TV Review: The public shame of 'The Secret Millionaire'

Posted by Alexander Hay

Redemption is a demanding business. Though being pilloried is no longer in vogue, public shaming and its corresponding need to confess your sins in public has become all the rage

TV exposure - the high cost of redemptionIf you're not apologising or spilling your guts to the media, you're simply not doing it properly.

There is precedent for this. As many a history lecturer will tell you, England started out as a shame culture, where your sense of self depended on what everyone else thought of you when you were killing people on the battlefield or pillaging the local Romano-British villa. After Christianity arrived, this was replaced by a guilt culture, where your internal life was key to your sense of being, and what others thought was less important, at least officially.

Now, it seems, we've reverted back to our primitive ways, with shame culture firmly on the agenda once again. Under the glare of CCTV cameras, we watch reality TV and read trashy magazines, all full of the personal made public. We live our own lives as open Facebooks and many young people aspire not for a sense of personal worth and success, but the acceptance and approval of others. All those teen wannabes on the X Factor have more in common with axe-wielding Jutes than they realise.

Needless to say, this provides golden opportunities for rich people who've had a bit of bother. Take multi-millionaire ex-Priory owner Chai Patel, accused (but not found guilty) of trying to buy a peerage from the UK government in 2006. Despite never being charged or censured, the affair still did his reputation no good at all. What to do? Why, take part in a reality TV show of course, and show your caring side!

Sadly, and regardless of Chai Patel's real intentions, this episode of 'The Secret Millionaire' – where a rich person moves incognito into a benighted community and then throws lots of money at it while revealing their true identity - never quite shakes off the charge that it's a PR reboot for its star.

All the revelations of despair and family conflict over the scandal, not to mention Patel's father disapproving of his son ditching a career in medicine to make loads of money, are invoked with lingering shots of Chai looking distraught or weeping. This emotional out-letting might meet the remit of reality TV, where only the most unfettered and loud emotions count, but it also appears to be too good to be true.

Perhaps that's because Chai Patel is a bit of a guileless soul, lacking much in the way of personality or character. Pretending to be a retired GP who's decided to volunteer his services to the sort of blasted northern council estate that wouldn't display any discernible difference after a nuclear strike (fittingly, the town is Sheffield, where laugh-a-minute post-nuke BBC drama Threads took place), his responses are automated, proceeding neatly from 'oh, isn't it awful?' to 'oh, something must be done', via 'oh, they've brought it on themselves', until reaching the inevitable destination of 'oh, I know what it is to be judged...'

It's so staged and tidied up in the editorial suite that it's impossible to see every tear and sign of physical and emotional pain as anything but a sham for the cameras, while the lingering shots of the enivronment where all this soul saving takes place seems to verge on self-parody, such is its determined focus only on the bleak.

There's a documentary to be made of the shattered, weeping bodies of old heroin addicts, the supermarkets that don't sell fresh vegetables, the smashed lives and minds of alcoholics and smokers and the horrible toll post-industrialisation wrought on many communities, but this sentimental PR re-launch with its too-easy happy endings and fat cheques being written out isn't it. Also not mentioned, curiously, is Patel's being hauled before the GMC in 2005 after a care home in his portfolio was found to be providing poor levels of care for which he was again acquitted

It's hard not to feel that we've just watched an hour-long instructional video in image management, with all the clichés and overt polish this suggests. The problem about shame culture is that it reveals only the outside. The internal workings and deeper thoughts are cast aside, all in the name of a nice, tidy narrative and a tightly regulated public rehabilitation.

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Alexander Hay

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