Poverty porn hits a new low, as the BBC proposes to pit blue collar workers against each other to win a cash prize. Fiona Longmuir couldn’t be more disgusted.
You know that way when you see something so baffling that you just sit blinking at it for a while, waiting for the punchline to appear? I had that happen today, reading about the BBC’s newest programme, Britain’s Hardest Grafter. And it turns out that the punchline is “LOL, poor people”. Again.
Britain’s Hardest Grafter will see contestants who earn less than minimum wage compete against each other in various blue collar tasks, “proving their worth” to win a cash prize of one year’s salary on the national living wage – just over £15,000.
The outline for the show claims that the programme will tackle important issues facing Britain today, from whether immigrants work harder than native Brits, to whether benefits give people an excuse not to work. There are so many things wrong with the concept that I’m actually impressed that they managed to fit them into such a small space. And there aren’t enough middle fingers in the world to convey my sheer rage, so I’m going to attempt to describe it.
Poverty is not a game. It isn’t funny. People don’t fall into poverty because of some whimsical, clumsy twist of fate. People don’t stay there because they can’t be bothered to pull themselves out. The pitch is dripping with suggestion that today’s generation just don’t know what it’s like to put in a hard day’s work, whether in comparison to immigrant workers or the much idolised “previous generation”, conveniently ignoring the fact that a large number of people on benefits put in a hard day’s graft, then put in a hard night’s graft at their second job, then still need benefits because they still can’t afford to feed their families.
“God forbid a poor person wants to be a novelist, or a teacher, or an astrophysicist. God forbid a poor person aspire to anything other than blue collar work.”
The BBC is no doubt justifying this to itself by saying that they’re changing lives, that they’re giving someone the chance to pull themselves out of poverty. But the unavoidable truth is that only one person can win. The rest of the competitors will be paid minimum wage for their time, patted on the head and dubbed not hardworking enough. For the competitors in this show, £15,000 isn’t a cute caravan holiday, or paying off their mortgage, or taking their dear old mum away for the summer. This could be life or death. And I refuse to accept that we are parading people fighting for their lives as entertainment.
It reminds me of Ricky Gervais’s defining speech in the final episode of Extras, where he describes reality TV: “The Victorian freak show never went away, now it’s called Big Brother or X Factor where, in the preliminary rounds, we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires.”
I bet even Andy Millman never saw this coming.
Britain’s Hardest Grafter plays into that convenient little idea that the unemployed are work-shy, stupid scroungers, just waiting to be enlightened by the satisfaction that a hard day’s work can bring. No doubt the programme will play through the familiar stereotypes, and will end with the realisation that believing in yourself and working hard will allow your dreams to come true. For one contestant at least. The others just didn’t believe hard enough, or work hard enough, probably. Being dirty scroungers and all.
Even the language surrounding the show is offensive. Britain’s Hardest Grafter. Because that’s what poor people should be doing. God forbid a poor person wants to be a novelist, or a teacher, or an astrophysicist. God forbid a poor person aspire to anything other than blue collar work. I don’t mean this in any disrespect to people who perform blue collar work; our country would literally fall apart without them. But it’s this constant assumption that this is all that poor people should aspire to. They should take blue collar work jobs and be grateful for them.In fact, learning blue collar work skills on a minimum wage salary is a prize worth competing for. I know plenty of people who have been unemployed since reaching adulthood, and they are scientists and graphic designers and artists and marketers and computer programmers. They are unbelievably clever and motivated and skilled. They are not unemployed because they are lazy, or work-shy, or view certain jobs as being “beneath them”. In fact, many of them learned the joys of blue collar work whilst putting themselves through university. They are unemployed because there are 500 people applying for every job in their industry.
A wealthy person could sit behind a desk picking his nose all day, take a client out to lunch and then chat about the work shy scroungers over post-work drinks. A person in poverty can work themselves into the ground and still be told that they’re just not trying hard enough. In this show, there will be a single winner, and we’ll be able to go to our cosy suburban beds reassuring ourselves that the others had the same opportunity, if only they’d applied themselves. Equality of opportunity, not of outcome, as the Tories like to say when they’re justifying the status quo.
The Independent described the show as “the Hunger Games meets Benefits Street”. If we’re going to do it at all, why not just give them swords and let them fight to the death? It’d be more honest.
Fiona Longmuir is a professional storyteller, reluctant adult and aspiring funny girl. When not getting naked in tube stations and binge-watching inappropriate TV shows, she can be found scribbling at the Escapologist's Daughter.