Saturday, January 07, 2006


For personal reasons I've decided to take a break from writing this blog, in order to spend more time with my family. Which, if I were a politician, would mean I'd been caught on Hampstead Heath with a Rastafarian. Fortunately I haven't. Well, not with a Rastafarian. Come to think of it, I don't even have a family. Oh well...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Life of Brian

I have to admit to never having been a huge fan of East 17 in general, and of Brian Harvey in particular, but it's true to say that I've warmed to the man in recent years. Particularly since he gave up singing and started running himself over. But add to that his performance in 'House of Pies' on last year's 'I'm a Celebrity', and his girlfriend's complete lack of concern for him on 'The Farm', and I'm willing to admit I've become quite fond of the little gnome. So I was naturally excited to see last night's documentary 'Being Brian Harvey', screened as part of the BBC's 'ONE Life' series. The thought of 'being Brian Harvey' might be the kind of scenario more suited to scaring small children at Halloween, but with less than two weeks to go til Christmas, it certainly got me in the festive mood.

The programme began with Brian recovering in hospital from his near-fatal car crash, sustained earlier this year when he left his home in Walthamstow and promptly reversed over himself with his own car. Girlfriend Emma B (the B stands for breasts), who, upon hearing the tragic news of one of Brian's suicide attempts during her stint on reality shit-shovelling show 'The Farm', chose to stay where she was and battle it out with Keith Harris & Orville for the title of 'Top Farmer', was there keeping a vigil by Brian's bedside. So clearly her agent couldn't find her any work that day.

In a mood of sombre gravity, surgeon Martin Bircher showed us what he called the "oh shit x-ray" (it's a medical term), before announcing that Brian had sustained a crushed pelvis and severely damaged internal organs, and might even die. Yes, I know it's what millions have hoped for all these years, but this is no laughing matter - his vocal chords were completely undamaged.

Fortunately however, having undergone a bit of surgery and had half a Meccano set installed in his nether regions, Brian was allowed out of hospital under a blanket and headed to Emma B's "small basement flat in Hastings" for a bit of rest and recuperation. Once there, he was able to set the record straight about what really happened that dark night in June when he put the car in reverse and dived under the back wheels. Some have said it was suicide attempt, but Brian was adamant it was no more than a freak accident. Well, an accident involving a freak. As he said himself, "I'd eaten a load of jacket potatoes just before", he found himself "gagging" (so 'Stay Another Day' was probably on the car stereo), leading to the inevitable consquence of "I'm fucked". It couldn't be clearer.

Brian, however, wasn't a happy bunny. Having been declared bankrupt in 2001, he'd been eking out a living from celebrity TV appearances and guest spots at Butlins (which is no life for an animal), and was worried about where the next job might come from. Not that there was any need to be - in Brian's words, "I'm a realist. I say what I see", so he clearly has a future as a Catchphrase contestant.

As for his time in East 17, Brian spoke fondly of his experiences with the band, describing them as "four geezers from the east end of London, we smoke fags, we've all got birds and they're rough around the edges". Which is no way to talk about Emma B. Well ok, strictly speaking it is. But this is a woman who's apparently "put her modelling and TV career on hold to be there for him". Not much of a sacrifice, it's true, but we did see Brian calling plaintively from the bathroom for a towel, prompting Emma's immediate and caring response of "I'm downstairs".

Hang on... Downstairs in a basement flat??? Blimey, could those two sink any lower? It's like 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' in that place.

But anyhoo, when he's not talking about potatoes and picking at his scabs, Brian's watching TV and commenting that "Jerry Springer's gone downhill, hasn't he". The words pot, kettle and black spring to mind. Though in Brian's case of course, pot means something entirely different. He did give us his thoughts on his two previous suicide attempts however, saying "It weren't no cry for help. I meant it". A view which contrasted slightly with Emma B's opinion that "I don't think he wanted to die. It was a cry for help".

Of more concern however was the surgeon's warning that Brian's pelvic fracture may have left him permanently impotent. The thought of no little Brian Harveys wandering the earth in years to come was clearly a prospect to fill one with dread. Or joy, depending on your point of view. But as luck would have it, Brian was there to set our minds at rest by confirming that his penis "works like a dream". A wet dream for him. A nightmare for the rest of us.

So with Brian's erections fully discussed, it was on to the next stage of surgery. Dr Bircher was a little concerned because apparently people who break a pelvis can sometimes "go from being active, healthy, family people with a job" to being divorced, unemployed and on drugs. So in Brian's case there'll be no discernable change.

The operation, however, was a complete success, and Brian's recovery was going well. In the words of Emma B, "Now he can walk again, he's been talking about getting his career back on track". Damn that surgeon. But fortunately for music fans everywhere, Brian was finding it hard to leave the flat, meaning the chances of him making it to a recording studio were slim. And besides, he was worried about being mobbed by the fans. As he said himself, "I walk down the street and old ladies know who I am". Or possibly they just think you look like a mugger.

Ultimately though, it was hard going. Fobbed off by record companies, abandoned by Tony Mortimer, and estranged from his beloved Walthamstow, Brian Harvey felt like giving up. Step forward his manager, a man clearly being paid to be positive, who attempted to gee up the crestfallen Brian with this undeniable statement of fact: "You would be robbing the world of a great vocal if you never sang again".

Yes, but he'd also be making millions of people happy. It's a tough call.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Boldly Going Nowhere

Note: Most of this post was cobbled together in the early hours (ie. before 10am) of Thursday morning, on four hours sleep and three mugs of caffeine. Due to the pressures of daily life (ie. Christmas shopping) however, it was not finished until the following Monday morning, a good two days after the original programme had been heartlessly recorded over with Strictly Come Dancing by persons who shall remain nameless. So if this piece makes very little sense (ie. even less than usual), that's why. But if anyone would like to pay me good money to write this kind of thing on a professional basis, thus enabling me to sub-contract out my Christmas shopping to a family of Filipinos, and dedicate more time to the world of reality TV, then you can e-mail me here. Thanks.

