This post is a sort of response to one on my mate Ben Whitehouse’s blog, about having seen a speech in public by Liz Jackson, who Channel 4 viewers will have seen last night in the latest edition of The Secret Millionaire. Now, this is a programme about which I’ve always had very mixed feelings. For those who’ve never seen the programme, the format entails a wealthy businessperson going “undercover” in a deprived community and not even hinting at their wealth. They visit various charities and local projects and then, at the end of their stay, they come clean to the people they’ve met and write some of them a big fat cheque to help them out.
On the one hand, these acts of largesse are to be applauded, and it means not only money but also national exposure for organisations badly in need of both. Plus of course the millionaire goes on a journey of personal discovery, de rigeur for any life swap programme. However, on the other hand, for me the programme also reinforces uncomfortable – not to mention patronising – notions of the “deserving” poor (as opposed to the “undeserving” poor), as well as introducing almost a game show element, as the millionaire decides who is deserving of a small fraction of their fortune, and how much. Really, if you were to be brutal, you could say this was essentially Dragon’s Den, given a veneer of philanthropy. Is The Secret Millionaire a modern version of the lord (or lady) of the manor deigning to visit the serfs and throwing a few gold coins at them in return for their undying gratitude? If they’re so keen to give something back to the community, then why not regular charity donations rather than a one-off payment?
I’ve tended towards the latter view in the past, although having watched last night’s show my view of it has been mollified somewhat. Liz, blind or partially sighted for most of her life thanks to a degenerative congenital condition, visited various projects for blind and disabled people in Lewisham – a talking newspaper (still using cassettes), an activity club and a sailing group. The most interesting part of the documentary involved her initial visit to the activity club for blind people. Liz came away from it upset: having achieved a great deal in life in a sighted world, she found it something of a culture shock to be surrounded by other blind and visually impaired people, and that there was little they were being encouraged to achieve in life other than to learn salsa dancing. A talk with the woman running the group and a subsequent visit to their tennis club left her far more positive, the latter raising the possibility that, with funds, this form of tennis could end up being played in schools nationwide, those children maybe even going on to compete in the Paralympics. Plus working in the evil world of telesales was put to good use as the three organisations benefited not only from funds, but also from some free marketing to help them expand and promote themselves.
Nevertheless, important issues regarding identity were raised: chiefly that Liz lived her life as a businesswoman first, then a wife and mother; her blindness a fact of life but not her defining characteristic. Whilst in Lewisham, undercover and away from the trappings of her success, as well as her family, her status as a blind person came to define her more strongly, something clearly brought home by her reaction to her initial visit to the activity club. Although I still feel rather ambiguous towards the programme and its fundamental concept, this particular episode left me with the feeling that some genuine, lasting good had and will be done.