It seems probable that one of the reasons Carillion's Sir Neville Simms – about as big a builder as you can get – chose to take part in this week's edition of the dismal series Back to the Floor (BBC2, 6 December, 10pm) was that he was confident that he might project himself as something other than the public's hackneyed conception of a builder as a greedily insensitive proactive vandal. It has to be said that he succeeded – but then the programme's formulaic premiss is so manifestly flawed and its approach so partial that if it elected to show, say, Adolf Hitler going "back to the floor" to do a spot of work with Alsatians on the ramp at Auschwitz, there can be little doubt that Hitler would come across as a terrific sport for having given his valuable time to an essentially frivolous project and would have shown his caring side in his sympathy for the arduous working conditions suffered by his lads in black.
The point is that Back to the Floor is an easy PR opportunity for its subject to seize. It is a dishonest form of telly. Like such abominations as Changing Rooms, and all the other cretinous makeover shows, it sets up a situation that would never have occurred save for the medium's intervention, declines to admit to that intervention, applies zero production values to the resultant awkward fiction, provides an infantile commentary (Neil Pearson with a cab driver's estuarial accent) and says or shows little of moment.
From this edition we can surmise, though I'm sure that we are not meant to, that the underclass tends not to look after its domestic premises and that sub-Span style houses of the 1960s have aged far worse than contemporary high-rise and point blocks.
What we are intended to learn from Simms' few days pretending to be assistant to the tenant liaison officer on a Birmingham estate (predictably "vast and notorious"), which Carillion is refurbishing, is that it's a tough job and a low-level bureaucratic nightmare, that the fluctuating structure of the wages earned by the labourers is an iniquity, and that the sell-off of publicly funded housing was unjust in ways not previously considered, as people who exercised their right to buy are resentful that their neighbours' houses are each getting £40K's worth of refurb.
We are supposed, I guess, to tut about the big boss' unfamiliarity with the procedures followed by tenant liaison officers and his jocularly denied ineptitude as a handyman. The implicit populist tabloid accusation is that Simms can't screw in a nail. The real tenant liaison officer is shown smiling to herself when he doesn't apply the rule of "like for like": for instance, if a house has one sort of taste-free wallpaper without a border, it is not permitted to replace it with two taste-free wallpapers and grotesque border.
We are supposed, I guess, to tut about the big boss’ jocularly denied ineptitude as a handyman. The implicit populist tabloid accusation is that Simms can’t screw in a nail
But why should Simms be expected to know the small print when his task is the big picture? It is enormously to his credit that he absorbs all the stuff that's chucked at him rather than bluster about it – well, he appears to absorb it. Wearing the blokeish and miraculously impervious-to-dirt, off-on-a-golfing-holiday kit of polo shirt and jeans that he donned through his week on the floor, he relays to his board of smugly grinning suits the lessons he has learned. And do they implement according changes? Yes and no.
Simms seems to be an intelligent and decent man. More importantly, he seems, like the best people in any area of endeavour, not to be institutionalised by the straitness of his trade.
The cartoonist and editor Mark Boxer, with whom I worked in the early 1980s, used a cutting form of distinction: is he/she bright for a builder/actuary/photographer, or is he/she bright full stop? Simms is bright full stop. So far.
Whether, subjected to a more demanding kind of telly inquisition, a documentary by Paul Watson or Francis Hanly, say, he would come through with such flying colours is moot – although I rather suspect he would, since the best sort of telly, rare today but not surely gone forever, has concerned itself with the revelation of intrinsic qualities rather than with low-level games.