Daytime TV: Debts and honour

Chilled by a Faustian tale, Gary Day finds an analysis of the UK's national debt both alarming and alarmist

November 11, 2010



Credit: Miles Cole


The Happiness Salesman

(BBC Two, Sunday 31 October, 11pm) was a 15-minute skin-prickling drama that was clever and cliched by turns. Christopher Eccleston was the man with the magic briefcase. He appeared, dark suited, in a wood. He is not going to find any customers there, is he?

So he strode through the undergrowth to a suburban house where Karen (Archie Panjabi) was singing her baby to sleep. He stirred slightly at the ring of the front doorbell. Would the salesman like a cup of tea? Yes, please. Would Karen like a career in music? "Who wouldn't?" she laughed. But he was serious.

And now she was intrigued. Could he really do that for her? How? He smiled. What would she have to do? The smile shrank a fraction. Would she like to see what her life would be like? He pushed his laptop towards her. "Type in a date." She tapped in "five minutes".

The house went eerily quiet. Claw marks three inches deep were gouged along the wall. Karen climbed the stairs in slow motion, a red glow emanating from her son's bedroom. The salesman, his mouth wide, his eyes a deep black, was about to eat the child. Perhaps she should have offered him a biscuit with that cup of tea.

"Why didn't you put in 10 years from now?" he said, as she bundled him out of the door. He dropped a knife through the letter box. She picked it up as the baby started to cry. The last twist in a tale that, despite its subject, had far more credibility than Martin Durkin's Britain's Trillion Pound Horror Story (Channel 4, Thursday 11 November, 9pm).

He wants to scare us with the size of the national debt, which he says is £4.8 trillion - about £77,000 for every man, woman and child in Britain, a sum that bankers probably give to their children as pocket money. But Durkin also wants to comfort us by showing how we can put things right.

First, though, the horror. Our children, their children, their children's children and so on until the crack of doom will have to pay for our profligacy. This, said Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, was profoundly immoral, a remark that carries great force coming from an organisation well known for its charitable campaigns to reduce taxes for the rich.

"How did we get into this mess?" asked Durkin. By governments spending too much. What's the solution? Slash expenditure, though not in the manner of George Osborne. His approach is like trying to cut down a forest with a nail file when what you need is an industrial chainsaw. The problem with the public sector, says Durkin, is that it doesn't create wealth, it consumes it. That's right. Nurses are paid far too much. They can't possibly need all those second homes.

James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare State We're In (2010), argued the case for the privatisation of public services. They would then be more efficient and customer focused. Anyone who doubts that claim need look only at the huge success of the railways, for which the passengers have nothing but praise.

The final part of Durkin's cunning plan to save Britain from total anarchy is to abolish taxation, or as near as damn it. Less tax means higher profits, more growth, more jobs and higher wages. Just like in Hong Kong, which is the model we should adopt in Britain.

Durkin also looked back to Britain's past. He strolled around Newcastle, admiring the free-enterprise culture of the 19th century when factory owners could send children down mines without government interference. Was this the same man who, earlier in the programme, had said we were condemning our children to slavery because of the bloated state of our public finances?

It's certainly the same man who has been criticised for making misleading documentaries. George Monbiot has drawn attention to Durkin's 1997 series for Channel 4 called Against Nature, which, among other things, compared environmentalists to Nazis. He quotes from a report by the Independent Television Commission that the programme makers had "distorted by selective editing" the views of the interviewees and "misled" them about the "content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part". Channel 4 was forced to make an apology. It was a similar story in 2007 with Durkin's The Great Global Warming Swindle.

There's plenty to challenge in Durkin's latest rant. Hong Kong, for example, which is held up as a shining example of a society flourishing because of free enterprise, has, according to the World Development Report 2004, seen an increase in poverty, with 100,000 living in "cage homes". But see what you think. Watch the programme tonight. Just beware The Happiness Salesman.

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