Unreal TV

I had an easy decision to make yesterday. I was offered another one of those reality style TV opportunities. I sent back a rapid “No”.

This one was a bit more imaginative. They wanted me to spend a week living on a Council estate so I could “experience the everyday lives and issues of the ordinary people who live there”. It would according to the well paid tv staff help me understand the problem of poverty. How real would that be? I would still have my home to go back to at the end of the week , and my salary cheque going into my bank. If one of my colleague does it whilst also claiming the second home allowance it could prove quite exciting for them as they juggle their three homes. I can imagine the ribbing they will get on the estate.

I understand poverty. I remember having little money, and remember what I did to make sure I didn’t have to live on out of work benefits or a low wage. I resent the idea that because MPs earn more than the national average it makes it impossible for us to understand what is wrong with poverty, or what needs to be done for people to get out of poverty.

The programme makers said that it would “begin to heal the pereceived gulf between politicians and the public”. I don’t think so. These reality shows usually set you up. They don’t want you to succeed or come over well, and they control the shots and the editing.

I only investigated one seriously before rejecting it. I was told they wanted me to run a fish and chip shop while the owner had a holiday. I thought about it, and agreed to the preliminary discussion. When I said I would use the presence of the TV to launch a marketing campaign, to swell the numbers using the shop they seemed a little worried. When I went on to say I would hire an extra staff member to handle the extra business, and give the existing staff a profit share as I expected a bumper week with the cameras around they said I would not be able to do that. I think they wanted a script where I was to fall out with the staff, not one where I would motivate them and help them earn a better paypacket.

From that discussion onwards I have found it very easy just to say “No”. The problem with reality shows is they can be so unreal and so highly scripted. Instead I wrote about banks for a couple of newspapers.


  1. alan jutson
    August 6, 2009

    I wonder if you were their first choice ?

    It raises a number of issues, some of which you have already mentioned, but interesting that they thought that the ordinary people living on a Council estate were in poverty.

    Whilst I am sure that some of the people in such circumstances are in poverty, surely there are many who are good solid hardworking citizens, who can and do pay their own way.

    I would suggest that a number of your bloggers lived on Council estates, or in private rented accomodation in years gone by when they were children, and whilst their parents were probably not wealthy in real (monitary) terms, most worked and bought us (their children) up to respect them, ourselves, other people and property, and paid their own way.

    Council estates were in my experience (in the 1950’s), usually well maintained and clean. Certainly far better than some private rented accomodation.

    So if the programmers are to be belived, one has to ask the question:
    Have the people changed who live in Council houses.
    Has the Council lost track of maintaining their Estates, or has the system encouraged those who are on Benefits to stay on Benefits.

    I was never in favour of selling off Council houses in the first place, as I failed to see the sense in doing so (other than to gain a few votes) it compromised the maintanance plan for that estate, as no longer would all houses be maintained at the same time, to the same standard, in a cost effective way.

    Think you are right, if you were to do it, you would end up between a “Rock” and a hard “Plaice”

    1. Havocman
      August 6, 2009

      Spot on, Alan. I was brought up on a council estate and in no way was I living in poverty. We had very little cash but neither myself or my brothers and sister went without the essentials. My parents were able, after a hard struggle, to eventually buy their council house.

      I suspect (and John seems to confirm) the aim of all “reality” television is to show people from different backgrounds in conflict with each other. John is much better off avoiding anything like this. Unless of course he gets to take part in a docusoap showing the life of a senior cabinet minister…..

        August 7, 2009

        We endorse Alan’s comments above, a couple of us having been raised on the Debden Council Estate in the 50s. The nearest we saw to ‘poverty’ was the little girl 2 houses away who every couple of weeks knocked on the door at 8am holding a tea cup asking if mum could borrow a cup of sugar!

