On the streets

18 March 2016

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ORAL tradition in the Church of England relishes the occasion, in the 1970s, when a certain seminary set deep in the Oxfordshire countryside abandoned its students on the streets of London with only a ten-shilling note apiece to see them through the weekend, so that they might glimpse for themselves the bitter experience of destitution. One particularly effete ordinand booked himself into his club, and lived on tick in the bar.

But, sometimes, even a cheap gimmick can have a serious purpose, and this was my overall verdict on BBC1’s Famous, Rich and Homeless (Wednesday of last week). It is, of course, offensive to those who have no choice but to sleep rough for pampered tourists to join them for just a week; but perhaps a wider good is served if the resulting publicity helps to bring to light the semi-submerged world that is all around us but largely ignored.

It certainly changes the participants: only a few hours on the streets are needed to strip away all the certainties that most of us take for granted. Organised in aid of Sport Relief by John Birt, the founder of the Big Issue, the celebrities Nick Hancock, Julia Bradbury, Willie Thorne, and Kim Woodburn accepted the challenge, and were dropped in different areas of the capital to fend for themselves.

They had widely different experiences, which I began to think related not just to chance, but rather to their own personalities. Some of them encountered extraordinary generosity from strangers; some only felt threatened. Some were moved to tears by the stories of their fellow street people; some could not avoid being judgemental. Some showed resilience and strong survival skills; for one, it was too much, and he stayed one night in a hotel.

No doubt it is effective in opening our eyes to the thin line that divides society, but perhaps its strongest effect is to make us wonder how well we would manage to survive, and for how long.

ITV’s latest Sunday-evening costume extravaganza is a version of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. It is adapted by Julian Fellowes, and betrays what I think of as the weaknesses of this stable: the settings too glossy, the overall feel too chocolate-boxy, the background music too relentless. But, actually, it is surprisingly good, and Tom Hollander in the titular role pulls off that supposedly impossible feat, of making a genuinely good and noble man interesting.

It is a tale of true love wrecked by the conventions and snobbery of Victorian upper-class life. Trollope shows us a world in transition, and does not shy away from the central importance of money, and the freedom and independence it can buy. The women are stronger than the men: the good ones better, the bad ones worse. It is a far more challenging depiction of upper-class 19th-century society than we might expect — and some of the challenges might still be with us today.

And, finally, a soothing respite from the rigours of Lenten discipline fit for all C of E clergy was amply given by The Return of the Flying Scotsman (BBC4, Monday of last week). Back on the mainline after a ten-year overhaul, this 93-year-old locomotive has iconic presence. It is only an enormous machine, but, on being fired up, it seems to come to life: coal, steam, and traction combine to create some atavistic mystery.

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