When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum

Wednesday, October 15, 2003 by

Whereas not so long ago it was the docusoap that reigned supreme in the television schedules, now it seems to be a new sub-genre, featuring people who find themselves in an environment they are unaccustomed to. Following Faking It, and Wife Swap (not to mention the forthcoming Take My Mother-in-Law) on Channel 4, BBC2 hops aboard the ratings gravy train and has concocted this potentially fascinating new series.

In this first instalment we find the amiable (and childless) Conservative MP Michael Portillo forced to live for a week in surroundings completely alien to him. At the outset, all that Portillo knows is that he is bound for Merseyside and he appears to be quite apprehensive. Upon arrival he finds that he is to become the “mother” of four young children – Tasha, Anton, Jacob and Eloise. Their real mother, Jenny, has been given a well-deserved break from her tough life for a week and observes the unfolding events from nearby, courtesy of a television monitor. This type of experiment has been carried out before (notably a dozen years ago or so when another Tory MP Piers Merchant underwent a similar experience in the north-east of England), but whereas then it may have only made a feature on a lifestyle programme or the news, in today’s television climate the idea has been expanded and made into an hour-long programme.

Everything about his new life in the “rough and tumble” neighbourhood is foreign to Portillo. The contrast between his posh London home, complete with cleaning lady (quite possibly somebody from the “real world” like Jenny), and Jenny’s small Liverpool terraced house could not be more marked. Portillo comes from a world where he doesn’t have to worry about looking after his home (which is plainly evident from the state of the spoon that that he washes up in Jenny’s kitchen), looking after children or looking after the finances and it is odd to hear him admit that having to think about making the money stretch is “boring”. Jenny comes from a world where she has no other choice than to take care of four children, work in two places and not worry about how “boring” money management is. In his attempt to make his £80 budget last the week, we see Portillo shopping for the cheap foods in Kwik Save and a local butchers, where he picks some of the least expensive cuts. Amazingly he manages to cater for a karaoke party held by Tasha for her schoolfriends for the princely sum of £3, courtesy of an amazing pizza deal – 3 for £1!

His relationship with the children is mixed. He gets along famously with the eldest, Tasha, with whom he genuinely appears to have bonded, but less well with the Eloise – the youngest – who he admits to finding “difficult”. The documentary makers concentrate less on his relationship with the two boys in the house, but we do see him encouraging Anton when he is practising his trumpet. Throwing himself into family life, we see how Jenny has to cope with her children as well as her part-time jobs. Portillo duly takes on these roles: one as a classroom assistant at a primary school, and the other as a worker in a supermarket. Here he finds relief from the demands of the kids and gets on famously with his new colleagues, although he does admit to finding the work with the class of tots “demanding”.

When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum contains no strong political message. He does not undergo a road to Damascus conversion from “not very rich – just reasonably rich” Conservative MP to crusading social campaigner in his time in Liverpool, but does appear to have had his eyes opened by the experience. Millions of people live in the way that Jenny Miner and her children do, and Portillo (probably like a great deal of Tory MPs divorced from reality) clearly had little idea that this is the case. It is easy for him to return to his life of privilege in the capital, and if any benefit is ever to come out of experiments such as this it will only be if politicians are prepared to help the poorest in society and not demonise them. As witnessed by the Miners, we see that single-parents are not the scourge of the nation as some politicians would have you believe – and like Jenny – they certainly are not benefit scroungers. Portillo muses at one point that academic expectation appears to be low in the neighbourhood, and as a person with the ability to raise such issues in Parliament it remains to be seen if anything in places like Liverpool will ever change as a consequence of him having experienced life there.

In the end he comes out of the show quite well, which is perhaps the object of the exercise as far as Portillo is concerned: the cynic in the audience would have to wonder just how keen an MP would be to participate in a show like this if he or she did not have one eye on their own popularity rating. What could probably have made more dramatic and interesting television would have been if the MP in question had not been one of the more liberal Conservatives, and if the producers had engaged a Norman Tebbit-like figure instead.

Can you imagine somebody like that singing American Pie at a karaoke party or making banana trifle?


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