One of my favourite television moments of 2003 was the episode of 'The Pilot Show' in which Channel 4 convinced a few desperate TV wannabes with learning difficulties that they'd passed the audition to go into space on a new reality show, and had no trouble persuading each of them to pose behind a cardboard cut-out of a rocket, and utter the immortal line "I'm going to the moon with Paul Ince and Stelios from EasyJet!". A believable proposition, clearly. Well, Endemol, the people behind both Big Brother and Noel Edmonds' TV comeback (I'm not sure which is the bigger crime), clearly saw the potential in that scenario, and have duly cranked it up to the nth degree in the fom of 'Space Cadets', possibly the first of a new breed of reality show - the reality hoax. It may not have Stelios from EasyJet, but it does have a load of people who share his love of self-publicity.

Back in June, Endemol advertised for people to take part in a new TV show, about which they would reveal only the vaguest details. Clearly only a fool would apply for a show they knew nothing about, which is handy as that's just what the producers were looking for. Judging by the audition tapes, the show attracted the usual mix of the stupid, the arrogant, the prejudiced, and the annoyingly camp, all of whom shared a desperate desire to be famous for doing nothing in particular. It's what scientists call the Jade Goody Syndrome.

The producers meanwhile, were busy turning a decommissioned military base in Suffolk into a mock-up of a Russian space training facility. A huge task, you might think, but speaking as someone who lives in the area, I'm no stranger to bottles of vodka and queueing for bread, so frankly if you want to recreate Russia, going for a field just outside Ipswich makes perfect sense.

Back at the auditions, the producers had enlisted the help of Professor Robert Edelmann to identify the most "highly suggestible" (ie. very, very gullible) applicants, which he did by means of a series of psychological tests. The first was the 'dot pattern test', in which the subject was asked to identify a face in colourful patterns of dots which actually contained no facial features whatsoever. Not that the wannabes let that put them off. The answers given ranged from "Boy George" to "the bottom half of a dolphin", and "an Italian priest with the Joker out of Batman's make-up on". Under normal circumstances of course, people such as these would immediately be referred for psychiatric care, but we're talking reality TV here, so instead of being locked up, it was on to the next round of auditions.

Having counted eyeballs in a jar, been strapped into sleeping bags, and then shut in a lift for twenty minutes (all everyday occurences in Suffolk), the remaining wannabes were asked to don blindfolds and dance around a room in silence, before being shipped off to an outward bounds course in Cumbria. Amongst them were three actors - Ranie, Steve and Charlie - charged with infiltrating the group like undercover moles on a secret mission, and helping to convince them that everything was above board.

And what actors they were. Charlie, whose cover story involved him being a poet, came up with this cast iron defence when challenged:

"I saw a pebble on the beach,
And it reminded me of you,
Or was it the dog behind,
Scratching its shit into the cold sand?"

Speaking as someone who once had a poem rejected by the Brighton Argus, I'd be quite proud of that.

Steve meanwhile was struggling with the physical aspects of the job, which involved abseiling, canoeing, and jumping off a bridge into a river. Like any half-decent thespian, he immediately threatened to call his agent, and complained he was sick, cold and underpaid, before asking for a Bafta, tossing his head about, and mincing off up a hill.

At the end of it all though, nine of the applicants were chosen, and together with the three actors, were taken off to Biggin Hill for a meeting with Johnny Vaughan, and a first opportunity to witness his (frankly startling) furry-hooded coat up close. Johnny informed the group that they would be flying into space (via Volgagrad), and with the annoying whoops of typical reality show contestants, they boarded the plane for Ipswich and began to discuss the business of pooing in zero gravity.

Of course, American billionaires have each paid about thirty million dollars for the privelege of going into space, so it seemed perfectly feasible to one and all that Channel 4 would be putting up the cash for a few members of the general public to do the same. After all, with the range of deeply irritating people involved, all Endemol need to do is let viewers vote on who should be shoved out of the airlock first, and they can make that hundred million back in a week.

Monday, December 05, 2005

C Thatch

Well, after two weeks of tummy ticks, snake-stroking and alfresco urination, lead vocalist of the world's newest celebrity supergroup, Carol Thatcher, was tonight crowned Queen of the Jungle and the winner of 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here' 2005. And frankly she deserved it. With fish eyes, witchetty grubs and a kangaroo's testicle, the only thing she hasn't eaten in the past fortnight is humble pie.

Admittedly I was firmly in the camp of little Jimmy Osmond, if only for his similarity to Ned Flanders, and shameless ownership of a bear called Hummy, but if Jimmy couldn't win, then rather C Thatch than a woman called Smurph or man with a smile too big for his mouth. Not that I didn't like Sid and Sheree, but the former only worked as David Dickinson's straight man (the words "I need to go up, Sid" will hereafter be held with great affection in my heart), and the latter's main appeal lay in her ability to embarrass her husband.

Still it's nice to know that Harry Kewell has stretch marks, horrible feet, a hairless body, peachy bum and no toenails, and that Sheree has never had a ball in her mouth. Well not since Friday when Bobby left.

Ultimately though, there was only one winner, and it had to be Thatch. The woman sucked on marsupials' privates, did a mean version of 'See you Later Alligator', and looked surprisingly good in a wetsuit. If only the same could be said of her mother.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


I do like a good docu-soap. I've never actually seen one, obviously, but I always live in hope, and while I'm waiting, there's always 'Big Red Bus', the latest offering from BBC1, which sounds like it should be on CBeebies, but probably isn't intellectually stimulating enough.

The show covers all aspects of bus-driving (including getting blown up - but that's not until next week), with tonight's edition focusing on the trials and tribulations of the trainee bus driver. Apparently "it's like the wild west on London's streets for trainee bus drivers", presumably because they're always being shot at by people in stupid hats, but with 8,000 buses, 22,000 drivers and 6 million passengers, the voice-over informed us that it can be "a bit of a hurly-burly whirligig that can leave you feeling a little double-deckered". Which is the point I'd have sacked the writer. Interestingly, one look at the closing credits told me that the writer, the narrator, and the executive producer were all one and the same man (Nick O'Dwyer - brains behind 'The Most Pampered Pets in Britain'). Which shows what happens when you try to save money.

