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Why Millionaire's lost its secret thrill

The wisest thing to have done with The Secret Millionaire, in which a rich person goes among the less fortunate and doles out wads of philanthropic cash, would have been to make one series and leave it at that.

Except television doesn't work that way. The medium has rarely come up with an idea it didn't want to milk.

The Secret Millionaire has been milked dry. Watching the opening episode of the third series, you begin to think the gaff must be well and truly blown by now. Disadvantaged people watch television, don't they? Some of them must have seen at least one episode.

Surely those opening their doors and their lives to a well-manicured, dressed-down stranger with a camera crew in tow must have an inkling that all is not what it seems.

Thus The Secret Millionaire becomes a game, a competition. It's the X Factor of hardship, the Oscars of suffering. Who has the saddest history? Who has endured life's cruelties the most nobly? Who is most deserving of the big cash handout?

The millionaires are carefully chosen. You won't find any toffs who live on inherited money and blithely pass homeless beggars on the street here. The philanthropists all come from humble backgrounds and had to haul themselves up by their bootstraps.

This week's was Paul Ragan, who spent a large chunk of his childhood caring for his schizophrenic mother, which can't have been easy. He made his £10 million fortune in the insurance business.

Paul began by showing us his collection of expensive leather jackets, one of which cost £1,250. Paul once spent £28,000 on clothes in a single day. "My wife retaliated by buying a horse," he says, although the animal still cost less than Paul's new wardrobe.

Paul has six horses, even though he can't ride. His wife says he's a Jekyll and Hyde character. From Monday to Friday, "he's a werewolf who goes out and gets what he wants". At the weekends, he's the perfect father to their four children.

So, Paul catches the train to Derby, where he pretends to be making a documentary about carers.

He's most taken with an 11-year-old girl called Sophie, who looks after her terminally ill mother while her father is at work. Like Paul, Sophie's childhood is being stolen from her.

Paul writes a cheque for £5,000, so the family can go on holiday, and invites them to come and stay at his house. "I just want to be a friend for life," he says.

He gives £10,000 to Maria, a woman who has endured 16 serious operations for a painful neurological disorder, yet still finds time to organise charity car-washes for others.

But he reserves the largest amount, £50,000, for a couple who need to raise £300,000 to bring their four-year-old son, who's suffering from a rare form of cancer, to the US for potentially life-saving treatment.

"This is the one that has been the most life-changing for me," says Paul.

For all its good intentions and shortlived feelgood glow, The Secret Millionaire is bogus and patronising. All it does is temporarily paper over the cracks in unfortunate lives with banknotes.

TOMORROW: Pat reviews Retail Therapy with Feargal Quinn (RTE1) and gets a kick out of Sidekick Stories (BBC4)

Stacey's Stars

The Secret Millionaire **