TV blog: How to break into the elite

Benjie Goodhart / 25 July 2019

How socially mobile is Britain, asks a new documentary. Plus, Gone Fishing returns, and other TV highlights.

How to Break into the Elite, Monday 29th July, 9pm, BBC Two

I am writing this at 10:30am on Tuesday 23rd July. In approximately 75 minutes, a new Prime Minister will be named, and you don’t need a degree in psephology to realise that our 56th Prime Minister is likely to be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and the 21st British Prime Minister educated at Eton.

Of the 56 PMs, only nine have been educated at non-fee-paying schools. Of course, much of this bias is historical. Back in the 19th century, if you hadn’t been to private school, the best profession you could hope to achieve was ‘mud eater’. The idea of having a non-posho in charge was a bit like suggesting we should elect a watermelon to No. 10 today. So things have definitely moved in the right direction. But that’s a fairly low bar.

In truth, governments in this country have talked about Social Mobility for decades, but to what end? In this fascinating, and somewhat dispiriting, documentary, the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan meets a number of recent graduates from different backgrounds to find out how they are faring in their search for a dream job.

Rajan, the child of immigrants, grew up in Tooting, South London. It’s not the mean streets of downtown Mogadishu, but it’s a long way from the leafy avenues of Islington that he now (rather guiltily) calls home. With the support of his parents, he’s done incredibly well, although his father expresses regret that none of his sons have won a Nobel Prize. That’s ambition for you. I think my dad was just relieved when I finally stopped spilling food down my front, in my late 20s.

But how many others are able to make the same journey as Rajan? To answer this question, he has recruited the expertise of Dr Sam Friedman, an academic at LSE who specialises in studying social mobility. Which, it turns out, is a bit like studying leprechauns, in the sense that neither exist. (Apologies to leprechaun believers, please send all letters of complaint to the editor).

If my rather un-devout memory serves, the Bible says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Well, it turns out, both are more likely than a working-class person getting equal treatment in the job market in Britain in 2019. Friedman’s stats are horrendous. A tiny proportion of working-class people will ever get what are seen as top jobs, and even when they do, they are paid considerably less. Graduates from a privileged background who get a 2:2 in their degree are more likely to get a top job than a working-class graduate with a first.

That, at least, is the story in theory. To see the reality, Rajan meets a selection of recent graduates. One of them is Amaan. If anyone is likely to buck the trend, it’s Amaan. He’s got a first, and he’s a former world kickboxing champion. That is an extra incentive to employ him, as it shows focus, dedication and hard work.

Only Amaan isn’t bucking the trend. He’s falling victim to it. In this revealing and thought-provoking hour, Rajan looks at why that is, and what can be done about it. In the meantime, the vicious circle of poverty and lack of opportunity continues to self-perpetuate, and we, as a nation, fail to harness the considerable talents of people like Amaan, making losers of us all.

The Best Little Prison in Britain 1/6, Wednesday 31st July, 8pm, ITV

When I was a kid, I had a tour of a nuclear power station. It was sometime in the 80s, though fortunately it wasn’t Chernobyl. (Incidentally, the new five-part drama Chernobyl, which is available to buy on box set, is absolutely outstanding). One of the things I remember about that day was that another of the people being shown around was a chap from the Isle of Man who, when we weren’t handling graphite-tipped fuel rods or licking enriched uranium, would regale anyone within earshot about what a shame it was that birching was no longer permitted on the island.

For those of you unfamiliar with barbaric practices that belong in the middle ages, birching is basically whipping people with twigs. But not in an invigorating post-Turkish bath sort of a way, more in a battering-until-you-bleed way.

Birching may be off the statute books on the Isle of Man, but it still has an unusually punitive criminal justice system. In the opening scene of this new six-part documentary series, a man called Andrew is being locked up for the fourth time – this time for hitting his mother over the head with a rolled-up copy of Hello! magazine. Whilst I admit that this is no way to treat a mother, or a magazine that boasts quite so many pictures of Princess Meghan, not to mention the wedding of an Emmerdale star, a custodial sentence seems a little harsh.

Other inmates recount some of the things they’ve been banged up for, and it’s not exactly the rap sheet of Al Capone. Misdemeanours include shouting in the street after 2am. One inmate reveals: “I’ve been in and out of here 28 times. I’m just doing a life sentence in instalments, really.”

But this isn’t quite the series you would expect. It’s not a look at the harsh brutality of prison life in a punitive and recidivist system. Because Jurby Prison (the only one on the isle of Man) is an astonishingly progressive and forward-thinking prison, with among the lowest rates of reoffending in Europe.

It’s an extraordinary institution. All the prisoners have single cells, and can spend up to seven hours-a-day outside them. There’s a sports hall, gardens, a gym, and a well-stocked tuck shop, just like the one we had at school (only with more shaven-headed blokes with tattoos). The prison houses both men and women, and sometimes several generations of the same family at once. Lorraine, for example, has both a brother and a partner in the prison. Her partner is Goldie, who is up on a charge of ABH. He’s decided to defend himself rather than employ a lawyer. He practices his opening speech to the camera. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that he could do with a lawyer. Quite badly. He also needs to remember to keep his top on in court. A tattoo-ed stomach that says “Thug life” isn’t exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The prison seems like a friendly enough place. One inmate laughingly refers to it as “a mental institution-slash-youth club.” The prison officers all seem on good terms with the prisoners – there’s even one who sits and plays them the guitar and sings, like a sort of punitive Val Doonican. But one person seems not to have got the memo. Head of Security Margo looks like she could strip paint with a single glance. “The world’s gone soft,” she complains. “It’s all nicey nicey.” Not on her watch, it isn’t!

The best… and the rest

Sunday 28th July

The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, 9pm, BBC Two: Second series of the alternative travel show presented by the comedian and reluctant traveller Ranganathan, who visits far flung and less glamorous corners of the world. Tonight, he is touring post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, to find out whether more of us should be using it as a holiday destination.

 Monday 29th July

Long Lost Family: What Happened Next, 9pm, ITV: Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell present another utter weep-fest as they follow up on some of the more memorable cases from previous programmes.

Tuesday 30th July

The Chef’s Brigade, 9pm, BBC Two: Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton takes ten chefs, from pubs, cafes and catering companies, on a culinary tour if Europe to give them a crash course in haute cuisine.

Survival Special, 9pm, ITV: A look at the Indian tiger population, and what the numbers mean for the future of this magnificent beast (who only occasionally comes to tea and drinks all the water in the tap).

Thursday 1st August

Britain’s Parking Hell 1/12, 8pm, Channel 5: A documentary about the nation’s parking problems sounds pretty dull, right? A twelve-part series sounds utterly intolerable. Good grief.

This Farming Life 1/4: new documentary series following six Scottish farming families as they battle the elements and everything else the business throws at them.

Eat, Shop, Save 1/4, 8:30pm, ITV: Ranvir Singh challenges more families to get fitter, eat better, and save money, in what could only be described as a triple-win. Provided the biscuits don’t prove too much of a temptation…

Britain’s Giant Pet Food Factory, 9pm, Channel 4: The Mars Petcare Factory churns out a staggering one million packets of pet food every day.

Friday 2nd August

Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: Return of the gently amiable show which is more about friendship and laughter than it is about fishing, as Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse travel the nation’s waterways and natter about this and that while failing to catch much. Tonight, they’re at the River Usk in South Wales.

Read our interview with Paul Whitehouse

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