Anyway, as if to illustrate the negative effects that a lifetime of bus-driving can have on the mental health of those involved, the programme introduced us to 65-year-old Dennis, who calls himself Wolf (possibly after one of the Gladiators), and spends his weekends in Dorking dressed as an Apache Indian. There's nothing Wolf likes better than strolling down the main street of Deadwood (such an appropriate name) and indulging in some below-par amateur dramatics with a couple of blokes from Surrey. I'm not entirely sure what relevance this had to the programme, but it did prove that you're never too old to black-up for a TV show. In the words of Dennis, "Being an indian is what I do". Although these days we call them Native Americans of course.

Leaving Wolf behind, the programme moved on to 37-year-old single mum Mya, who stated "I love driving anything that has an engine", which is why you can't get her off the lawnmower, and also why she's decided that public transport is the career for her. Unfortunately for Mya, she has a problem with what her instructor Mike calls "wandering". Which basically means swerving all over the road and hitting the kerb every five minutes. But hey, Mya is new to the job, which is why we were also introduced to Sebastien, another trainee, but one with over fifty hours of bus-driving under his belt. Which would be good, were it not for the fact that most trainees pass their test after only forty.

Sebastien, a 44-year-old father of one, and former self-employed plasterer, was clearly impatient to pass his bus-driving exam. Which is probably why he broke the speed limit at every available opportunity. He may need more training than most, but in the words of his instructor, "He's got a good attitude". Yes, he can't actually drive, but he's always quite cheerful.

Mya, meanwhile, was still all over the road, and in danger of mowing down everything in her path, but having been asked by Mike what she thought of her progress, she confidently replied "I think it's good", so Seb's not the only one with the good attitude. Mike, however, spoke for the six million bus passengers of London, by admitting to being "very concerned".

But hey, why faff about with training, when you could be taking your test. Sebastien, he of the fifty hours training, duly stepped forward for his big day, which began with a simple manoeuvre - reversing the bus between two cones. Sadly for Seb, he proptly crushed one of the cones under the back wheels, thereby failing the test before he'd left the depot. But on the bright side, at least he saved them some money on petrol. And in the comforting words of his instructor, "99% of the time you'll be going forward". Yeah, who cares about the 1% of the working week when you're busy reversing over pedestrians - most of the time you'll be fine.

Much like the lovely Mya, who was undergoing an assessment in the form of a mock driving test. She performed well. Which is to say she clipped a cyclist, veered onto the wrong side of the road, and drove through a red light, but believe me, for Mya that represented progress.

According to the programme, only 10% of those who apply to be trainee bus drivers are actually accepted onto the course. Which does make you wonder what the other 90% are like.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Preparation H

Ever since seeing Lee Latchford Evans wimping out of a bit of torture on 'Commando VIP', I haven't been able to stop wondering what's become of his blonde sidekick, H. And not just because I wished it was him being tortured instead of Lee. Well fortunately for me, Channel 4 have ridden to my rescue by screening 'H Side Story' on Sunday afternoons, a reality show following the man's progress as he spends a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It may not feature torture, but it is quite painful to watch.

H's real name, it turns out, is Ian Watkins, which is only one step up from Reg Dwight if you ask me, but having spent a few years named after a letter of the alphabet, Ian is apparently keen to move on and be recognised as a serious performer in his own right, on his own terms, and with his own name. Though he clearly hadn't told the programme's producers that. They preferred to call the show 'H Side Story', throw in a lot of Steps references, and only refer to him as Ian once. But never mind, eh.

Today's episode documented H's preparation for an 'Agents Showcase': a musical performance in front of an army of top west end agents looking for talent. None of whom were put off by seeing H's name on the cast list, which is a little surprising. Fortunately for H, he had on his side two heavyweights of musical theatre: Mary Hammond and Karen Rabinowitz, course leaders at the academy, who took it upon themselves to choose his song for the showcase. Mary eventually came up with Billy Joel's 'Goodnight Saigon', while Karen's contribution was to insist upon "keeping him down to a fairly still performance". Suggesting that she'd already seen him dance.

H was pleased with the song selection, stating that "people generally see me doing comedy songs" (well, I do find myself laughing at him quite a lot), and headed off for a singing lesson with 'Repertoire Coach' Dane. Dane duly listened to a run through of the song, and advised him "Don't be afraid to make an ugly sound". My girlfriend's got the Steps Greatest Hits album, so let me assure you Dane, he's not.

Warbling over, H showed us his "visual diary" (that's a scrapbook to you and me) into which he'd stuck pictures of Asians, in an attempt to get into the mood for a song about the futility of Vietnam. Alongside these images he'd jotted down the words "nightmares, alone, fear, therapy, death and numbness" - interestingly all emotions I felt when my girlfriend played that CD.

But it's not all fun and laughter at the academy. Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sweat. Or to put it another way, H was having trouble sleeping. As he said himself, "I'm awake at two in the morning singing harmonies. It drives me nuts". I've always felt that way about his singing too, but fortunately for us both, H decided to seek out medical help. Not from a qualified doctor, obviously, but from "Australian master healer" Mike Squirrel. After all, if you're being driven nuts, it makes sense to go to a squirrel.

Mike performed the latest therapy from California, known as 'Access', which basically involved talking to H's feet and waiting for them to respond. Amazingly his ankles mentioned that he was having trouble sleeping, so Mike reached straight for the Tibetan sound bowl, sent a resonance through his thighs, and started the acupuncture, before setting light to a few smoking cones on his arm. It's not often you see a squeaky clean pop star endorse smoking, but H seemed quite impressed.

So with his health sorted, it was back to the showcase preparations, and the final dress rehearsal, described by course leader Karen as "a shambles". H bemoaned the whole process, branding the entire show as "a meat market" (which explains why Linda McCartney never had more of a showbiz career) before retiring to his dressing room an hour early to start straightening his hair and putting on make-up.

And then it was show time. H took to the stage with the words "Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be Billy Joel" (well, ok, he didn't), and sang his little heart out for the agents, one of whom declared "I'd be happy to audition him for my next project". Though possibly only for the fun of saying 'no'. But by the end of this half hour celebration of musical theatre, the results were there for all to see. In the words of H, "another bit of good news: I'm getting some kip". Him and me both.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Changing Vrooms

I got quite excited when I saw a reality show with the word 'pimp' in the title. I'd pay good money to see the likes of Biggins, Sonia, and The Krankies wearing white fur coats and snakeskin shoes, standing on street corners and trying to bitch-slap a few 'ho's. But sadly 'Pimp My Ride UK' is no such thing. Though it does feature Tim Westwood, who is to the world of hip-hop and gangsta rap, what Ali G is to black people.

