Famous, Rich & Homeless
by Shawn Sobers — University of the West of England / Firstborn Creatives
February 22, 2010 – 20:58
I’ve just finished watching the first episode of ’Famous Rich & Homeless‘ on BBC1. On seeing the title of course I was cynical – five ‘celebrities’ pretending to be homeless for a few nights wasn’t my idea of in-depth investigation and sincerity. It just sounds wrong, crass, cringe worthy, and a symbol of everything that is wrong with television documentary.
Though I have to admit on watching it, I found it was an extremely powerful programme and the format worked well. One of the ‘celebs’ - the extremely rich and spoilt aristocratic Marquis of Blandford – left on the second day after reverting to type and spending two nights in a hotel. The others however took to the challenge of sleeping rough, begging for money, and trying their best to understand the homeless experience and living in that situation.
Even writing this I know it sounds awful, as it is obvious they had a *camera crew following them and they had the knowledge their warm homes and families were awaiting them in a few days. The opening 10 minutes are crass and nearly made me want to switch over, but it really is worth staying with and watching in full. I’ve directed a tv documentary about youth homelessness in the past and know the difficulty of representing such a tragic life situation and engaging an audience in something they don’t necessary want to see.
I did feel however that this programme showed what life can be like living on the streets, not from the perspective of someone who has been there for years, but showing how difficult it would be to cope if you found yourself in that situation tonight. It was fascinating to see how each of the ‘clebz’ coped with the situation according to their personality.
The former tennis player Annabel Croft, who is quite possibly the poshest, politest and most innocent woman in the entire world, was (understandably) too shy and scared to beg for money, so she made “friends” with other homeless people. She was so polite to them they not only offered her THEIR money (she politely refused – “Oh you are so kind, I couldn’t possibly take your money.”), one of them gave her a leaflet showing where all the free ’soup kitchens’ were. She commented on how friendly the homeless community were to each other. She made another homeless friend who showed her where the soup kitchens were, and basically she managed to stay alive on sheer politeness alone. On the second night however this nearly came undone when another homeless person started an argument with her and another pulled out a knife behind her. A crash course in the need to be street wise. Understandably that night, as she slept in a shop doorway, she felt less safe, and cried herself to sleep.
Bruce Jones, former actor of soap opera Coronation Street, did not want to beg either. He used his work ethic to earn money by offering to take photographs of tourists using their own camera on Westminster Bridge. He then asked them for some change, which they happily gave. The entrepreneurial opportunity came to him when some tourists asked him to take their photo, and he took the initiative to take the business opportunity. He became proud that he was earning money and not begging for it, and was so exhausted and stressed after the long day and bad night’s sleep in a subway, he went to a pub with the £12 he had earned and drank Guinness and watched football all evening. Not thinking first he should get some food, he went to sleep back in the subway hungry. The next morning he was too hung over and hungry to earn any more money (lack of enthusiasm from lack of energy!), he did not make a single penny and didn’t eat again for another 48 hours.
Here is a clip I found that I think is from next week’s episode. It is Bruce at the end of his patience with living the homeless way. I don’t necessarily agree with what he is saying but I totally understand why he says it. No room for cynicism here. Powerful stuff!
On the first night the comedian and media presenter Hardeep Kohli used his wit and charm to beg for money, and made a substantial amount, and seemed to make the whole experiment look easy. He slept in a doorway that night, and the next day the grind of begging, tiredness and coldness started to get him down, and each person that refused to give him money, began to eat away at his pride and depression set in. He tried to find cash-in-hand casual work, but with no success. That night he slept on the streets hungry and depressed, with his usual optimism knocked out of him.
The journalist Rosie Boycott begging very difficult, to the extent that when a young woman gave her some money after Rosie gave her a sob story about being the victim of an abusive relationship, she felt so immoral that the next morning she gave the money away to a Big Issue seller to absolve her guilt. Rather than give a sob story she chose to beg in more conventional methods, and no one gave her anything. Not even a conversation. She had to admit that she also walks past homeless people without giving them anything. Most of us do. The age-old dilemma of whom to give money to, do you give to everyone who asks, etc, became very stark. The final blow to her pride came when she went into a cafe with the few pence she had to buy a coffee, and the owner chased her out before she even made her order. She just looked homeless, and therefore not wanted. (This scene was filmed from through the window, so the owner did not know she was being filmed.) Rosie commented on how passively she accepted this prejudice, and left the cafe dejected, but peacefully without argument. She had been ground down after only two nights sleeping rough and begging. She had become passive to the inhumanity of people’s attitudes towards homeless people. She began to get by getting to know other homeless people, using her journalistic tendencies to understand how they got there, and the challenges they have faced. As a former heroin user and recovering alcoholic, she was able to relate.
The Marquis of Blandford, I’ve already mentioned him. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that needs one inserted into his arse!
I will watch with interest at how the four remaining clebz get on. Any viewer has to leave their scepticism to the side, and immerse themselves in the feeling of, “if I was in those shoes….”.
* Looking at the credits at the end of the programme it looks like it was filmed using discreet one person dv camera/sound operators, not a full crew. (I did the same when I made my documentary.)