'Heard the one about Joe Lycett taking on sewage firms? Warning, it might make you angry'

TV columnist Ian Hyland shares his take on Joe Lycett vs Sewage

Joe Lycett pictured with Jon Sopel. (Channel 4)
Joe Lycett pictured with Jon Sopel. (Channel 4)

If you haven’t already exhausted your supply of shock and rage on Mr Bates Vs The Post Office and ITV’s new COVID drama Breathtaking, Joe Lycett would like a few moments of your time.

On Channel 4 on 20 February, Joe turned his attention to an equally controversial and potentially even more damaging scandal.

In Joe Lycett Vs Sewage, the comedian and campaigner looked at the hazardous state of our filthy waters.

It was a shocking and sobering – and funny, obviously – documentary which left me with two main questions. What can be done about it? And why are well-known entertainers the only people who seem to be making any noise about it?

Joe followed in the famous footsteps of singer Feargal Sharkey, who has been raging against sewage leaks for decades; and comedian Paul Whitehouse, who last year took time out from his important fishing duties to make the hard-hitting BBC2 series Our Troubled Rivers.

As Joe pointed out, isn’t it about time the government actually did something about the problem?

If we are indeed in a general election year, I’d suggest that fixing issues such as the sewage crisis could be a vote winner for Rishi Sunak and his party.

I’m a simple man, though. Which is why I should probably stick to television and leave the job of holding politicians to account to Laura Kuenssberg.

What I will say is I found it very interesting that on the morning of Joe’s documentary hitting our screens, the environment secretary Steve Barclay, whose job it is to oversee the regulation of water companies, was on Good Morning Britain ignoring any suggestion that him being married to a senior executive of Anglian Water could be seen as a conflict of interests. (See note below)

Joe Lycett Vs Sewage. (Channel 4)
Joe Lycett pointed out, isn’t it about time the government actually did something about the problem? (Channel 4)

Without the luxury of sharing a daily breakfast with the main players, Joe decided his best chance at securing access to the table was via direct action.

This wasn’t his first rodeo in that respect, of course. As well as famously changing his name to Hugo Boss during his Got Your Back consumer series, he has also had well-publicised brushes with the likes of Shell, David Beckham and Suella Braverman.

His sewage work began in suitably grim circumstances, with him strolling past foreboding barbed wire fences against a grey and drizzly backdrop.

“It’s 8am and I’m outside a sewage works on the South Coast,” he announced, sounding like he was auditioning to be the worst stand-in for ITV competition pest Andi Peters ever.

He was actually there to ask a simple question: “How have we got to the point where everyone seems to be fine with loads of shit in our waters?”

Following the obligatory sciencey bit, he was given an answer of sorts by one of the lab people: In order to fund the necessary upgrades to our sewage storage capacity the privatised water companies would have to find £350-600bn.

Unfortunately, privatised companies often prefer to spend their money on issuing massive dividends to their shareholders.

That’s where the picture became murkier, as Joe delved into just how often the water companies illegally dump untreated sewage and just how much spin is involved in covering up their actions. The answer in both cases? A mind-boggling amount.

Turdcast, the spoof podcast Joe Lycett made with Gary Lineker (Channel 4)
Turdcast, the spoof podcast Joe Lycett made with Gary Lineker (Channel 4)

These findings spurred Joe on in his quest and, as with his previous stunts, that’s where the fun was to be had. Well, I say fun. Some of his comedy bits did rely a little too heavily on schoolboy humour.

To be fair, Joe admitted at the outset that he finds poo hilarious so we should have known what to expect. Plus, for every prop-based comedy mishit there was a proper laugh to be had elsewhere.

Joe’s t-shirt nod to Channel 4’s former poo-in-Tupperware nuisance Gillian Mckeith was a subtle joy, while his description of LinkedIn deserves a spot in the next Oxford Dictionary update: “A sort of Grindr for middle-management jobs and sales.”

I also enjoyed his take on Turdcast, the spoof podcast he made with Gary Lineker to promote his big stunt: “Like all podcasts, it’s two celebrities talking crap.”

As for the stunt itself – Joe “accidentally” releasing 400 litres of raw sewage (note: it was actually harmless fake sewage) into the water at Liverpool’s Albert Dock – I’m afraid it didn’t quite produce the media reaction he’d been hoping for.

The response to this documentary will surely make up for that lack of interest, but the media’s indifference did highlight a potential problem Joe could now face: everyone is onto him and his cunning stunts.

Fingers crossed he manages to come up with a way of overcoming that issue and carries on campaigning.

Partly because the resulting TV programmes are always a good watch, but mainly because I have a question for him: Joe, have you tried travelling on the UK’s trains lately?

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Steve Barclay was on Good Morning Britain. (Getty)
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Steve Barclay was on Good Morning Britain. (Getty)

NOTE: On Good Morning Britain, Steve Barclay said: "I think the key with any conflict is to have transparency, for everything to be open and declared. I think the applies across the board. There's lot of other examples of potential conflict of interest, the key is how are those managed? So everything has been done in accordance of the ministerial code and done in a transparent way.

"And of course spouses will have their own jobs and their own careers, what matters is is in this role, whether I am holding the water companies to account and that is absolutely what I am committed to doing. That is why I am toughening up the regime in terms of bonuses.

"It's why I'm ending the culture of self referral in terms of inspections by a step change in number of unannounced inspections. It's why as a government we put in place unlimited fines and why we've got a clear plan in terms of plan for water to get significantly more investment into the sector. A whole range of measures we are taking to better hold the water companies to account. I absolutely recognise the frustrations that many people feel about the sewage going into our system and that we need to take more robust action to tackle that."

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