Meet the millionaire tramps

Watching the rich play homeless for the cameras is a depressing spectacle

<strong>Filthy Rich and

I watched Filthy Rich and Homeless (22 May, 9pm) twice, and I'm still pondering it. The concept, the "contestants" and the cheesy production values of the series all conspired to make me boil with rage. Especially the contestants. But then it dawned on me that if these five ninnies who'd agreed to spend ten days living rough on the streets of London had so little idea of what it would be like to be without their mobile phones, duvets and power showers, then maybe some viewers were equally dumb. In which case, perhaps the whole charade - it's in four parts - is worthwhile, after all.

Either way, it's mighty depressing. If the volunteers are not representative of the population at large, then the series is just reality TV masquerading as educative social experiment. But if they are, then our collective powers of imagination and empathy are in an even more parlous state than I had realised.

Our five volunteers gathered at a south London warehouse, where they met their tormentors, Rebecca Pettit and Craig Last. Pettit is a former probation officer who runs a scheme in the US, the Urban Plunge, in which students learn about life on the edge by sleeping rough; Last used to work for the homeless charity Centrepoint. Between them, they are going to teach the five what it is like to be homeless.

So, do they have magic powers - the ability to repossess houses or give people mental illnesses? No, but Pettit did have a big plastic bag into which the volunteers had to put the contents of their pockets. Darren, a 39-year-old entrepreneur from Bradford (who, by the way, had a Louis Vuitton overnight bag with him) tried to hide his mobile in his sock, but Pettit found it just in time. "I wasn't expecting to be left with absolutely nothing," said Ravi, a 24-year-old millionaire and all-round smug git. Dear God. What was he expecting? A picnic hamper from Fortnum's?

The other volunteers comprised Thomas, a 21-year-old heir to a cooking oil empire; Charles, a 19-year-old farmer; and Clementine, the 21-year-old daughter of the newsreader Alastair Stewart. I took a particular dislike to Clem, who was in tears even before Last dumped her in Soho (each person was left in a different spot with only a sleeping bag for company). My instinct was that she was not going to take to this adventure in quite the same way as she thrilled to showjumping and, boy, was I right. Two nights in, and she legged it to the studios of This Morning, where the presenter Fern Britton, a family friend, folded a crisp £20 note into her greedy little mitt. When her sleeping bag was taken as a punishment for this rule-breaking, she threatened to call her mum. She wasn't the only one. Darren rang his from a phone box. "I'm missing you," he blubbed. "It's been bloody hard." He then informed her that he was wearing dirty underpants.

Like everyone, I'm inured to the emotional incontinence and feeble willpower of those who take part in reality TV. Still, it was astonishing how fast these two were broken, particularly when you consider that they were not really alone at all; a cameraman was there, too, and Last, who checked on them in the small hours. And why was it such a surprise to Darren that it was hard to meet the eye of passers-by as he sat numbly on the pavement, or to Thomas that begging is humiliating? In the second programme, the five will each be paired with a real homeless person. A teaser showed Darren learning to line his (mucky) underpants with insulating newspaper. He looked more cheery. But we saw Clem at a hostel, where she was - if you can believe this - holding her nose.

This week, I also watched the first part of Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain (22 May, 9pm). It was full of the things we have lost: miners, snow, hostess trollies and, more mourned than any of these, the ability to make do.

As Marr stood behind a person's postwar rations for a week - so small, it seemed you'd struggle to feed the inhabitants of a doll's house on them - I thought of Clem and Darren and Ravi and felt thoroughly, deeply ashamed.

Pick of the week . . .

Doctor Who
26 May, 7.10pm, BBC1
Two-parter featuring the scariest creatures so far, apparently.

Brits Get Rich in China
28 May, 9pm, Channel 4
Savvy Brit entrepreneurs cash in on the Chinese economic miracle.

Mary, Queen of Shops
31 May, 9pm, BBC2
The retail guru Mary Portas rescues independent shops from big chains.

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 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state