        JR has the bones of a much better reality show. Actually to help guide a small trader to improve his business would be streets ahead of Gerry Robinson’s recent approach and strike a real chord with everyday folk.
        Alternatively let’s see Ed Balls sent into a Headmaster’s office to help handle the incessant paperwork, Yvette Cooper into a Benefits claims office or Alistair Darling along to a small businessman ploughing through the inches-thick tax regulations!
        A clock should be shown on the screen tracking the time to taken to get to grips before the participant summons his ministerial car and drives off in a complete paddy!
        Great TV eh?

    2. SJB
      August 6, 2009

      Michael Portillo’s 2003 ‘reality’ tv show achieved 4.6 million viewers. Judging from the comments (see url link below), he seemed to make a favourable impression.

      I agree with the others about the risk involved if you hook-up with a producer who just wants to make you look stupid. But any reasonable person of standing considering becoming a participant would ask to see examples of the producer’s past work. Presumably the Conservative Party must have some supporters in the television industry so one of these should be able to give you advice re: producer’s reputation, likely hazards of a reality show, and recommend a good media lawyer to represent your interests. Plus, you could always employ someone to make a documentary on the experiment and that way any liberties taken by the reality tv crew would then be on record.

  2. Mike Stallard
    August 6, 2009

    You’re so wise!
    I realised the truth in what you are saying back in the 1990s when an actor friend of mine was persuaded to do a reality show with an “Albanian Refugee”. The whole family was set up, swindled by people who they considered their friends and then totally humiliated. This involved swindling children of 9 years old!
    Silly people (lots of them!) will do anything to get on TV for a couple of minutes. I reckon it nearly always ends in tears.
    If only the TV could treat people with respect and listen rather than use them for entertainment.

  3. Simon D
    August 6, 2009

    You were right to refuse.

    The agenda of most individuals in the media (especially television) is to destroy both Conservative MPs and the Conservative Party. In addition, an ambitious media person needs to burnish and display to their superiors his or her beautifully calibrated left-of-centre conscience. The need to convince key figures in your media organisation that your true beliefs are left-of-centre is important on the career ladder. Making a fool of John Redwood would be an excellent thing to put on your CV or discuss at a job interview. Don’t go there.

    We will see a firestorm of opposition from the media if the Conservatives win the next election with a working majority. Just imagine all the stuff there will be about “Tory cuts” and “Tory butchers” as nurses and teachers are forced to beg on street corners.

    The best advice is to avoid independent media frolics before the election and for the Conservatives to have a robust policy to deal with the post-election deluge. If in doubt, always distrust the media and remember all those empty champagne bottles that were found in the corridors of the BBC TV Centre the morning after the coronation of Tony Blair in 1997.

  4. Brian Tomkinson
    August 6, 2009

    Most of those so-called “reality” shows are not worth watching. This one sounds rather like the one Michael Portillo did.
    I should like to see the reality show where you are brought in to sort out the banks.

  5. Mick Anderson
    August 6, 2009

    The phrase “Reality TV” has always been an oxymoron.

    Whether it’s the set-up situation that JR was offered, or a camera “shadowing” a street-cleaner or policeman who’s playing to the gallery, there’s nothing real about it.

  6. Johnny Norfolk
    August 6, 2009

    A very wise move. Never do anything like this. You reasons for not doing it are spot on.

    They would be better taking these people to a household where peope work hard to get out of poverty. These peole need to help themselves.

    August 6, 2009

    Our blog about the Alan Sugar/Quentin Letts matter on 3rd August didn’t make it through editorial and still lies there ‘awaiting moderation’ – possibly because we couldn’t find a relevant section and so chose to post in the latest at the time re ‘Wayward industries’ ( I held it back as I do not wish to receive a lawyers letter from Lord Sugar)

    As with the Jacqui Smith affair earlier this year we like to think we’re sometimes ahead of the game in choosing an issue due to spark public attention and we believe this ‘SUGAR’ one does.
    In fact we’re interested to read this morning that several respected journalists have written to The Spectator condemning Sugar’s actions and motives.

    One of the letter’s signatories, Matthew Parris, has gone further still in today’s Times.