'Pimp My Ride' first started on MTV in America, and like so many other shows which would clearly never translate well to a British version, has now been translated to a British version. Hence the addition of the word 'UK' - presumably a condition imposed by the American producers to make it clear that it has nothing to do with them.

The idea of the programme is simple: it's a makeover show for cars. Find a frumpy old runaround who's seen better days, tart her up a bit, and send her back out onto the streets looking a million dollars. The only problem with 'Pimp My Ride UK' is that in order to get the vehicles looking a million dollars, the team seem to end up spending a million dollars. And unlike users of L'Oreal, the cars just aren't worth it.

But anyhoo, in tonight's edition we met Asif, a young man from North London, who appears to have been named after Alicia Silverstone's catchphrase in 'Clueless'. Which is kind of appropriate, as he lacks much idea about anything except football. Asif drives a 1989 VW Golf Mk II in the kind of condition which would embarrass a scrapyard. The seats are broken, the headlights are missing, the bumpers are hanging, the wings are rusting, and the stereo's wedged in with coins. Which is the only thing keeping the car's value above zero.

Enter DJ Tim Westwood, who spent a few minutes gesticulating at the camera in a 16-year-old's clothes, before asking Asif "Do you worry about the car getting stolen?". Asif looked concerned, and replied "Every night. It's such a vulnerable target". Which either indicates a dry sense of humour, or a level of stupidity rarely seen outside of the Big Brother house. Westwood then stated the obvious: "We've got one choice: to dump it or to pimp it". So will they dump it? Asif. Sorry, I mean as if. After all, why buy a new car when you can spend fifty grand doing up your old one?

Timmy duly promised to make Asif's car "mad hot" (which I think is good) and took the rustbucket to his team of car makeover experts, led by mechanic Jamie, audio man Bluey, and designer Pinky. Presumeably Perky couldn't make it. Never ones to do things by halves, the gang decided to go one small step beyond a new headlamp and some furry dice, by stripping the car down to little more than the chassis, and installing a DVD player, PS2 console, top-of-the-range sound system, video camera, monitors, two fridges, and some red leather seats which cost £1200 each. Which clearly wasn't enough. So they added a vibrating massage and heat function too. And a 15" LCD screen in the boot.

That done, they fitted Lamborghini-style doors, smoke-tinted windows and a custom-made football boot cleaner under the rear bumper. Which is what the new Nissan Micra lacks in my opinion. They then painted Asif's name on the roof and handed it back to him. In the words of Tim Westwood, "The boys have blessed it with the mad flava". Which I didn't think made a lot of sense, until he added "Understand what's going down. He's given you crazy heat". Which frankly meant even less.

The car's now apparently worth more than £50,000. Though ironically you'd have to pay me at least twice that to drive it in public.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Faint & The Curious

If there's one thing which marks out a reality show for greatness, it's the sight of a prime minister's daughter pissing next to her bed. If there's two things, then add a soap star collapsing from the stress of eating unseasoned rice. Oh yes, the modern classic of reality TV is back for a fifth series, and it promises much. None of that old "this is a groundbreaking social experiment" rubbish, last night's 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here', offered only one thing: "Two weeks of absolute jungle madness". And Natalie Appleton isn't even in it this time.

But hey, who needs a tree-phobic in a hat, when you've got Elaine Lordan, a woman who began by describing herself as "feisty", and then proved it by being carried out on a stretcher after five minutes. Though she had just been introduced to David Dickinson, so perhaps it's not surprising. In addition to Elaine and The Duke, the other eight celebs hoping to resurrect their careers this time around include native Aussie Kimberley Davies, who stated "I hope to leave a lasting impression on the British public". Personally I'm still haunted by the memories of her trying to act in 'Neighbours', so I think she's already achieved that ambition.

Continuing the international theme was little Jimmy Osmond, who admitted "I'm kind of frozen in time" (I think he's referring to his plastic surgery there, but I could be wrong), before welcoming Harry Kewell's long-haired lover from Liverpool, Sheree Murphy, who frankly I've never heard of, and Jenny Frost, who declared "I don't like rude people, I don't like arrogant people, I don't like people who think the world owes them something". Which is why she's agreed to do a celebrity reality show. No chance of meeting any egos there.

Adding to the lack of arrogance was Carol Thatcher, who I'm sure will do her best to avoid mentioning her mother for the entire fortnight, much in the same way that Paul Burrell completely avoided the subject of Princess Diana last year. And then there was Antony Costa of Blue (which is how I feel when I hear their music) who quickly announced "I'm not a muppet". I agree. He looks more like a Teletubby.

Joining the obligatory line-up of former soap stars was Sid Owen, who managed to go a full five seconds before saying "Ricky!", and adding a touch of class was wine expert Jilly Goolden, who attempted to play down her posh-girl image by using the word "bollocks" the moment she arrived.

As for feisty Elaine, she announced "I've got more important things in my life than worrying what the public think of me". So give it a week and she'll be begging for our votes. While Carol endeared herself to the nation by deciding to call David Dickinson 'Chips'. It's a novelty which should have worn off entirely by the end of the first day. If not before. Frankly I could slap her already.

The same cannot be said, however, for Jenny Frost's sneeze. Described by The Duke as sounding "like Muffin the Mule", it has to be heard to be believed, and if ITV have any sense it'll be available on the 'I'm a Celebrity' website as an MP3 download before the week's out. I've put my name down for the polyphonic ring tone already.

But anyway, the celebs soon made their way into the jungle, five by means of a trek through the undergrowth and a shimmy across a ravine, the other 50% re-enacting the Enid Blyton classic that never was - 'Five Jump Out of a Plane'. Which gives me the chance to mention that my girlfriend's cousin's daughter's boyfriend was strapped to David Dickinson. Which is the kind of concrete claim to fame that's made Colleen McLoughlin a star.

