Whatever Mary Portas says in the various interviews she’s given about her new show ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’, Tuesday’s airing of the programme featuring Roman Road was little more than the same script we’ve seen played out in most of her recent series. It may have been a fresh approach all those years ago when she first clattered on to our screens, but it’s now a tired, tawdry format that her production company have milked almost to death. Indeed according to some of the local traders involved the experience was less than regal for many of them.
Amongst all the hype and hyperbole that’s surrounded the Mary’s involvement in the government’s high street revival plans, she’s always been right about one thing. This is a serious issue, affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people. So it deserved rather more that what we saw on Tuesday. This should have been a serious documentary. Instead we got a barely watchable ‘show’ as in ‘show-biz’.
As with most of her more recent programmes this was all about Mary, dressed up to the nines, posing for the cameras and promoting the Portas brand. Mary sashaying about , Mary pointing and gesticulating and having staged encounters with traders and the general public. Mary deep in discussion with the public about how well or otherwise she comes across on TV.
Time that should have been spent dealing with serious structural problems facing the area was wasted on jaunts to Paris and interminable tracking shots of Mary walking up and down rows of stalls talking about rain covers. Finally we had her usual trademark finale set piece : This time a good old East End knees-up. Just in case she hadn’t already patronised the locals enough.
Yet we’re told there wasn’t enough time in all this to feature progress she claims to have made with the council over parking charges and restrictions. Probably the one thing that most of the retailers in the area were most concerned about. Certainly something that was in her report and something she suddenly seems to have accepted as key to regeneration, albeit maybe only in interviews in the run up to her new show. It was also something that was raised in her early brief encounter with the hairdressers in the programme. Oddly enough we never seemed to return to them to discover what they thought of her ‘improvements’ to the area.
She claimed at the outset that it wasn’t going to be a makeover show, yet that’s exactly what we got. When it came to it she couldn’t resist calling on her old standby approach : Pick one hapless retailer, march into their shop and spend a few moments deriding their wares.
“Who’d buy that?” is one of her stock phrases, usually followed by a plaintive reply from the retailer that it’s one of their best lines. Pure dismissal of the experience of the person that’s been there for a fair bit longer than she has, but good camera fodder, as she knows so well. Then she sets about turning them into something more appealing. Or rather her ‘team’ does. Usually an easy win given that she usually picks on a store that even the most inexperienced shopkeeper could improve with a good clear-out and a lick of paint.
Yes the bric-a-brac shop looked great after the refit, and I totally agree that the person running the store was missing a trick. But what she produced was a fully formed, niche retail experience. Only problem is the niche customers are mostly in Mary’s head. True, she found one or two in the local area, but one or two aren’t going spend enough to pay the proprietors rent, the rates and subsidise the council’s parking charges, nor would their business foot the bill for the fabulous refit, which I suspect was actually paid for by the TV company. Mary’s hunch that these few boho locals were going to turn this person’s business around certainly didn’t justify the ludicrous idea that this small shop could be converted into an ‘anchor store’,
The anchor store concept, which she borrowed from larger retail developments, requires a huge, already established, store to burst on the scene bringing in it’s loyal band of customers. It’s not something you can create simply by dint of location, as appears to be the case here. Certainly something that’s difficult to achieve from a standing start. Still I suppose it made it all Mary’s thrashing around for ideas seem terribly scientific and purposeful. But in the end it was just tinkering, and tinkering with someone else’s business at that. But then that’s always easier to do when you don’t have to face the consequences a few months down the line, as one or two other stores Mary has ‘made-over’ in the past have reportedly done.
The end of the show left more questions than answers. What indeed had been done about the parking? How were the original stallholders doing after Mary’s changes? How many of them were left? Were any of them removed to make way for her newcomers? How were the existing Food & Beverage uses doing in the face of the new competition she’s introduced?
I’ve never doubted Mary’s veracity or her enthusiasm for what she’s doing. At the outset I was optimistic that she had the public profile as well as the chutzpah to fight the corner for retail against an obviously blasé government.
But since her report was published she’s been swept away with the razzmatazz that was introduced by the government officials behind it. The Willy Wonka Golden Ticket claims from the then minister responsible Grant Shapps. The audition videos to became a Portas Pilot. The branding of the whole experience itself. It’s like it was all designed to take the focus off the most important issues facing retailers today : Rent, Rates and Parking, all of which were highlighted in Mary’s report only to be subsequently ignored by Shapps and his successor Mark Prisk.
Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that government spin doctors, much more accomplished in the dark arts of misdirection than Portas, used her wide eyed naïveté and dangled such shiny things in front of her. She could easily have eschewed such distractions and pushed home her very well pitched report. Refused to be driven off the course that she has constantly claimed to be on : That of dealing with the structural issues that have destroyed the high street over the past several years. But when the chips were down she instead took the government’s shilling and disappeared down her usual rabbit hole of self promotion, hoopla and car crash, reality TV sham.
Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!
In a final twist of the ridiculous, Mary is now starting to claim that criticism of her is based on a political motive. Where this originates from is a mystery to most commentators, certainly to me. She’s quite right that she was given the perfect opportunity to cut through the political divides with her appointment by David Cameron all those moons ago. But she blew it when let herself be sucked into the party machinery that she’s now crying foul of. That has a lot less to do with politics and more with personal interest and ego. Something no one has ever accused her of lacking in abundance.
If this first show is what we can expect as the culmination of her grand masterwork, I really don’t think it was worth the wait. At best it was boring and mildly entertaining. At worst it was selling retailers up the river for some cheap voyeurism and an easy TV fee.
With the air date having apparently put back several times, it showed all the hallmarks of something cobbled together to try to fulfil the hopes of her TV production company. The same company that has been tagging along since the Portas Pilot winners were announced and the same company that allegedly lobbied government over the most TV friendly locations to award the pilot money to.
In the end the only ratings values these people care about are the ones for the show, not those forcing many of the faces they’re using on screen out of business.
Ultimately what we saw achieved nothing, except to fill a Portas sized hole in the Channel 4 schedule. I like to think the livelihoods of independent retailers up and down the country are worth more than that. Up until last night I thought Mary Portas felt the same.