About a year ago I received a letter inviting me if I would like to participate in a program called "Come Dine with Me" on Channel 4 as I recall. There was a paragraph or two explaining the nature of the show -- basically five contestants she take it in turns to cook for the others. Then, at the end of it all, everyone votes to decide who cooked the best meal. The show is also punctuated by brief interviews with each contestant in which they say what they liked and disliked.
Sounds innocuous enough I thought and mentioned it to Alice.
"You should definitely do it Dad" she said "the contestants cook awful food and say bitchy and sarcastic things about each other. You'd be perfect".
I think she intended it as a kind of complement.
But if I had ever entertained even the briefest flicker of interest in participating, Alice's rather overcandid appraisal of my suitability pretty much snuffed it out.
I pretended to be hurt.
After all, if the principal pre-requisite for the show is to be sarcastic and cook dreadful food, it's rather unsettling that, in Alice's eyes, I have both bases already covered.
She's probably right about the corrosive tongue. Despite repeatedly being told, as a child, that it was neither big nor clever, I've always found sarcasm to be both. You only have to look at the number of nations without an equivalent of this rapier-sharp linguistic weapon to acknowledge its power. It is something peculiarly British. Our language, with nearly 3 times as many words as others, is particularly conducive to sarcasm.
I'm probably also bang to rights on the food. Nobody who has ever experienced my lentil and bean sprout clafoutis would query my ability to create something inedible from normally promising ingredients, to somehow snatch culinary defeat from the jaws of gastronomic victory. My family lose track of the occasions where I have somehow managed to turn say eggs, milk and flour into a sort of chilled-omelette-sorbet-thing rather than the classic hot soufflé they were perhaps anticipating. My explanation about the spiritual value of walking the path less travelled is brushed aside as swiftly as the food itself.
But even with my impeccable qualifications for the show, it quickly becomes clear that the participants are infinitely worse, taking the word 'scathing' to dizzying new heights. It transpires that, in addition to passing judgement on the food, the guests are expected to wander around their host''s dwelling, treating the viewing public to their thoughts on the contents of sock drawers, wardrobes and wine cellars. Every nook, cranny and crevice is poked, prodded and probed. All is laid bare -- whether you buy your clothes at Top Man or at Gieves and Hawkes, all is fair game to the perfidious vipers who participate in the show.
By any standards, it's grim viewing. To be stuck in a room with one self opinionated narcissist is purgatory. Take five, all with volume control issues, and it's as near to hell as I can imagine. One minute the guests are oozing fulsome praise for the host and for his adventurous sprout terrine with a cabbage jus, only to then liken it, for the benefit of the cameras, it to a luminous green cowpat,
The whole notion of the show is, in any case, a ridiculous contrivance. If you put Tarquin Chinless-Wonder, Gazza and Betty Boop around the same table, it's a fair bet that conversation will be, at best, stilted. Betty will know as little about plover's eggs as Tarquin does about pink feather boas. But then of course, if they all got on like a house on fire, there would be no television programme.
I remember Castaway a decade or so ago, ostensibly a social experiment on the concept of community, where a group of people were abandoned on the island of Tarantsay. As a social experiment it was a success. For the most part, the people got on reasonably well. As a piece of prime-time television however, it was pretty lame. Until the producers hit upon the idea that the islanders needed to relax and also to find more of their own food. Their solution to this two-pronged conundrum was to supply the islanders with alcohol and guns respectively. Suddenly the program had an edge. Although, for the most part, still resolved through a series of civil verbal exchanges, there was now the possibility, however remote, that differences of opinion might instead find themselves subject to an armed response.
Castaway at least had some kind of sociological or scientific pretensions. But a situation as contrived as Come Dine with Me does not even have that. It's is more unreality than reality TV. With regard to scientific merit, it is rather like stamping on woodlice to see if they can support the weight of a human being.
But the show has served one useful purpose. I'm satisfied that no matter how sarcastic I become and no matter how badly I cook, I will never appear on the programme.
Well, maybe if there were guns...