Rich House, Poor House - hats off to Hat Trick Productions

By Bernadette Meaden
April 15, 2017

George Orwell said, “During a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”. In its own gentle way, a reality TV programme on Channel Five could be said to be revolutionary, as it quietly but firmly rejects a dominant political narrative of our time, and demonstrates that poor people are the same as rich people. They simply have less money.

That’s always been the truth.  But over recent years, wealthy and privileged people have sought to persuade us that poverty is not really about lack of money, and poor people are largely to blame for their own poverty. Even in the last week, Damian Green has said that the root causes of poverty are “not financial”.

This political narrative has been bolstered by ideologically driven newspapers and a new genre of reality TV, ‘poverty porn’, which invited the public to pass judgement on people living in poverty, reinforced stereotypes, and eschewed empathy.  So it has been a delight and a relief over the past few weeks to watch a series called Rich House, Poor House.

In each show, a family from the bottom ten per cent of the income scale swaps their home and budget with a family from the top ten per cent. They live in each other’s houses for a week, getting a taste of what life is like at the other end of the income scale. There is very little social or political comment, the reality is allowed to speak for itself, and as viewers we draw our own conclusions.

In each show, the families are filmed receiving the cash which will be their budget for the week, after housing and bills have been paid. The delighted incredulity of a poor family realising they will have £1,661 to spend, whilst the rich family bleakly count out their £113 speaks volumes.  

The much-touted idea that poor people can’t budget properly is shown to be as ridiculous as it obviously is, as the rich family soon realise they have to watch literally every penny they spend. And when you see that a family of four with two adults working, including Mum getting up at 4.30 am to work on the bins, is still in poverty, the idea of hard work as a panacea starts to look pretty shaky.

The families featured in the show are loving, decent, reasonable and open-minded, and genuinely attempt to understand how the other families live, without criticism or judgement. Refreshingly, there seemed to be no attempt on the part of the production company to exploit or sensationalise in order to create a social media storm. Indeed, with the exception of one episode, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and when negative comments occurred the production company tried to correct them in a polite way. 

After being so impressed by the programme, I did a little research and found a newspaper article from when the production company, Hat Trick Productions, was recruiting families for the show. Jonathan Townsend, an assistant producer with the company said: "The ambition of the programme is to look at the role money plays in shaping a family's life through the eyes of the families experiencing how the other half live.

“Tonally, while there is real purpose to this programme in its timely subject matter, we also want it to be heart-warming, funny and ultimately uplifting for the families taking part and for those watching. After all, whatever our financial circumstances, the most valuable things in our lives are our loved ones and that is a truth universal to all families."

By telling this truth, and many other truths in a respectful, generous and warm-hearted way, Hat Trick Productions have shown that in an increasingly divided society, television, like good literature, can give us a glimpse into other people’s lives and elicit empathy, compassion, and understanding. Rich House, Poor House is a very welcome antidote to poverty porn, and everybody involved should be thanked and congratulated for that.  


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden



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