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Great Britain in the Greek looking glass

Rather than offering any illumination into the causes of the Greek crisis, Channel 4's 'Go Greek for a Week' held the mirror up to British society's image of itself - but our delusions of fair play and national propriety are just that.
Julien Etienne
26 November 2011

Earlier this month Channel 4 broadcast ‘Go Greek for a Week’, a reality show cum documentary in which a fake Greek consultant visited three British citizens: a hairdresser, a bus driver, and an orthopaedic surgeon. He proposed to each that they ‘go Greek’, which means, as the audience quickly realises, retiring early with handsome pensions, being paid all sorts of extras for doing one’s job according to description, cheating on tax, and paying and being paid bribes.

No reference was made to those Greeks who earned very mediocre wages (especially the young) well before the recent austerity and economic depression pushed wages even further down, those who cumulate two or three jobs to make ends meet, or those who abide by the law despite being mocked by their fellow countrymen.

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Channel 4 inadvertently illustrate Britain's self-image

Hence, the message was clear and unambiguous. The simple step from learning about abuse and corruption in Greece to formulating a generalised stereotype was left up to the audience to take, but no doubt the shock and disbelief experienced by the three volunteers, at the bidding of programme producers, encouraged many viewers to make the assumption.

In these times of revived Euroscepticism and deep economic trouble in the UK, the message that ‘we’ here are doing things right and all of ‘them’ are doing things wrong might be comforting to many, and perhaps might make the austerity pill more digestible. How could the audience react otherwise? The three volunteers picked by Channel 4 were ideally picked: polite, cheerful and reasonably law-abiding. They reacted as many in the UK would probably expect them to: enjoying the extra money and the free time, feeling wronged when they must pay bribes and feeling guilty when they are cheating on the tax man.

In fact, ‘Go Greek for a Week’ was not so much a broadcast about Greece and the Greeks than one about Britain and the British people, or at least a romanticised image of both: as the programme implied, all British citizens pay their taxes and do their jobs as they are expected to. The grannies at the bingo club might earn very small pensions but, as the hairdresser reminds us, at least ‘they deserve it’ because they have worked until they were old enough to retire. Most important of all, surgeons, hairdressers, old ladies at the bingo club and bus drivers all came to the right conclusion in a momentous national unity of understanding: it is no wonder the Greeks are in such a bad place right now. The UK is doing absolutely fine - or so it seems in the world of ‘Go Greek for a Week’.

Which is why the show helped the audience imagine how bad it would be if the British all 'went Greek'. As viewers were told, there would be no NHS (neither the ongoing reform to radically transform the NHS nor the cuts to the NHS budget were mentioned). There would be no funding for essential functions of the state either (then again problems in funding education, the police, or the army as it used to in the UK were not mentioned). All because of a massive loss of tens of billions of pounds that would not be paid by taxpayers to HM Revenue & Customs. The programme did not suggest to viewers that, like many Greek businesses and especially the shipping industry, many businesses in the UK might not have been all paying what they owe the state’s coffers. The audience was not invited either to imagine that wealthy individuals or companies could have been using elaborate schemes and British tax havens with the help of the City in order to escape tax, or even been making direct deals with the Revenue & Customs’ administration for the same purpose. And that is a pity, for a less blinkered and stereotypical treatment of Greece's problems would have helped us viewers understand how it feels to ‘go Greek’ not only as individual hairdressers, bus drivers, or surgeons, but as a whole country tightening its belt while others profit.

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