Whenever money changes hands on the box, there’s a nosey parker wanting to know where’s it going. “What are you going to spend it on?” It’s hard to avoid hearing that question on TV these days. In some situations it makes sense. If a game show is giving away a “life-changing sum of money”, asking the question turns that clichéd phrase into something more tangible: it tells us in what way a life will be changed.
But I’m less convinced when the question is used by the hosts of daytime TV’s various antiques shows. On Cash in the Attic (BBC2) the question is an integral part of the format. The programme-makers don’t want us to think about a stranger just getting money (ugh, ugly money!). No, they want us to think about someone getting horse-riding lessons for their grandchildren (mmm, lovely grandchildren!).
I don’t want to cast aspersions, but whenever I’ve watched the show the participants have seemed pretty well-to-do. I’ve never watched it and thought, “Crikey, if that vase doesn’t make the top of its estimate, they’ll never be able to afford that new patio furniture they’re after.”
In reality, the kind of people who have £800-worth of antiques knocking about the house are normally the kind of people who wouldn’t struggle to raise £800 by other means. That’s just the way the world works. On shows like Flog It! (BBC1) and Dickinson’s Real Deal (ITV), the question sloshes around like cheap wine and it is almost always inappropriate. If someone’s selling a candlestick for 40 quid, there’s no point in asking them what they’re going to spend it on. it’s only 40 quid!
I know that there are people in the world for whom £40 is a serious amount of cash. But asking them what they’re going to do with it wouldn’t make for edifying viewing. What would the presenters do if someone replied, “I’m going to turn my heating on for the first time” or “I’m not sure… but at least it’s saved me from going on the game”? These aren’t exactly the kind of answers you want to hear over a cup of tea.
The most interesting response I’ve heard to the question came during an episode of Flog It! when Paul Martin, the twinkle-eyed flirt of a host (pictured above), was clearly surprised by the sum raised for a German First World War helmet. It had been valued at between £200 and £300, but by the time the gavel dropped it had made £820.
“That’s a lot of money!” says Paul. “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” He could leave the question there. But he knows the answer he wants. He wants frivolity. So he suggests an answer: “Shopping?”
The punter shakes her head. “No,” she says firmly.
“No?” Martin looks surprised. He’s not used to some-one knowing what they’re going to spend the money on. He’s finally found one! “What, then?” he asks.
“Um…” Briefly, ever so briefly, she glances to the skies. “It’s going to go towards a memorial for my father,” she says.
Martin’s smile evaporates as he tries to recalibrate what his facial features should be doing. And it’s in that split second – the moment between the look of anticipation and the look of concern – that we see what looks like fear in his eyes. It’s a look that screams, “Why didn’t one of the researchers tell me about the dead dad? I wouldn’t have glibly suggested ‘shopping’ if I’d known about the dead dad!”
Of course, it’s easy to avoid getting an answer you don’t want. Just stop asking the bloody question.
Dave Gorman’s new series Modern Life is Goodish starts on Dave tonight at 10.00pm