Left wondering why…

Tom Farsides watches 'The Secret Helpers' on BBC Two.

Each programme in this five-part series focuses on two people identified as likely to benefit from some special help during a challenging time in their lives. In the first programme, Dan receives help in the run-up to his wedding to Suzy, and Brett is helped in the days after he and his wife Jess bring home their newborn twins. The website accompanying the show for some reason makes it clear that the people receiving help are ‘Brits’.

The help comes via an earpiece from a panel of (non-British!) ‘wise strangers’ or ‘sages’. In the first programme, these are ‘an Irish nun, a traditional healer and her friend from South Africa, a couple of retired cops from New York, two Italian mamas and a Norwegian health guru’.

I feared the show would be utterly predictable and derivative, rely on and perpetuate lazy stereotypes, encourage narcissistic judgmentalism, be jam-packed with artifice presented as reality, and try to mawkishly manipulate viewers’ emotions. Fears that proved not entirely groundless. The series definitely fits the genre of what might be called ‘Bless and Tut TV’. ‘Bless’ you’ll say (as a BBC 2 viewer) when Dan’s backstory is revealed and Brett’s modern manliness unfolds. ‘Tut’ you’ll go when you hear some of the advice given and by whom! I feel that I now have a much deeper appreciation of both terms when used in the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’.

Much of the viewing pleasure came from the abundant charm and dignity of the two men allegedly receiving help. They are nice people with noble intentions in ‘everyman’ situations. It would be hard for any humane viewer not to want things to go well for them. They certainly win over the sages’ hearts. One expert in particular became a lot more sympathetic in all senses as she gradually transformed from slightly suspect ‘Transmitter of Wisdom’ to genuine well-wisher.

It was difficult to fully commit to the invitation for a group hug of warm wonderfulness, though. Partly this was a trust issue. Friends and family of those helped had been given a cover story to explain the cameras and what-not, but it wasn’t entirely clear precisely what they had been told or whether they had been given any particular instructions. At times, the actions and reactions around the central characters were clearly spontaneous, genuine and emotionally affecting. At other times, they were weird and provoked suspicion, such as when Brett the avowed atheist stumbled part-way through intoning a Christian blessing over his children, to Jess’s amused bewilderment.

It is interesting to speculate why this series has five episodes of two stories each rather than ten shorter episodes with a single ‘cleaner’ story apiece. Time will tell but my suspicion is that the programme’s formula will quickly become too apparent and its beneficial effects will wear off with repeated doses. Brett and Dan both seemed to appreciate and to genuinely benefit from the input they received from the Gogglebox-like voices in their heads, but maybe this was partly because they themselves are such nice people. In their position, I suspect that I would have felt like I was in an episode of Black Mirror and would have spent much of my time trying not to scream.

- Reviewed by Tom Farsides, University of Sussex

Watch the programme now.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber