The trouble with Secret Millionaire, says STEVEN DOWNES, is it’s a bit like Christmas when you know how the presents get placed under the tree
Channel 4 was once innovative and exciting, a fresh new channel that offered a true alternative to tired soaps, sit-com stereotypes and quiz vehicles for ageing variety acts. Those days were long ago. These days, C4’s schedules are choc-a-bloc with formulaic programmes, which they are happy to transmit at peak-time or in the afternoons. Coach tours, dinner parties, celebrity coach tours, celebrity dinner parties… When was the last time Baldric dug up anything interesting? Who cares if Jamie Oliver’s old mate from school has a free-range pig farm?
Safe, but dull: C4’s not alone in foisting formulaic TV on the viewing public, but the tried and trusted strands have a flaw when they run into their third, fourth or fifth series. We are all just too familiar with the show’s schtick.
And so it was last night, when The Secret Millionaire, or the not-so-secret millionaire, now in its 10th series, arrived on the streets of New Addington and Fieldway. Post-riots, Croydon was a no-brainer for a production team eager for some “gritty urban realism”. Cue the archive footage of Reeve’s Corner going up in flames. The programme introduced us to Bobby Dudani, the hippy-ish founder of CeX, the Computer Exchange. He seems like a really nice guy, laid back to the point of being horizontal, and clearly carrying a burden of some guilt over his cash-rich background that had helped him start his business and build his great wealth. In the kitchen of his temporary bed-sit in Croydon, pouring baked beans on to a frying pan, Dudani nails the reason for the series: “Rich kids always get second chances… ” he said, leaving his implication hanging in the air, to be answered in the remainder of the programme. His first encounter had been with a gang of youths, after dark, with one, who called himself “Frank”, aggressively playing to the cameras and his mates, boasting that he’d like to burn Dudani in his shop because he deserved it simply because he had money. But there was always the sense that the menace in that confrontation, or the despair in Dudani’s face as he encountered the mother who could no longer afford music lessons for her daughters because she had to put food on the table, would not last to the programme’s end. The formula of Secret Millionaire, imported from America, dictates a happy ending. Was it just me or did the recipients of the very generous cheques – in this case the Pandemic Steel Orchestra, New Addington Boxing Club and CAB, the Croydon Auto and Bikes project – never seem quite as surprised as you might expect if they really did not suspect that it was all part of a TV show. “You’re joking, ain’t ya?” says the coach at the boxing club. “You sure it won’t bounce?” he double-checked.
“I just make money. They make a difference,” Dudani said in admiration for the New Addington voluntary workers he had encountered. Profound, as well as a nice guy who had just handed over more than £60,000.
By the end of the film, “Frank” had been revealed to be really called Alex, a petty thief from the age of 14, now in his 20s. Dudani offered him a way out of the self-destructive spiral of unemployment, hopelessness, violence and crime. Dudani would pay Alex’s wages for a year – on trial – with a local business. “There’s 200 kids round here who’d want the chance you’re getting,” said Trevor, the sage businessman Dudani had met in the Man in the Moon pub. The snarling skinhead of the opening scenes was transformed by this act of kindness and consideration into a reasonable young man. Heart-warming. Now just another 199 similar youngsters to get off the streets and into something productive. If only there were more enlightened benefactors about such as Bobby Dudani. ABOVE ALL ELSE, what the episode demonstrated was that for relatively modest sums of money, huge differences can be made. The Timebridge Centre, another beneficiary featured in the film, was only under threat for its existence because its council funding had been pulled last September – just a few weeks after the rioting that had seen parts of Croydon, including New Addington, turned to bitter ashes. Inevitably, of course, the riots and New Addington’s reputation are a sensitive subject for residents, some of whom were worried about how their neighbourhood would be portrayed by the programme. Carole Bonner, Labour councillor for Fieldway, typified that caution. “At the start, I was concerned that it was portraying New Addington as a lawless area full of young people whose main interests were drugs, violence and robbery.
“But as it went on it showed that there are many selfless people committed to doing what they can to support the young people in the area. There has been some criticism on Facebook groups about other organisations that did not get a mention, but clearly a programme of this type can only focus on a few,” Bonner said.
“I am personally very pleased that not only did Pandemic and the boxing club get money but that the secret millionaire recognised that neither of those groups would be able to operate if the Timebridge Centre had to close through lack of funds. What this money has done is secure the future of Timebridge in the medium term and will enable it to expand the youth clubs it has set up with the help of volunteers since the council withdrew their youth clubs last year.” And of course, the “star” of the programme, Alex, also got a mention. “I really hope that Alex takes full advantage of the opportunity he has been given and that this proves to be a springboard to a better life for him and his family,” she said. “Creating employment opportunities for all our young people should be a priority but sadly current government policies seem set to create a whole generation who have been denied the opportunity to make their own way in the world.”
- For a chance to view the programme on 4OD for the next week, click here.
- Steven Downes is the editor of Inside Croydon and a past winner of a Royal Television Society award for work with Channel 4 News.
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Redhill. Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- “Book Token” takes one in the Eye on library closures (insidecroydon.com)
- Racist article by councillor’s husband is widely condemned (insidecroydon.com)