    We Essex Boys think we have a news ‘runner’ here that will rightly impact on the PM and the BBC as well as Sugar himself and we hope our blog this time makes the JR ‘cut’. At least we seem to have found a relevant section now on ‘Unreal TV’ !

  8. no one
    August 6, 2009

    understand much of what you say john

    i thought the reality show portillo did was ok, but then i dont know from his point of view if he thinks it was unbalanced

    the conservatives do need to play the media war

    the conservatives do come across as a bunch of public school and oxbridge folk who wouldnt be able to cope with normal middle class life never mind one of the worst council estates, never mind real poverty as a homeless person

  9. pipesmoker
    August 6, 2009

    A wise decision John.

    Brought up in the war years I remember poverty, rationing and getting up from the dining table not having had enough to eat, no telly, no antibiotics, no NHS but it wasn’t all bad.

    This lot today have no idea what hardship and poverty are.

  10. Quentin
    August 6, 2009

    I suppose they will get Ann Widdecome. Again.

  11. Beacon
    August 6, 2009

    Asking you to live on a council estate is hardly right. I would have thought it would be better to dump a Labour MP into a council estate so they could feel the benefit of the communities they have created.

    I would beg the makers to move a Labourite in next to me so he or she would have to navigate though the drug dealers and the gangs of thirty plus just to get to the local shop not a hundred yards away.

    Let them see if you had enough money in your pocket to afford a heavily taxed beer, you have to walk over a quarter of a mile to the nearest pub as the rest have been closed and torn down to make room for immigrant housing!

    Anyway, thank you for giving me the opportunity to blog something positive for a change.

  12. John Wild
    August 6, 2009

    Dear John Redwwod

    Reading your column everyday, you are the voice of common sense. I’m about to open a Fish & Chip Shop on Thursday 29th October 2009, it is on a council estate and has been closed down for around 5 years, I have taken the lease on it, and hope to refurbish it, breathe new life into, and hopefully benefit everyone on the estate, establish it as a community shop and in the process take a wage for myself and my wife.

    With what you said in your blog today, can you come up for the opening day, and perhaps fry some fish and chips with me. I do not want to ask the local MP as she is Labour. Perhaps also you can impart some of your no nonsense approach to life when you come up. I could ask David Morris, the local Conservative candidate to come along as well.


    John Wild

    Reply: Good luck with it.

  13. Steve Tierney
    August 6, 2009

    Good decision. They just trivialise issues in order to get inflammatory programming. Best to stear clear.

  14. Matt
    August 6, 2009

    Quite right
    If you’ve experienced a degree of poverty, then you wouldn’t learn much from such an exercise.
    Its been done already by Matthew Parris.

    Suggest to the programme makers that you haven’t experienced extreme wealth and suggest that you take the reality show onto a billionaire’s yacht, cruising the Cote d’ Azur for a month.
    You can come back and say how disgusted you were and push for the return of Investment income surcharge.

    That sounds a lot more fun to me.

  15. Adrian Peirson
    August 6, 2009

    I don’t Blame you Mr Redwood, they would have set you up for a fall in some way.

    TV in Britain today is not to inform, or to build or educate, it’s used to destroy.


  16. […] writes about the invitation on his blog. He also reveals that he once seriously considered taking part in one of these shows. Unfortunately […]

  17. StevenL
    August 7, 2009

    It’s never ‘reality’ is it? I rent a room in a shared house in a working class area, quite a few of the people around here either don’t earn all that much or claim benefits. There’s not much whingeing about ‘poverty’ though. In fact no one talks about politics full stop (I try not to other than on the internet – it puts people off you).

    There’s plenty of barbeques, beer, wine, abit of fishing and a load of politically incorrect banter that the BBC would never televise, you know – reality.

  18. Number 6
    August 7, 2009

    John, the way this country is going I think I am actually going to audition for Big Brother Celebrity Dancing on Ice or something along those lines – after all living in a TV version of reality is looking more and more sane than day to day life under this increasingly demented government.

