There’s no getting around it – Channel 5 has a reputation. It’s a scuzzy low-class broadcaster renowned for poverty porn. Let’s all point and laugh at the disadvantaged people in society. It’s their fault they’re poor, unemployed, stupid, ill, struggling with debt – delete as required. There are very few reasons to watch the channel at all. But the tone of the adverts for Rich House, Poor House was quite different. This programme was billed as an experiment in happiness. Would it be repellant Victorian slum tourism, or something more worthy?
In episode one we meet the Caddy and Williams families, both big families by the UK standard. The premise is that they swap homes, budgets and lives for a typical week. Each family is selected from the richest and poorest 10% of the UK.
The Williams are at the poor end of the spectrum. Mum Kayleigh and Dad Antony have 6 kids, a product of a blended family. They rent a house in a council estate in Weston Super Mare and proudly they announce they are not on benefits. They survive on just £110 per week after rent and bills. Only 22 miles away from them in frighfully middle-class Clifton live James and Claire Caddy with their 5 kids. The family is older than the Williams with some children at university. Their spending money is a frankly staggering £1700 per week, mainly I think thanks to young and hip looking Dad James with floppy Brian Cox hair who is semi-retired after selling his software company.
As the Williams family are packing to leave they realise the electricity might go off in the night. Antony grins – “it’s someone else’s problem now!”. When they arrive at the Caddy’s stunning house he says it “smells like when you go into a museum”. Antony is extremely quotable and a gift for this series. As James and family arrive and look around the council house he’s putting a brave face on it “Oh this is alright”. I wonder what he was expecting? The chipper and optimistic fathers share a very similar outlook to each other.
Straightway the Williams family see that having to spend £1,700 on just stuff in a week seems wasteful. It’d be great if they could budget and keep the leftovers. They look at the regular Waitrose food order and say it’s full of “unnecessary” items. I quite agree, but some of those fairly useless items taste so good!
James Caddy is immediately engaged – looking at Antony’s CV (he’s a hard worker), the William’s kids’ school certificates (so are they), and finding out what a massive con electricity top-up cards are. The poorer family have no choice but to buy electricity on a more expensive tariff than his, which is clearly a huge injustice. The system is rigged to reward people who can pay and punish those who already struggle. James is not just sympathetic but active to do what he can in the limited context of this show to improve things.
The Williams’ front lawn is decorated with a dumped sofa. In TV land that’s shorthand for poverty, neglect and anti-social behaviour – maybe even drink problems and selling drugs problems aka The Wire and Atlanta. In real life it’s simply there because it costs £67.50 for the council to come out and collect it – double what it costs me in Birmingham! How can Weston Super Mare possibly justify it?! No fucking wonder it’s on the lawn littering the place up! As a family project the Caddy’s chop it up and carry it in procession to the tip. Mum Claire is very happy to instill in her children some active initiative and teamwork.
As we go along a few well-positioned documents detail the individuals who live in these houses. Antony lived for a time as a young man in hostels and refuges, which is why his sense of family is paramount. Antony is surprised to find out that James went to a comprehensive school – he assumes because James is rich he must have had a private education. The Caddy children are in private schools. Kayleigh and Antony call them “sensible rich” – they’d pay for a good education too if they could. Kayleigh says if she had the money she’d like to train as a midwife. The Williams family are very thoughtful and bright, hard-working and resilient too. James tries out Antony’s commute to work – up at 5am to cycle all the way to a manual job on a crappy old bike with no gears. That’s it though – he doesn’t try again. And I can’t blame him. Who would want to do that 5 or 6 days a week?!
There’s no trace of unpleasantness or prejudice in this episode. Even Claire’s posh friends (ladies who lunch) are welcoming to Kayleigh – is this a touch unrealistic? I wonder, and I hope I’m just being cynical.
In an especially touching moment we’re told that the Williams’ eldest son has grown out of his football boots and can’t play any more. With a fraction of the £1,700 budget his parents get him new trainers and his face lights up like it’s Christmas morning. It’s so lovely to see a real lasting improvement to his life because of this show.
For their date night Claire and James have a picnic and a bottle of wine on the chilly seafront. Antony and Kayleigh get the swanky restaurant meal instead, ordering oysters and lobster for the experience of it. Neither of them love the oysters. The lobster turns up and Kayleigh says “I can’t eat that!”. Looking over at her from the safety of his pizza Antony says warmly “Babes, you got yourself into this mess, you need to get yourself out of it!”. I love them. They can come to dinner at my house anytime, and I promise not to serve seafood.
Both families are cheerfully resilient and optimistic, and what could have been poverty porn is actually extremely heartwarming. It’s just so sad that nothing will change and they’ll just go back to life as normal. There is no prize, save for an experience outside of their narrow lives – lives that we think are quite normal, but may look like a lottery win to other people.
Rich House, Poor House is a surprisingly rewarding, kind and gentle show. Is the warmth of Episode 1 a ploy to get people to watch the rest of the series? Can the other participants be as sensible and well-adjusted as the Williams and the Caddy families? Surely not. I’ll have to find out.
Catch up on Rich House, Poor House on channel5.com
Delightfully other people loved the Williams’ family too and money is being raised for them to go on holiday!