Having arrived at the clearing they'll be calling home for the next two weeks, the group set about locating the toilet, with Jenny Frost spotting a green thing hanging on a tree, asking "is it that thing there?", and being told "no, that's the water bottle". Clearly they needed a leader with the ability to distinguish a toilet from a bottle of water, and David Dickinson was duly appointed head of the camp. It was an appropriate appointment because, as Antony pointed out, "he just looks like a chief". Well, he's the colour of a red indian.

As leader, David undertook the week's first Bushtucker Trial along with his willing deputy, Sid. It basically involved going up and down a tree and opening padlocks whilst sitting on a swing, but it was clearly a lot harder than it looked. Having collected only four of a possible ten stars, an exhausted Duke turned to his Boy Wonder and said "pretty physically tough, wasn't it". Sid agreed - "those combination locks... they were stiff". Yes, it was a truly horrific ordeal.

Back in camp, the group set about preparing their evening rations, at which point Jimmy revealed that he'd brought half of Salt Lake City's seasoning supply stuffed up the rear end of his teddy bear. Which didn't actually help much, as none of them knew how to cook. Though you'd imagine Antony Costa can make a cup of coffee.

To help get them in the mood for food, Antony and Sheree promptly volunteered for 'dunny duty'. As Sheree said, "It's not every day you get to pull out a big bucket full of pee and poo". Unless you've done time in prison of course. Step forward our old friend Chips.

But Chips and porridge aside, the group's first day ended on a high with the sterling comedy work of Elaine Lordan. Having keeled over for no apparent reason, Elaine was rescued by the ITV medics and given oxygen, before stating "I feel much better now". At which point she went for the full Norman Wisdom cabaret act, and hit the deck again. Her fellow celebs described Elaine's ability to faint at will as "very, very scary", with Sheree adding "honestly, it was so frightening". Yes, she'd jumped out of an aeroplane and handled a vat of celebrity poo, but there's nothing so scary as an Eastenders star out cold on the floor in front of you. Apart from one fully conscious, that is.

Having carried Elaine out on a stretcher, the baton of camp comic passed into the capable hands of Carol, who chose to mark her territory by having a piss next to the bed. I know there was some confusion about what the toilet looked like, but even Jenny Frost wouldn't just wee by the bedside. Into the water supply, maybe, but next to the bed, no. Ironically Carol was immediately voted in for the next Bushtucker Trial. I just hope she washes her hands.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Slough of Despond

As mentioned here previously, one of my favourite types of reality TV show is the sort that dresses itself up as social experiment. Never have we learnt so little than by watching a show which claims it's trying to educate, and not simply to entertain. So I was particularly pleased to see the start of BBC2's 'Making Slough Happy' last night, which billed itself as "a uniquely ambitious experiment". It's a reality show for people who think 'the Science of Happiness' is a Big Brother housemate.

The idea behind the programme is simple (in the 'foolish' sense of the word). Can the scientific study of happiness (which basically involves stating the obvious in a perky voice) be used to cheer up an entire town? Judging by the opening episode, the answer's no, but we've got an entire series to get through before then, so let's not prejudge it.

The location chosen for this experiment was the Berkshire town of Slough (the clue was in the title), home of the fictional Wernham Hogg, and a place full of depressed people. Apparently. It looked quite nice to me, but then I did grow up in Basildon. Taking on the cheer-up challenge was a crack troop of so-called experts led by Dr Richard Stevens, a psychologist who likes to perform modern dance in forest clearings, and who acts like a cross between a stage school child and a hippy. Backing him up was Richard Reeves, a writer and economist, who owns his own megaphone and who headed straight out onto the streets of Slough to ask the locals what they thought his chances were of making the town happy. The residents spoke as one man. What I mean is, there was only one man willing to speak to him. And that man said "Nil".

But undeterred, Dr Stevens announced his intention to create "a chain reaction of happiness" by packing fifty averagely happy Slough residents onto "The Happiness Express" for "a Happiness Away-Day". Yes, that's right, he took them to a conference centre on a coach. Once there, his fellow Richard gave them a lecture on the economy of happy countries, and told them they're more miserable than a former communist state, before the good doctor took them outside for a "Happy Walk", and some ice-breaking exercises involving public nursery rhyme recitals. By which time I'd have been ready to shoot myself.

The culmination of the day was the launch of "The Happiness Manifesto", a ten-point plan outlining the secrets of a happy life. These include such ground-breaking ideas as counting your blessings and phoning a friend, as well as cutting your television viewing by half and growing a plant. Of course if you grow the right kind of plant you can certainly experience a high of some sort, and I was tempted to switch off the TV already, so I could see where they were coming from.

The following day Richard Reeves headed for Slough Trading Estate, where he failed to find any takers for the manifesto, while Dr Stevens took a group of volunteers to the local graveyard. He was undoubtedly the creepiest thing there, but the idea was to remind them all that they're still alive, and make them grateful that they haven't yet died a horrible and painful death in an underfunded nursing home. Slough resident Joanne responded by bursting into tears and talking about the time she tried to kill herself, prompting Dr Stevens to declare "It could mark a new phase in her life". Yes, a new phase of clinical depression.

Clearly reinforcements were needed, and they duly arrived in the form of Dr Brett Kahr, a psychotherapist, and Radio 2's answer to Frazier. Dr Kahr wasn't so much happy, as gay, and he soon set about playing show tunes on the piano, and trying to get everyone singing. Thank god Joanne wasn't there. She'd have topped herself by the end of the first chorus. Clearly Brett had confused happiness with excrutiating embarrassment.

But all of this effort was beginning to pay off. In the words of volunteer Heather, "I do try to give myself a treat. I bought some scollops this week". Oh yes, happiness levels were beginning to soar, and riding the crest of this wave of ecstacy was Richard Reeves, who headed straight for the town centre with a megaphone and offered free pot plants to anyone who was willing to listen to him talk about happiness for five minutes. He found only one taker - a woman whose son had recently died, and who told Richard "You're gonna start me crying in a minute". Not quite the result he was looking for, but hey, Dr Stevens had pushed a woman to the verge of suicide, so Rich was still ahead on points.

What we needed was more experts. So enter business consultants Jessica and Philippa, who failed to get a tune out of the boss of Tunes Engineering, and Andrew Mawson, a social entrepreneur (eh?), whose plan was to bring people together by organising a beach party. Slough doesn't actually have a beach of course, but that's why it's such a brilliant idea. Apparently.

