Last week, while languishing fashionably around Stokes Croft, rumour reached me that well-known chat-show host Richard Madeley was in the area, staying in a squat for a TV documentary. Almost uniquely for a Stokes Croft Rumour, this turned out to be true.
(For those not familiar with Stokes Croft, it is a 300-metre run of cafes, street art, and derelict buildings, some of which are squatted. Large empty properties are owned by absentee landlords, as assets on their balance sheets. There are many interesting buildings, left to decay by the property madness of the last decade, as well as a large number of artistic and social projects. It also has a Tesco Express, the opening of which provoked a riot. In short, it is rather combustible.)
Now, I have nothing particular against Richard Madeley. I have nothing against people making documentaries about squatting. It's just that the idea of putting the two together is a little disturbing.
Anyone who has watched British TV recently will be aware that there is a genre of programs in which Celebrities Impart Homespun Wisdom Unto Poor People. In this genre, B-List personalities go to the homes of people who are suffering and explain how their lives might be better. There was a pretty bad example of this on BBC1 recently, called When I Get Older. I can't sum it up any better than this - and that's the Telegraph cringing.
A number of things concern me about this type of documentary. They are designed to create a heartwarming 'narrative', a
'journey' which all ends with tears and gratitude on the part of
the sufferer, and a reinforced image of the 'goodness' of the giver. First, I object to the essential subtext: that the best way to improve a poor person's life is an act of generosity by a rich, famous person. Second, I'm not convinced that a rich and famous person has any knowledge, insight or ability that a poor person doesn't. Third, I feel uneasy that TV executives feel it is OK to exploit other people's misery, in a very voyeuristic way, for entertainment purposes. Let's be clear: this is entertainment, not journalism.
What's more, this genre props up a very reactionary point-of-view. There are never any programs about people being helped by other, hard-working ordinary people. No-one makes documentaries in which bald, slightly overweight PC Bloggs tries to shift the anti-social activity from the corner outside Mrs Jones bungalow, and the heartwarming bit where she makes him a cuppa afterwards.
In the world of these documentaries, the poor and their soulmates, the feckless, are simply clueless until a member of the upper middle classes turns up to Explain Some Things To Them. Never mind that many of these middle-class slebs would be simply useless in the horrifying circumstances of many sink estates and unemployment blackspots.
These programs actively discourage the idea that people can improve their lives by communal action, or by recourse to local solutions. In essence, they contradict history. The fact is that most of the things we take for granted - like the weekend, holidays, even the right to vote, were gained as a result of long-term and concerted collective action. But this genre of show peddles an opposite view: that the only hope for the poor is a few bones thrown down by a benevolent TV company.
So frankly I'm not holding my breath to await any insights from Richard Madeley, or any empathy for those who struggle with housing issues. Apparently, Richard has "a house in Florida, a boat, a mansion in London's Hampstead worth millions and a house in Cornwall with six acres", though I did read that in the Daily Mail, so it may be untrue.
How can somebody who lives this kind of lifestyle have any understanding of the circumstances which might lead to a person squatting? Richard Madeley's only brush with the harsh side of life was when he got charged with shoplifting champagne from Tesco. This was later dropped as he had apparently had 'lapses of memory'. (Tip: if you live in a squat and get nicked for shoplifting champagne, this won't work for you.)
The show is being made by production company Plum Pictures, who are apparently very proud to work with Coca-Cola, Nike and Castrol - so you can see, they are very much on the side of the little guy. It airs in the autumn. I sincerely doubt whether Richard Madely will care what you think, but if you want to ask him for his particular insights on homelessness, empty buildings, and the ongoing recession, you could always try his twitter account, @richardm56. (He isn't around any more, by the way, so don't bother looking for him.)
I apologise for linking to the Daily Mail, by the way.