Famous, Rich and Homeless

Even a topic such as homelessness now gets a novelty on-screen treatment

This documentary-cum-reality show began life two years ago as an execrable BBC3 series called Filthy Rich and Homeless. At the time, I tried my best to stamp on it, hard. Rich people pretending to be homeless, then coming over all tearful at how demeaning begging is? Repulsive. I was disgusted.

Naturally, I thought – big head – that I’d seen the wretched thing off. But, no. Unbelievably, the BBC brought it back this past week, even promoting it to BBC1. The corporation had, however, done a little tweaking. This time, it used “celebrities” rather than “real” people for its “experiment”, and it expected these five “volunteers” to spend a whole ten days on the street (in the BBC3 format, the timescale was rather shorter): three nights living alone; three with a real-life homeless “buddy”; three in a hostel. Hardcore, eh?

Famous, Rich and Homeless (24 and 25 June, 9pm) wasn’t as offensively trite as the show’s first incarnation. With the exception of the Marquess of Blandford, to whom we will return, the celebrities in question – Rosie Boycott, Annabel Croft, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Bruce Jones (aka Les Battersby in Coronation Street) – had been chosen with care: they were plucky, they were thoughtful, they were vaguely sentient. They understood that to check in to a hotel at the first sign of rain, exhaustion or, in Croft’s case, a knife, would be to insult the thousands of real homeless people whose situation they were trying to understand.

But still, there is something uncomfortable about watching the privileged pretend to be homeless, and it remains astonishing to me that their experiences came to them as such revelations. I don’t need to spend ten days on the streets to tell you that homelessness is horrible, degrading and dangerous; that most homeless people have become so through no fault of their own; that the homeless person feels – and probably is to most of us – invisible. You see, I have this amazing thing called an imagination. It’s even more useful than a BlackBerry!

There is also, of course, the problem of the camera, which twists and distorts everything on which its great, unblinking eye falls. It is difficult to take a “homeless” person’s tears too seriously when you know that they’re being trailed to the soup kitchen by a man with a boom. Moreover, the demands of 21st-century audiences, whose human responses have been so benumbed by Big Brother and the rest, require that even a show with the best of intentions (and the involvement here both of Craig Last, who used to work at Centrepoint, and John Bird, founder of the Big Issue, suggested that the heart of someone, somewhere, was in the right place) dishes up a certain kind of hammy drama.

Here, this drama was provided by central casting, in the form of the heir to the dukedom of Marlborough. I despised the obnoxious, cretinous Jamie Spencer-Churchill from the second I clapped eyes on him, but I also understood his function, which was, er, to be obnoxious and cretinous. On night one, he abandoned his sleeping bag in an underground car park in Chelsea and checked in to a hotel. On night three, he dropped out of the show altogether, outraged by its demands. So much for those ancient and oh-so-redoubtable bulldog genes.

So, what exactly did we learn from Famous, Rich and Homeless? Well, I discovered that Croft has a bizarrely small amount of furniture in her vast Surrey home (it looked like some weird hotel), and that Boycott double-kisses her husband when she returns to his loving arms. On the matter of homelessness, on the other hand, I found out almost nothing. It’s not nice, is it, sleeping on cardboard with a man who smells of cheap perry? No one thought to suggest, at the end of all this nonsense, any solutions for the tragedy that acts itself out on our streets every day.

Actually, scratch that. Angry Les – I mean Bruce – had an idea. “Hang all the murderers!” he said, tears of furious incomprehension in his eyes as his junkie buddy Mark headed out to score his morning fix. “Use the money we spend on keeping them to help the homeless.” Right. Good. I’ll jot that down in a memo to the new Home Secretary, shall I?