Richard Branson features in Billionaire's Paradise. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
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Fully loaded: Meet the Super-Rich shows a world beyond satire

"It's not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity" in BBC season of wealth.

Meet the Super-Rich
BBC2

To cheer us all up as we plod pluckily on into the new year, the BBC has served up a “super-rich” season (and no, before you pile in with the jokes, it will not feature any of its own senior executives). Roughly speaking, the programmes fall into two camps: investigative/polemical and freak show. Either way the result is the same, the viewer’s appalled fascination shading first into queasiness and then into a kind of futile rage.

It’s not the vulgarity that makes you want to puke so much as the asininity. The super- rich, it seems, really are different from the rest of us, their stupidity extending to the purchase of such fatuous me-treats as £30,000 sessions at the spa and brassieres encrusted with diamonds. Here’s an image for you. On a private Caribbean island, a pink, bald, loaded Brummie slashes the sand again and again with a golf club, every ball flying straight out into the ocean where, being made of fish food, it soon dissolves to nothing. As several novelists have discovered to their detriment just lately, this is a world far beyond satire, the symbolism so powerful and obvious that it requires not the slightest literary gussying-up.

The £30,000 spa treatments came to us courtesy of Jacques Peretti, whose two-part series The Super-Rich and Us (8 and 15 Jan­uary, 9pm) explains why “trickle-down” economics as practised by every British government since Margaret Thatcher’s has not, as promised, made us all richer, and explores the consequences of Britain’s status as “the new Switzerland”. Grim territory. Peretti’s editing – in which he shoved a touching clip from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (Bob and Thelma were gazing amazedly at the house they’d just bought) up against a promotional video for the development One Hyde Park (in essence, a collection not of central London apartments, but of safety deposit boxes for foreign billionaires), reminded me why I now find it impossible to watch Clement and La Frenais’s 1970s sitcom without tearing up. Like a golf ball made of fish food, the old hopes and aspirations have all dissolved. By 2030, the majority of people in Britain will be renters once more.

“We used to call it divine right,” said Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who earns £12,000 an hour. “Now we call it trickle-down economics.” Wealth like his own, he pointed out, just doesn’t convert into jobs, or even into high-street sales (though he earns a thousand times more than other people he doesn’t buy a thousand times more stuff). A lone voice among the super-rich, Hanauer would love to pay more tax. You could say that he regards doing so as a matter of life or death, because he fears the pitchforks will be coming for his kind pretty soon. But his government, like our own, won’t allow it. For the time being, the thinking goes, the gates – electronic, 24-hour CCTV, panic buttons – are plenty sturdy enough to keep out the barbarians.

In any case, why not enjoy the party while it lasts? The dissolving golf balls were brought to us by Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island (6 January, 9pm), a film about Richard Branson’s home in the British Virgin Islands where, for a few months a year, it’s possible to rent a room – yours from £19,000 a week. This wasn’t a documentary: this was Holiday, with Branson as Cliff Michelmore. Not only does he love to extol the many virtues of his island home; he also, weirdly, makes a point of hanging out with the 30 guests.

“It’s been a long time since my wife wanted to jump on top of me,” he said, thanking two women for sending Mrs Branson back to his bed somewhat tipsy after a night of revels. In this version of “paradise”, fancy-dress parties abound, as do 1970s discos and sushi nights, during one of which the maki rolls were placed on the body of a moonlighting Necker accountant (having soy sauce sucked from her belly button, she told us, made a nice change of pace from the arithmetical rigours of her day job). I’d always thought that Necker would be classy: quiet and discreet. But no. Back on the beach, Patch, the aforementioned loaded Brummie, hacked away with his nine-iron, a giant adult baby sweating factor 15 and 21st-century ennui. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.