Amir Khan’s reality-TV therapy: no knockout

In a new Channel 4 series, the British Muslim boxer tries to whip six young reprobates into shape. It's Supernanny with the gloves off.

Rob Lyons

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Dontcha just hate celebrities on a mission? After celebrity chef Jamie Oliver telling schools how to feed our kids (despite having not the first clue about mass catering) and cheeky footballer Ian Wright trying to get fat kids thin (possibly by burning calories as they grind their teeth at his irritating manner), we now have Amir Khan: professional boxer, teenage Olympic silver medallist – and Muslim.

In Amir Khan’s Angry Young Men, the Commonwealth lightweight boxing champion is trying to turn round the lives of six young reprobates who have got a bad habit of getting themselves into the wrong kind of fights. The general idea is that Khan can inspire them to change their ways, using as a glowing example his discipline as a boxer and his faith as a Muslim.

‘Paddy’ (his real name is Tommy) tells Khan about his fighting past, usually involving losing the plot while drunk. He’s been lucky; in the past, people have had a go at him with a variety of implements including a baseball bat, a crowbar and an axe. As a result of his fighting (along with a bit of thieving and joyriding), he’s spent 18 months in prison. The other lads (Anthony, Derek, Jake, Niamat and Paul) all share Paddy’s short fuse and a taste for getting blotto.

This love of inebriation has its downsides. Holed up in a guest house in Khan’s home town of Bolton in north-west England, the lads decide that there would be no better way of bonding than a big night out on the sauce. Back at the guest house, Derek’s chippy paranoia soon develops into handbags at dawn with one of the other lads. And, as they soon discover, training on a hangover is a pretty miserable experience.

Next day, it’s off to the gym at Bolton Wanderers Football Club where Khan trains in the run-up to his big fights. After their 30-minute assessment, the boys are absolutely knackered. A life of booze, fags and little exercise, apart from legging it from the police on match days, is far from ideal preparation for boxing. There’s worse to come when they’re taken to a local assault course run by an ex-army sergeant who still likes things done a certain way – what he catchily refers to as ‘pain-assisted learning’. There follows a vigorous team-building exercise resulting in Paddy throwing up from the effort involved. Meanwhile, Derek decides he’s had enough and walks out.

The flipside to all this physical activity is going out for a curry with the Khan family. Mum and dad are incredibly supportive and Amir sympathises with the lads who have not always been as fortunate as him in having a loving home to go to. We also hear about Khan’s faith; apparently, Fridays down the mosque are a great time for him to indulge in some quiet contemplation.

And what do we learn from this? Well, for one thing we learn that celebrity intervention is no cure-all, as the departure of Derek has already illustrated. Khan comes across as likeable and extremely down-to-earth, earnestly determined to help these young men (if not exactly blessed with charisma). But what determines whether somebody really changes their life for the better is a personal choice, not some reality TV therapy.

There’s also the implication that these boys just have lots of aggression bottled up and they need an outlet for it – hence, the boxing. But human beings aren’t like champagne bottles, full of bubbles that need to be let out safely or you’ll have someone’s eye out with the cork. The young men in this series have failed to control their tempers in the past because they see little reason to do so. It may be that over the course of the four programmes, for one reason or another – boxing, home life, weariness with being in trouble – some of them will make a firm decision to do things differently. But running them ragged in a Bolton gym won’t make that choice for them.

The twist with this series is the religion. The message is that having some kind of faith or external moral code – it doesn’t have to be Islam, just anything – will be a useful framework for life. That’s probably true from the point of view of personal behaviour – even if the moral code is the Marquis of Queensbury rules rather than the Koran. But such a code can’t just be foisted on someone. It needs to have some importance for that person or it will remain as meaningless as the relentless search for ‘values’ so typical of New Labour.

For me, the defining thought as I watched the programme was: this is lazy-arsed, formulaic television. You can change the setup, from the supernanny lecturing parents to the little Hitler making some fat bloke look at his own faeces to scaring parents about their children’s futures, but the essential narrative is the same. An expert comes in to meet people who are troubled in some way. Over the course of one programme or a series, some will sink, some will swim. The good people are the ones who take the message from the experts on board and transform their lives. This is the kind of hackish storytelling that was once purely the preserve of women’s magazines with their endless makeovers and TOTs (triumphs over tragedy) but is now epidemic on TV – particularly on the home of Amir Khan’s Angry Young Men, Channel 4.

The real message of boxing is not about wanton violence but about the benefits of devoting yourself to a discipline even if it hurts sometimes, spending endless hours of effort with no certainty of the outcome. Unfortunately, the commissioners at Channel 4 haven’t learned that good, serious television requires exactly the same commitment.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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