How poverty porn got its own game show

The prize? A year’s salary on the minimum wage.

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I worry that British people will eventually be invited to kill each other for cheap food at Wembley Stadium. The crowd might wave Sainsbury’s “Basics” biscuits. I do not know; but I am fairly certain that it will happen. Perhaps the loser will be made into pizza in a fast-food auto-da-fé.

That day came closer with the broadcast of BBC2’s Britain’s Hardest Workers: Inside the Low-Wage Economy at the end of last month. It was a big title for a show that should have been euthanised by page 2 of the proposal. It aired on sequential nights, which suggests that the BBC either thought it was “event TV”, or had enough self-awareness to get rid of it in August, before people noticed that it was the worst show
in the world.

Forget your righteous anger at Benefits Street and that show I thought was called I’m Glad I’m Not Poor Like You but was actually called Famous, Rich and Hungry, in which slightly famous people nagged the poor to make stew, before realising that they had no money to turn on the oven. Britain’s Hardest Workers, by Twenty Twenty Television, was a game show.

The game was this: 20 people, including single parents, migrants and a widow, competed to win £15,511.60, or a year’s salary on the minimum wage. (The equivalent would be the parents of a dying child competing to see a doctor. Or those with HIV competing for antiretroviral drugs. Or Syrian migrants competing for a place on a leaking dinghy.) To do this, the contestants had to prove that they were “the most adaptable and resilient worker of all”. There was a scoreboard, a solemn ceremony in which the pay packet was delivered, eliminations and even theme tunes. These tunes were happy when the worker succeeded and sad when the worker failed on someone else’s terms.

There was a voice-over that asked: “Which of the workers could cut it in the textile industry, and who came apart at the seams?” Or it said: “With a host of celebrity customers from Rihanna to Fearne Cotton, quality control is paramount.” How true. Workers’ rights may burn but Rihanna must not have a hole in her novelty tent.

The workers picked broccoli, sorted rubbish and sewed cushions featuring cats wearing tiaras. The moral of their quest to low-pay Mordor was this: low-paid work is hard. Who knew?

Occasionally, the contestants offered a manifesto: they wanted to prove that single parents, migrants or women returning to work after illness and childcare were worthy of respect. That this is obvious – and does not need to be proved by a game show – was ignored. No stereotypes about poverty were challenged by the editorial voice. All horror was met with a neoliberal shrug and the exhortation to work harder; the programme might have been devised by the Department for Work and Pensions, or something worse.

Perhaps someone at Twenty Twenty realised, too late, that the show was sadistic, amoral and – worse – not entertaining, because an attempt at social commentary was shoehorned in among footage of people trying to recognise a banana shallot among 1,500 types of foodstuff. Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress was interviewed, as was a slug with a human face from the Institute of Economic Affairs. “Why should the middle class care?” asked the presenter, who was two parts make-up to one part functional moron. “Because they’re next,” said O’Grady, mildly.

It was too late. Despite fretting about the “workers” – it was not called a “competition”; it was duplicitously named “an experiment” – the producers clearly had no interest in zero-hours contracts, automation, globalisation and the death of the trade union movement. They were exposed by their form. They really did want to find “the most adaptable and resilient worker of all”. The main event, then, was human desperation. Unfortunately for the producers, there was almost no drama, because the contestants liked each other. “Violeta and Pam are going head to head,” said the voice-over, as two women faced each other across a conveyor belt. One of them was clearly vulnerable.

It didn’t work. Pam praised Violeta and called her an inspiration. The producers were left with nothing to do but trail footage of people soiling themselves in a lasagna factory, with a nozzle, and tell viewers that someone once put a whole iguana and part of a horse in a bin.

The show told us two things we already knew but it did not connect them. How can indifference comment on indifference with any credibility? The first was that capital does not care about human happiness and must be made to, with laws. The hardest worker, though she did not win, was a woman who grew up in a communist dictatorship. She exuded servility and gratitude; she believed that “emotion can only break your work”. She reminded me, of all people, of Ripley in Alien. When she failed at a task, she wept along to her theme tune. She may be the perfect worker, but I doubt she is happy – if that matters, and it doesn’t.

The second thing that the show told us is that poverty is now considered, even by the “left-wing” and “responsible” BBC, a source of entertainment: first “documentary”, and now explicitly game show.

I cannot say if this is mass denial (because, as O’Grady said, the storm comes for us all), or Schadenfreude, or a well-executed conspiracy by agents of American billionaires who are devoted to dehumanising all potential workers, the better to exploit them. Or is this simply the final victory of television over civilisation, in which a Teletubby will squash liberal democracy by mistake?

I hope that the world is not as cruel as it is painted here, with or without cat cushions. I think it is.

This article appears in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war