The Secret Millionaire

Tuesday, January 2, 2007 by

It’s a rare production company that chooses to atone for past failings by making another TV series. RDF Media, however, has decided to make up for Wife Swap with The Secret Millionaire, a disconcertingly similar show that somehow manages to be the exact opposite of its flawed predecessor.

The Secret Millionaire has a simple premise that you can pretty much guess from the title. A millionaire goes to live in an impoverished community, disguised in the everyday uniform of a poor person. He or she tours the neighbourhood – as inconspicuously as possible for someone with a camera crew in tow – hunting for someone or something that would most benefit from a healthy big wodge of cash. Then, in a grand unveiling at the end of the show, the moneybags puts on a suit, writes some cheques and there’s a lot of crying as various people who had been kicked in the nuts by life realise everything’s about to change for the better (hopefully).

Although cosmetically different, The Secret Millionaire often betrayed its Wife Swap-ian origins, despite failing to send any homeless to live in the millionaires’ properties for a couple of weeks. The penultimate episode, featuring office rental mogul Paul Williams and his son, illustrated the link the clearest.

Williams, who had grown up in a middle-class household, provided the culture shock amusement so necessary to Wife Swap, after moving to the Thorntree estate in Middlesbrough. Previous episodes had thrown various self-mades into poor neighbourhoods; however, since all involved had once been poor themselves, they simply reverted to former habits without suffering visibly. Williams, who now lives on a nicely secluded estate with a tribe of fellow millionaires, demonstrated a complete inability to talk sensibly to anyone outside his normal social sphere. He couldn’t understand the accents and tried to start conversations with, “Tell me about your business. I’m interested in businesses.” Going into a pub full of men’s men and ordering a half? No. No. No. It was the sort of embarrassment that Wife Swap would happily have sneered at, before chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” from the sidelines.

Meanwhile, his son was demonstrating university has become a great equaliser for much of the population. While his father was looking for someone he could talk to without being stared at strangely, he was getting on just nicely thank you at a local homeless shelter. The experience was new to him, but he was never condescending, got on just fine and was profoundly affected by his experience, proclaiming he’d like to stay and work in the shelter permanently, given half a chance.

In the end, when it was time to leave, Williams unsurprisingly gave considerable sums of money to the hostel and everyone whom he’d befriended, in a scene that surely had viewers in tears as much as everyone involved.

However, for real tear-jerking majesty and as an antidote to all possible cynicism towards the series, you didn’t have to look any further than the final episode. This was cunningly split from the others by Christmas and New Year and moored in a different time slot on a different day: can we all assume, right now, that series two looks unlikely?

The episode featured the only female millionaire of the series, Emma Harrison (last seen in C4′s 2005 business reality show Make Me a Million). Every inch of her was heart-warming. Raised single-handedly by her father, she had an absentee mother, who returned just long enough for Harrison to nurse her back to health from tetraplegia and bone cancer before leaving again. A prodigious philanthropist, she’s turned over part of her mansion to her many friends and family so they can share her the wealth. She made her millions ethically, too, retraining unemployed steel workers so they could start new careers. So far, so shaming.

She entered the utterly depressing Dagenham with nothing but optimism and good thoughts, desperately wanting to find someone to help. Unlike the other episodes, where it was difficult to determine just how much RDF’s research team had pre-selected targets for the millionaires’ largesse, Harrison had the get-up-and-go necessary to find her own lucky recipients, along the way braving some of the bleakest, most pessimistic people you could ever hope to encounter. She became a cleaner at the local pub, worked at a pie and mash shop, scoured the library for information on charity groups, and stopped strangers on the street for local information.

Eventually, she found the three most deserving cases she could: Crossroads, a charity that supports the carers of severely disabled children; the unemployed parents of one of those children; and a little old lady who at nearly 80, still manages to volunteer four days a week with adults with learning difficulties and greets every new arrival in the neighbourhood with cakes and conversation. Rather than hand over the cash and run, Harrison supplemented Crossroads’ £30,000 with the free services of one of the country’s leading fundraisers; and told the mother she was going to sponsor her to do a Masters degree and then give her a job. The little old lady? She now regards her as the mother and grandmother she always wished she’d had. If that doesn’t simultaneously humble you, make you cry and fill your heart with joy, nothing will.

Despite the judgement of people’s lives required to pick the lucky winners and the obvious point that RDF is going to make plenty of money from the show, it’s very hard to come away any conclusion except that good has been done here. While it’s easy to judge reality TV harshly as a genre and claim it brings out the worst in people, shows like The Secret Millionaire demonstrate that it can have as many benefits and be as illuminating as film and serious journalism – all while being entertaining.

For all the Beeb’s talk of inclusivity, when was the last time you saw a documentary looking at some of the country’s most run-down areas? When did any of those documentaries avoid the trap of focusing purely on the bad, but looked at some of the good being done by churches, youth groups, government, businesses and the residents themselves in these areas? More importantly, when did they ever do anything except record and hope to inspire others to good works?

The Secret Millionaire, despite being dressed up as reality TV, was a worthy, relatively balanced series of documentaries that was willing to pony up the cash for its subjects. In comparison to Wife Swap‘s synthetic class, race and sex wars, it was a worthy penance.


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