    As for explotation, at least the TV producers pretend they are not do so – Nu Labour make no such pretence for the middle and working classes whose money they extort on a daily basis whilst destroying our liberties and forcing social engineering on us at every opportunity.

  19. John
    August 7, 2009

    Poor? Poverty?

    I was born in 1952 on a council estate in a mining village in the North. Nobody had much and considerably less than those on council estates today. We were not “poor” nor did we live in “poverty” and nor are or do people in Britain today. There are lazy people who think everyone else owes them a living, and others too stupid to do anything to improve themselves – tough.

    Poor is living in India or Africa not just with nothing but no prospects of being able to get anything no matter how smart, willing or hard working.

  20. Stuart Fairney
    August 7, 2009

    Didn’t Matthew Parris do something like this in the 1980’s?

    I’m guessing that if you did “live in poverty” you probably wouldn’t steal cars, take drugs, engage in any level of criminality or randomly impregnate local girls. I’d also bet you could get a job and be off the estate in quick time.

  21. Mark
    August 7, 2009

    All the producers of this programme want is controversy and embarassmant for the mug who spends a week “in poverty”. You were quite right to turn them down.

    You could have quoted the “Indie” band Pulp (not that they are that “Indie” anymore) and their great song from 1997 (grim year):

    She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
    she studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,
    that’s where I,
    caught her eye.
    She told me that her Dad was loaded,
    I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
    She said “Fine.”
    and in thirty seconds time she said,

    “I want to live like common people,
    I want to do whatever common people do,
    I want to sleep with common people,
    I want to sleep with common people,
    like you.”

    Well what else could I do –
    I said “I’ll see what I can do.”
    I took her to a supermarket,
    I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere,
    so it started there.
    I said pretend you’ve got no money,
    she just laughed and said,
    “Oh you’re so funny.”
    I said “yeah?
    Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.
    Are you sure you want to live like common people,
    you want to see whatever common people see,
    you want to sleep with common people,
    you want to sleep with common people,
    like me.”
    But she didn’t understand,
    she just smiled and held my hand.
    Rent a flat above a shop,
    cut your hair and get a job.
    Smoke some fags and play some pool,
    pretend you never went to school.
    But still you’ll never get it right,
    cos when you’re laid in bed at night,
    watching roaches climb the wall,
    if you call your Dad he could stop it all.”

    The last line being your point – temporary shortage of cash is not the same as poverty.

  22. Bazman
    August 8, 2009

    Anyone see the TV programme on channel 4 last night called ‘The Russians are coming’ in which Former champion skier and glamorous international property broker Dina Karpova saw a gap in the market – and promptly filled it. Her latest venture? She helps fellow super-rich Russians fast-track their children into England’s most prestigious public schools. Can’t educate pork or buy class?
    The working and not working class anthem Common People. Always thought Pulp’s ‘Weeds II The Origin Of The Species’ said it better.

    This is the true story of the weeds: the origin of the species.
    A story of cultivation, exploitation, civilization.
    Found flowering on wasteland unnoticed, unofficial, accidental.
    A cutting was taken but weeds do not thrive under hothouse conditions & wilt when in competition with more exotic strains.
    A charming naivety, very short flowering season;
    no sooner has the first blooming begun than decay sets in.
    Bring your camera, take photo of life on the margins.
    Offer money in exchange for sex & then get a taxi home.
    The story has always been the same
    A source of wonder due to their ability to thrive on poor quality soil offering very little nourishment
    Drinking `Nurishment`.
    But weeds must be kept under strict control or they will destroy everything in their path.
    Growing wild, then harvested in their prime & passed around at dinner parties.
    Care for some weed?
    So natural, so wild, so unrefined & someone`s gonna make a fortune one day
    If only they can market this stuff right.
    Come on: do your dance.
    Come on, do your funny little dance.
    Germination. Plantation. Exploitation. Civilization.
    A sensational buzz – zzzzzz.
    Crop rotation. Genetic modification. The creation of expectation. Ultimate frustration.
    This is the story of the weeds: the origin of the species.

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