Dr Stevens meanwhile was packing everyone back onto the bus and heading for Hampshire, his plan to cheer up Slough seeming to consist of getting everyone out of there. And it worked. Having escorted them to the middle of nowhere, volunteer Ruth sat by the edge of the lake talking about the positive difference that fresh air and clean living make. She was smoking a fag at the time of course, but you can't have everything.

Back in Slough, Richard Reeves had lowered his standards. He was now offering pot plants to anyone willing to listen to him for one minute. He had no takers whatsoever, but at least he didn't make anyone cry this time.

To be honest, he should have been relieved he wasn't in Hampshire, where Dr Stevens had taken his happy campers into the forest and was attempting to get them dancing in the pouring rain with the words "Make love with this tree!". I haven't seen anything so disturbing in the woods since The Blair Witch Project. Frankly I wish I'd taken the doctor's advice and turned off after half an hour.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Wet Dreams

If there's one thing I like, it's posing rhetorical questions. And then answering them. So I particularly enjoyed 'Dream Business', a new reality fest which began last night on Five, and opened with this little poser: "Have you ever fantasised about jacking in your day job, packing your bags, and running away to start a business of your dreams?". Clearly my response of "No" wasn't what they were looking for, because presenter Geetie Singh (who apparently owns two organic gastropubs - no, really) went on to declare her intention to "find out if those fantasies could become a reality". I think she missed the word 'show' off the end there.

Of course, if a programme like this is going to hold your interest for sixty minutes, what it really needs above anything else is a neurotic incompetent with a drink problem.

Step forward Lesley Hay.

Lesley and her husband Peter have always dreamed of running a ski chalet in the French Alps. Obviously they don't cook, clean, or speak French, but they do live in Scotland, so they're used to the cold. Peter's a farmer, but claims "there's no future in farming", which is true - the days of people buying milk, bread, meat and veg are clearly numbered, so the pair have set their hearts on a move to the mountains. 'Dream Business' kindly (and foolishly) gave them the chance to try their hand at running a chalet for five days, after which their performance would be judged by experts, and if found to be up to scratch the couple would be awarded a prize of £10,000 towards their new life. What could be simpler? Well, if you're Lesley, nuclear physics.

The pair arrived at Chalet Piton in Meribel with high hopes of success, and were introduced to the chalet's owners, Kate & Andrew Thorley (pictured above), who showed them around the seventeen beds and nine toilets they'd be cleaning for the next week. Peter cheerfully stated that "I've had my hands in a lot worse places than a toilet", which is no way to talk about Lesley, and met up with chalet boy Dave, who'd obviously been told to plug the company website address at every opportunity. He eventually resorted to wearing it on a t-shirt.

Introductions over, Peter and Lesley went shopping at the local supermarket, where they took four hours and went £100 over budget. Not the best start, it's true, but at least it got them out of the chalet, which for Kate & Andrew was probably good news.

The first full day in Meribel was guest changeover day. Peter & Lesley got off to an enthusiastic start by attempting to show a new guest up to her room while the previous occupant was still in bed, before getting down to some cleaning, which gave Lesley an opportunity to prove just how badly she takes criticism. It was an opportunity she grabbed with both hands. Frankly if I'd been Andrew, I'd have hit her.

But amid the scowls and pouts, they began preparations for the evening meal. Which for Lesley involved getting pissed and turning on the grill instead of the oven, meaning that whilst she was in the dining room giving a drunken speech to the guests, the Mozzarella & Aubergine starters were setting the kitchen on fire. As Lesley herself admitted, "I'm a disaster with a glass of wine in me". Although to be fair, she's pretty close without.

Not to be put off, Lesley set about serving frozen veg which had barely been defrosted, and responding to a guest who doesn't eat fish with the words "Give him a fucking ham sandwich". She then poured herself another drink and attempted to make an omelette, reclassifying it as scrambled egg half way through, and presenting it to a guest with the words "That's minging".

There's only one way to react to a first night like that. Peter & Lesley took the day off and went ski-ing.

By the end of the week, Lesley had hit upon a new plan for the catering side of the business, which could basically be summed up in two words: ready meals. So as the final 'Test Day' dawned, and with the arrival of the two Chalet Inspectors imminent, Lesley was planning to wow the judges with instant creme brulee out of a packet. Fortunately Geetie managed to talk her out of that one, and as Martin & Marguerite from Bigfoot Travel began their detailed inspection of the chalet, she asked owners Kate & Andrew "If you were the inspectors, what would you fail them on?".

Kate looked uncomfortable, and tried to find a polite way of saying "Everything", while Andrew merely passed judgement on Lesley's cooking with the words "I don't think she's a natural in the kitchen". He'd noticed then.

Back in the chalet, Lesley was attacking her creme brulee with a blowtorch, before losing control and nearly gassing the judges, while Peter was confidently stating "Whatever they think, we've done as well as we can". Which just goes to show how low their standards really were. Sure enough, the inspectors found unacceptable levels of cleanliness, and a poor standard of mushroom risotto, leaving Lesley and Peter with only one course of action: a lunchtime barbecue on the slopes.

Peter attempted to round up seventeen guests, managed only six, and thereby proved that eleven had learnt something from the previous five days, while Lesley attempted to lug a gas barbecue up the side of a mountain on foot. At the top, judge Martin inspected Peter's cooking with the words "Is it meant to look like that?", before forcing it down and gathering the couple together for the final verdict.

Clearly the decision could only go one way, and sure enough, with a look of ashen-faced concern... Martin & Margueritte handed over the ten grand. After all, this is reality TV - you can't have results that make any sense.

Peter & Lesley took the money, before announcing that the week had taught them a valuable lesson, and they were abandoning their dream forthwith. Peter went back to the farm, and Lesley started training as a beauty therapist. She may be incompetent, but she's not stupid.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Avocado Baby

The good thing about a show like 'How Not To Decorate', which began its third series on Five tonight, is that it does exactly what it says on the tin. Each week, Colin & Justin (think Trinny & Susannah, but openly gay) go into a home that needs a bit of a revamp, and armed with nothing but good intentions and a lot of enthusiasm, they completely balls it up in nine days. It could be renamed 'When Interior Designers Attack'. And probably will be for the fourth series.

