How did Channel 4 find the people to feature in this poor excuse for a programme about child poverty?
Did they put an advert in newspapers that read, “Wanted: deserving poor to help make the rich feel better about themselves”?
Or did they comb the streets for sweet-looking kids that would scrub up well for the cameras?
Either way, what we have in How the Other Half Live is a morality tale in TV documentary format.
Rebecca and George Abingdon live with their millionaire parents in a 38 room mansion in the rolling countryside of the Cotswolds.
Eleven miles away, in a tiny cramped house, we find single parent Cal and her eight year old daughter Iris.
In normal circumstances, the paths of their lives would never cross.
Rebecca and George are whisked away to boarding school, while Iris goes to the local junior school.
Super-rich daddy David is a “global marketing guru” while Cal, who has a first class law degree and a masters, works in the local betting shop.
But despite his Aston Martin car and his big snooker room, David has worries.
He recalls that, during a recent holiday, George became anxious when he was led out of the first class section of a plane towards the slums of business class.
David fears that his teenage son knows little about “the real world”.
And so to the experiment. What would happen if the lives of these two families were made to cross?
How would an introduction to poverty affect the rich children? And how would their parents explain the differences in their lives?
After watching an introductory DVD, the Abingdons make the trip to Cal and Iris’s house for a fact-finding mission.
There they find a parent who is clearly a fighter.
Despite many obstacles, she battles to keep credit card companies off her back and manages to keep a roof over their heads.
Cal wants to be a barrister, volunteering at the local law centre.
She has been unable to find a firm to take her on for the final stage of her training.
Now she owes £20,000 and has her back against the wall. Iris worries about the stress that the debts are putting her mother under.
Looking at the college certificates on the wall, David and his wife are clearly impressed.
Cal and Iris are likable, intelligent, hard workers worthy of some old fashioned Victorian-style philanthropy.
Within days of the visit David has whipped out his cheque book and paid off debts to the tune of £4,000.
It’s not enough to solve all Cal’s financial problems—because, he says, she would have been too proud to accept that—but will nevertheless keep the wolves from the door.
Next comes a new guitar for Iris, who has been forced to hire one from the school for her lessons.
Then a new computer comes in the post to help her with homework— paid for out of Rebecca and George’s pocket money.
This experiment seems to have more to do with helping David feel he has done his bit for the poor than it has with exposing his children to the “real world”.
But, to their credit, Rebecca and George are challenged by the experience.
Rebecca warms to Iris almost instantly and soon wishes that all money could be got rid of so that it won’t stand in the way of their friendship.
It seems to dawn on George that the poor are not monsters who dwell in dark cities.
In the closing moments, David is transformed still further into a fairy godmother.
Frustrated that he has been unable to secure a place for Cal in a friend’s law firm, he simply creates a position for her in his own company.
This, it seems, is the limit of how far the programme is prepared to question the rampant inequality of today’s Britain, where the lives of one in three children—every one of them as “worthy” as Iris—are blighted by poverty.
David describes How the Other Half Live as “a journey” that has made him think more clearly about the issue.
But what has it made him think? Does he believe that by solving the
problems of one family he has somehow absolved himself of responsibility?
How the Other Half Live begins at 9pm, this Thursday 8 April on Channel 4