Sunday 17 November 2019

Last night’s TV: Secret Millionaire

Diarmuid Doyle saw several different versions of the Irish male on view last night.

On Secret Millionaires (RTE1), a rich businessman pretended to be somebody else whilst preparing to give away some of his money to communities and charities in need.

On Paul Connolly Investigates Ireland’s Sex Tourists (TV3), two Irish men – their faces disguised so their friends couldn’t recognise them – travelled to Hamburg and Prague to give away some of their money to lap dancers and prostitutes.

Secret Millionaire was a powerful and moving account of one man’s attempt to give back a little of what he got, as he put it himself, but it was Ireland’s Sex Tourists which held the greater fascination, if only because this kind of investigation has never been done in this country before, certainly not as comprehensively as this.

Connolly is to be congratulated, therefore, for finding two people willing to allow him to tag along for their weekends, although it quickly became clear that they had nothing to say for themselves, no capacity to analyse what they were doing, what it said about them, or how it affected the women they were with.

Once you’ve seen one chap get a lap dance or lie naked on a table waiting for a “massage”, you’ve seen them all. For a programme on sex, therefore, this was often quite dull, a bewildering collection of visits to brothels and sex clubs with two inarticulate men.

The men in question – Stephen in his 20s and Ian in his 30s – must be regretting their decision to co-operate this morning.

Though their faces were shaded, they would have been instantly recognisable to anybody who knew them. Given the rate at which TV3 repeats its own shows, that’s a danger they’re going to have to live with for many years to come.

Without any evidence, Connolly claimed that tens of thousands of Irish men travel abroad each year for a spot of sex tourism, to places like Prague and Hamburg, where the sex trade is either tolerated or completely legal.

Thousands of sex workers are employed in each city, and Connolly talked to several of them, and to those who campaigned on their behalf.

Most of them seemed happy enough in their jobs, although prostitution doesn’t seem like the kind of job where you slag off your employer.

Some of the women took pride in their work, others made a distinction between lap dancing and prostitution while still more spoke easily about what they did but didn’t like the names that it was called.

Twenty-one-year old Nicoletta said she didn’t like the term prostitute, before disappearing into a bedroom with Stephen. “I like working here. I like dancing. I like sex”. Unlike Stephen, her face wasn’t shaded.

Ian and Stephen travelled over on a Friday and back on a Sunday night (Ian to Hamburg, Stephen to Prague) and left no minute unwasted, starting off in saunas or massage parlours and progressing – if that’s the right word – to brothels.

Connolly was anxious to find out what they thought of what they were doing and who they were doing it with. “It’s the same as when you rent something, it’s yours for that time”, said Ian, who had complained earlier that parts of Amsterdam were a bit seedy.

Though he had “110% respect” for the women, having sex with them “means nothing”, he said. He did agree that sex would be a lot better, “a lot more intimate” in a relationship.

Connolly suggested to Stephen that the women were just “empty sexual shells” to him, a proposition with which he readily agreed. “They’re jobs and you’re just helping them along the way”, he said, as though he was a Secret Millionaire himself.

Not much chance of that. After spending an hour in the sex clubs of Hamburg and Prague, it was a relief to come back home and see the best of what Ireland has to offer.

Secret Millionaire takes three very rich businessmen (no women, for some reason) from their comfort zones and places them in a community ravaged by poverty, drugs and lack of opportunity. There they identify people and charities which could do with some help and write them big cheques.

Last night’s millionaire, John Concannon, from plastics company JFC Manufacturing, was as likeable a character as has been on our screens in a long time and his lack of pretension, and easy way with whomever he met, was one of the programme’s attractions.

We were on his side from the start when we saw him being royally patronised by Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show in 1987, an experience he survived to create a business worth €30m.

That has left him in a position where he had €40,000 to give away to three groups – Pieta House, St Mark’s Rangers soccer club in West Dublin and a Carer’s Resource Centre in the same area.

All three beneficiaries were identified by chance meetings; if Secret Millionaires is about anything, it’s about the role luck and chance can play in our lives.

Critics will complain that it’s a dysfunctional odd society where communities are helped by millionaires on reality tv shows rather than by the government.

They’re right, up to a point, but when governments have walked away from that responsibility, and have no intention of returning to it for many years to come, people will take help any way they can get it.

Secret Millionaire highlighted the sterling work many people are doing on a voluntary basis all over the country, and found a way to help them as well.

That it managed to do it in a way that was sympathetic and moving was a bonus.

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