In tonight's edition, the prancing pair demonstrated how not to decorate the London flat of Neil & Christine Hamilton. The resulting fallout has been plugged to high heaven by Colin & Justin this week - in the past few days they've appeared on Richard & Judy, Des & Mel, The Wright Stuff, and numerous other shows I should be ashamed to admit watching, stating at length that they don't want to talk about it; but having seen tonight's show, I have to say I thought it was all a storm in a tea cup. Or in Christine's case, a wine glass.

The make-over started well anyway, with Colin & Justin giving their first impressions of the Hamiltons' apartment. Colin called it a "hovel" and added "It all looks like it smells of wee", while Justin went with the slightly more camp "Oh come on you monkeys!". No, me neither. Having wondered aloud if the soft furnishings were created from the same fabric Christine uses for her outfits, they made their way into the bathroom, where Justin started fiddling with a wooden chicken, prompting the retort from Colin "Don't pull on the cock". I wonder how many times he's said that before.

To be honest, plywood poultry was the least of their worries. The Hamiltons had fitted carpet in the bathroom and wallpapered over the tiles with a mind-numbing choice of paper which made it look like someone had pelted them with tomatoes (probably not for the first time). As Justin said, "You're lucky you're not crazy, you two". He'd clearly never met them before.

For her part, Christine began optimistically, looking Colin & Justin in the eye and boldly declaring "I think you're manna from heaven". Which I believe was the first - and last - positive thing she ever said. Probably because she hadn't seen their designs at that point. Designs, it has to be said, which consisted of black carpets, magenta furniture, and a timber-clad avocado bath. I'm not saying Colin & Justin didn't have the Hamiltons' best interests at heart, but having settled on the final layout, Colin's exact words were "I think Christine is going to hate it".

He wasn't wrong. She quickly stated "I'm not having an avocado bath", although a jungle shower is obviously no problem, judging by the first series of 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here'. Frankly avocado in the bathroom was nothing - Justin declared a desire to put "a bit of spunk" in the kitchen, which is surely far more unhygienic.

Nevertheless, work began, with Christine becoming philosophical about her new black velvet curtains ("I can use them to scrub the black floor"), and Justin calling her "an old bitch" to her face. A quick snog later (did they learn nothing from Louis Theroux?), Christine outlined her plans for the flat, prompting the outraged response from Justin, "If you want that, go and get some bloody daytime makeover shit to do your house". Yes, how dare she! This isn't daytime TV, this is Channel Five, dammit!

But the trio soon made up with a trip to the bath shop, where Christine talked about her hatred of avocado, and Colin & Justin bought a bath. Which wouldn't fit in the bathroom. A basic error, yes, but remember: this is called 'How NOT To Decorate' - they're contractually obliged to be crap.

Back at the flat, they took delivery of a twenty foot carpet described as "horrible" by the builders, and attempted to get it up a flight of stairs with a maximum width of seven feet, before Christine informed Colin & Justin that "you have screwed my flat into the most godawful mess I have ever seen". Which prompted a masterstroke by the builders - they took out the electrics so it was too dark to see.

Cue the arrival of the new kitchen, courtesy of design assistant Katie. I'm not saying it wasn't everything they'd hoped for, but Colin's response was to tell Christine "It's all your fault", Justin added "I hold you personally responsible", and Christine declared "It's not Katie's fault, and it certainly isn't my fault". Personally I blame it on the boogie.

But all's well that ends well. A mere nine days after work began, and having blatantly ignored every instruction they'd been given, Colin & Justin successfully delivered the Hamiltons the most hideous living room I've ever seen. Or, as Christine put it, "a Morticia Addams pastiche of a funeral parlour". Not so much manna from heaven then, more a bat out of hell.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

I Put a Spell On You

Anyone who's seen the documentary film 'Spellbound', ITV's 'Great British Spelling Test', or the BBC's 'Hard Spell' and 'Star Spell', will know that these days, spelling has replaced cooking as the new rock 'n' roll. Channel Five have so far failed to jump on that particular bandwagon, but just weeks after trying to harness the pulling power of Jordan by hiring the lead singer of New Kids on the Block, Five last night attempted to capitalise on the national spelling craze with a show called 'The Real Witch Project'. It might feature the wrong kind of spells, but it gives whole new meaning to the word 'miscast'.

This one-off reality show took five women (with a sixth turning up a week late - they're women, it was bound to happen), and persuaded them to try witchcraft for a month. After all, if you can't mess with the dark side on a cheap reality show, when can you? The would-be wiccans included the likes of 28-year-old Mecca (whose parents were obviously bingo fans), unemployed mum of two, Sam, and good Christian girl Maria, who didn't seem to see any conflict between her religious beliefs and becoming an amateur anti-christ for a month.

The girls were introduced to the unlikely named Gaillies Codd, who sounds like an old-fashioned fishmonger, but is in fact a High Priestess who practices witchcraft in a shed in Walthamstow, and under Gaillies' watchful eye, the five formed a coven and decided what they wanted to achieve using the power of spells. Samantha wanted to give up smoking, Maria to stop arguing with her mother, and Hanna to find a parking space outside her flat. World peace obviously hadn't occurred to them. Mecca's most burning desire, meanwhile, was to get her mobile phone back from her ex-boyfriend.

By a stroke of good fortune, Gaillies Codd happened to know a traditional centuries-old spell for the return of missing cell phones, so the women soon set about chanting and wailing at the kind of volume which, ironically, makes a phone unneccesary. That issue sorted, they moved on to Maria's family problems. Gaillies handed her a bunch of leaves, and instructed her on how to use them to cast a powerful spell. Though whether you can really improve your relationship with your mother by waving a salad in the air, I'm not sure. Mine would probably just tell me to stop playing with my food.

This first coven meeting over, the fledgling witches made their way home, where Sam swept through her house with a magical broom (shouldn't she have been riding it?) to rid the place of bad spirits and bring her health, wealth and fertility. Looking at her children, I'm not sure fertility was such a good idea, but her house did look like it could do with a clean.

