb’s basic life story having been briskly sketched in, they were then dispatched to dismal lodgings in various unemployment black spots – Diarmuid ending up in Hackney, where he vainly sought work in corner shops, cafes and builders’ yards. Meg went on a similar, more successful quest in Ebbw Vale, while Emma tried to come to terms with the jobs wasteland of Wolverhampton and Larry with Hartlepool.

The exercise might have been mildly instructive, or at least interesting, were it not for a couple of factors. Firstly, the fact that the quartet weren’t anonymous job seekers was clear to everyone they met due to the omnipresent camera crews accompanying them. And secondly, rather than having to undergo this  experience for, say, four months (when it might have had some chastening impact), they only had to endure it for a laughable four days.

This reduced the whole enterprise to an exercise in playacting, whereby pampered celebs got the chance to tell you how the experience had made them into more caring and aware human beings and generally to feel more noble and uplifted by a glimpse into hardship and deprivation.

Only Larry came out of it well. Accosted as he wandered around the beach at Hartlepool by the film’s insufferably self-righteous social-service organisers, who demanded to know why he wasn’t actively seeking work, he dismisssed their earnest charade as “patronising bullshit.” Which is exactly what it was.

On the same night, the same channel also showed an hour-long documentary, Jobless, but as that was about real people and not minor celebs, it was relegated to the 11.35pm slot when no one would be watching.

Meanwhile back in Ireland, Feargal Quinn’s Retail Therapy (RTE1) was casting a beady eye on Finglas, specifically on the village’s old shopping centre, variously described by the programme’s narrator as “dingy” and “decaying.” So how was Ireland’s “pioneer retailer and king of customer services” going to turn around the fortunes of the local X-It shop, whose clothes, toys and cards business was in dire straits?

After puzzling over the store’s strange title (“Is this an X-rated movie shop?”), Feargal then had to deal with co-owner Fionuala who, on being told that he’d be offering “hard-hitting” advice, angrily asked “Who’s he to be saying that to us?” As for the shop’s name, she thundered “Well, we’re not changing that!” before declaring “I don’t know if I can work with his attitude.” Hubby Derek didn’t dare to say otherwise. In the end, though, she came round and the film ended with a revamped shop and a brass band on the street outside.

So was this a triumph of enterprise over adversity? Or just an opportunity for Feargal to look solemn and sound wise? Only time will tell, but by then RTE will have moved on and forgotten all about Feargal’s X-It strategy for Finglas.

True to form, RTE1’s An Cor has lifted its basic idea from BBC1’s The Choir, with this week’s opening instalment featuring contestants from Kilkenny and a Sligo golf club. Each group approached their vocal task with gusto, though why the viewer should have been remotely interested in their worthy efforts wasn’t made clear.

Naire, the first in a series of half-hour dramas under the umbrella name Siol (T4) was, at least, intriguing. Scripted by Cliona Ruiseil and directed by Tomas Seoige, it concerned a man emotionally and psychologically unravelling in the wake of his wife’s defection to another relationship, the culmination being a death and a failed suicide.

At least that’s what I think was the story’s arc because, as filmed, the time-frame was confusing, and at various points I wasn’t sure if I was watching flashbacks or flashforwards – my uncertainty not helped by the main character alternately appearing both bearded and beardless.

But if the film was too elliptical for its own good, it was always engrossing and was quite haunting in its overwrought gothic way.

Channel 4’s Dispatches film, Cameron Uncovered, was presented by Observer political correpondent Andrew Rawnsley, whose recent book, The End of the Party, created a stir with its portrayal of a beleagured, bullying Gordon Brown. Wondering here what Cameron would be like as prime minister, he let colleagues and rivals make most of the pronouncements, though some of these were decidedly gnomic – Tory arts spokesman Ed Vaizey declaring that “until you’ve got the chicken in place who understands the modernising agenda, you’re not going to lay the modernising egg.” So is Cameron the egg or the chicken? Only Ed knows.

Peter Mandelson was more to the point with some bracingly waspish observations delivered in his inimitable, insouciant fashion. Asked to define “Cameronism,” he blithely offered: “Cameronism is a reversion to the cardinal principle of Tory party politics, which is that their duty is to be elected.” So where will that leave Peter? Sadly, Rawnsley didn’t ask him.

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