Politicians as family mentors: what a good idea

In a flat on a scruffy housing estate, the Problem family are watching telly. Grandpa Problem is in his usual chair. Nearby, Mummy Problem has the latest addition to the family on her lap, while other young Problems of assorted ages are running about the place.

The doorbell rings, and one of the children opens the door. Standing there, grinning awkwardly, is a pasty-faced man in a dark suit. “Hullo, I’m George Osborne,” he says. “I’m your family mentor.”

It is not as fanciful a scenario as one might think. Another scary Tory, the Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, has signed up as a mentor, as have his colleagues, Jane Ellison and Tim Loughton.

The scheme is being developed by Emma Harrison, chair of A4e, or Action for Employment, and it is a good one. At the heart of Britain’s social and moral problems, Harrison believes, is a hard core of dysfunctional families which, over two or three generations, have lost the will and the capacity to work. “The problem for these families is straightforward: generally it is lack of purpose, low self-esteem, zero confidence,” she has told The Sunday Times. “Work is the answer.”

At first glance, the idea of politicians taking responsibility for individual struggling families may seem patronising and gimmicky. There will be a suspicion that, rather as public schools like to boast of their charitable work at a boys’ club in the East End, it is more PR than real concern which is at work.

Emma Harrison is right, though. Working for a living is the source of confidence and sense of having a future. For their part, politicians are apt to see the problems of “broken Britain” in terms of statistics, votes, or telling soundbites, rather than human beings who, for one reason or another, have lost their way.

The better TV reality shows reveal what happens when people are taken out of their own world and required to see what life is like for others. Channel 4’s Tower Block of Commons showed how politicians and the under-privileged could help each other escape from the clichés of prejudice.

If David Cameron is serious about the redeeming qualities of volunteer work, then he should bring his Big Society to Westminster and get the members of his government, and his MPs, to sign up for the mentoring programme. If his colleagues are too busy or important to help a family, then Ed Miliband should quickly step into the breach.

It is time to move beyond the hand-wringing when it comes to the lost and alienated. The Emma Harrison plan, spearheaded by politicians and supported by other public figures, could change attitudes at the top and bottom of society. It would not mend what is broken, but it would do something to narrow the gap between those who are in the cosy centre of Britain and the families who, generation after generations, are left out in the cold.

They just don’t get the 1950s

Watching a wonderful comedy on the BBC recently, I marvelled at the daring and precision of the way it parodied a period drama set among the upper classes in the 1930s. There was the bewildering plot, the moments of startling melodrama, the country house setting, the creaking dialogue, the starry cast looking faintly bewildered by proceedings.

Gradually it dawned on me that the whole thing was rather too expensively made to be a spoof. It was, in fact – it could only have been – a TV extravaganza from Stephen Poliakoff.

Troubled by the idea that I was failing to understand or appreciate what many others see as the pinnacle of TV drama, I identified what seemed to be the problem with the play, Glorious 39. It was a loving and languid celebration of the medium of film. Every scene was beautifully lit and perfectly framed. The dialogue on the other hand was perfunctory, functional and was often uttered by the actors as if they wanted to get them out of the way in order to get back to looking pretty.

A similar imbalance between the quality of production design and of writing is evident in another prestigious BBC drama, The Hour.

No effort seems to have been spared on research and costumes and sets, but the team has casually let through language which, with a series of obviously contemporary phrases, shatters the illusion that we are in the 1950s: “You just don’t get it”, “I’m on it”, and so on. The message to ambitious young scriptwriters seems to be clear. Don’t worry too much about the words your are writing; the look of the thing is what matters.

Every little helps the Church

Those whingeing clerics who forever groan about the lack of respect for religion in our secular society now have the perfect symbol for this decline, thanks to the Methodist Church. At Westbourne, near Bournemouth, a building designed and built to be a church has just opened its doors to a new congregation – as a Tesco Express.

“It is only a building,” the Reverend Bob McKinley, a former minister at the church, has said, explaining that, once the place had been sold, how it was used was beyond the Methodists’ control.

So let the tills peal merrily with the glad tidings: where once stood a house of prayer, the new gods of convenience and consumerism are now worshipped. If Christians, and their money men, have such a disregard for their faith and its past, why should anyone take them seriously?

Independent, Tuesday, 23 August 2011