Mecca, meanwhile, had managed to get her phone back from the ex, stating "it was definitely witchcraft that brought him to me", thus ignoring the bus he'd taken to her flat, while Samantha was introducing us to her partner, Rob. Rob liked to refer to witches as "strong birds", and was about to undergo surgery for a neck injury he'd sustained whilst headbutting a man in a pub. I swear I'm not making this up. Fellow witch Hanna also had a lame duck husband, Steve, whose heart condition was probably less self-inflicted, so the two women joined together to cast a healing spell for their hubbies.

When asked how he felt about being the subject of an amateur spell, Steve responded with this powerful metaphor: "If you paint a front door with gloss paint and you don't put an undercoat on, it'll just peel off. So a little knowledge is dangerous."

I never did understand DIY enthusiasts.

Fortunately the men survived, so the spell must have worked, and at the next coven meeting the girls were joined by Sarah, a bongo player who claims to have had "a blinding moment of clarity". Which is a bit like Stevie Wonder singing 'I Can See Clearly Now'. Maria, who was still finding her Mum irritating, proved how dangerous witchcraft can be by burning herself on a candle, while Mecca announced "I want to get laid a lot", and immediately jumped naked into a bath of rose petals.

Samantha meanwhile had had an argument with Rob, so used the traditional pagan method of overcoming a row, and buried his toothbrush in the local park. Which is sure to placate any man.

Another day, another chance to see Mecca stripping off and oiling up, this time in the living room with some penis-shaped candles. Apparently it was an 'attraction spell', and let's face it, if there's one thing likely to attract men, it's a girl who likes to get naked and announce a penchant for sex.

Back in the coven, the others were being taught the art of tarot reading, tea-leaf analysis, and crystal-ball gazing, before deciding to hold a seance with a ouija board. As luck would have it, they were soon chatting to Sam's dead grandfather, who was swiftly followed by American hip-hop superstar, Tupac Shakur, who wanted a word with Maria. She just happened to be a fan, though quite what a black gangsta rapper is doing hanging out in heaven with Sam's grandad, I've no idea.

By the end of the month the results of the experiment were clear. Mecca got a shag, Sam bought a cooker, Samantha became a Native American stripper, and Hanna forced Steve to do a parachute jump two weeks after his heart surgery. Which shows the benefit of a good life insurance policy. Maria meanwhile had learnt a great deal, saying "I feel I'm a Christian, but I would also do witchcraft now". I'm sure the Pope won't have a problem with that.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saving Private Ryan

I actually missed the start of Five's new celebrity reality show 'Commando VIP' the Wednesday before last, due to having an urgent appointment with Trinny & Susannah. But fortunately for me, Five have refused to let the matter drop by following last night's final edition of 'Hot Tub Ranking' with the all-new 'Commando VIP Uncut', a not-to-be-missed chance to catch the first two episodes with none of the swearing bleeped out. Of course, if a penis is uncut, it means you can't see the dickhead, but with 'Commando VIP' that doesn't apply. Jason Cowan is in almost every scene.

The programme takes six minor celebrities to "a secret military training establishment" (or 'a bog in Scotland' if you want to be more precise), and attempts to turn them into Royal Marine Commandos in the space of a couple of weeks. It sounds slightly implausible already, but when you realise the line-up includes a former member of Steps, you begin to see just how barking it is. Not that Lee Latchford Evans doesn't appear tough, but he has spent his career standing next to H, so it's not exactly difficult.

Joining Lee in the commando boot camp is Nigel Benn, who remembers his time in the army as a 17-year-old fondly. He tapped the side of his head and said "It's a long time ago, but you still don't lose it up here". Which sounds so unlikely coming from a boxer. Benn's fellow pugilist, Steve Collins, was also in the line-up, as was actress Heather Peace (and I'd certainly be willing to give her a chance), who's apparently supremely qualified for an assignment like this, due to her role in SAS drama 'Ultimate Force'. Although let's not forget she was previously in Emmerdale for a year - something the programme failed to mention.

Bringing up the rear (of the year) was Jason Cowan, or 'the best buttocks in South Lanarkshire', as I'm sure he still likes to be known. Jason started by announcing "I'm probably the fittest person here", before going on to state that "this might not be tough enough for me, to be honest". This from the man who couldn't get out of dressing gown for ten weeks on Big Brother.

And last but not much more than least, was Ryan Dunn from American TV show 'Jackass'. Private Ryan turned up looking like Grizzly Adams, or, if you prefer the words of SAS veteran and Commando VIP instructor Dave, "like a bag of shite".

But undeterred, Ryan and the other five set about basic training with Royal Marine instructor Morgan Johnson, who dropped them in at the deep end by giving them canoes and making them paddle out onto water a good three feet deep. Nigel, who's faced some of the most fearsome men in the world inside a boxing ring, appeared to have an unconquerable fear of cold water, and started making a strangulated mewing sound which led Ryan to comment "I thought someone had killed a cat behind me". It wasn't so much a cat as a pussy.

Next up was a 10k march with loaded backpacks, a task which had Ryan developing an urge to speak to his agent, before the recruits embarked on their first mission - to rescue a downed pilot from behind enemy lines. Which basically involved paddling down a river, picking up a bloke from the bushes, and running through some Hollywood-style explosions whilst being shot at by extras with paintball guns. The result was Steve being named "top recruit" by the instructors, and "an arrogant piece of shit" by Ryan. Just a slight difference of opinion there.

Day two saw Private Ryan saving himself by refusing to climb every mountain. Making him slightly softer than Julie Andrews. It did mean, however, that he was forced to face a firing squad of his celebrity colleagues. All successfully hit him in the stomach with a paintball gun, except Lee, who managed to miss and hit his nipple. The assault over, Ryan was allowed to go back to bed while the others climbed a mountain with 30kg backpacks. Suddenly Ryan didn't look so stupid after all.

On the third day, the recruits faced their toughest challenge yet - two hours of educational videos in a scout hut. I thought they were going to break at one point, but they made it through, only to be captured for a chance to experience life as a POW. Which to Jason is probably a sound effect from a Batman film, but to everyone else is a prisoner of war. All six were subjected to sleep deprivation and all-night interrogation, four of them choosing to remain silent, Steve deciding to argue back, and Ryan essentially talking bollocks for three hours.

Heather was the first to break, quickly followed by Lee, who blamed his withdrawal on an old sporting injury, saying "It's annoying, because I'm prepared to go through a bit more". You have to feel for the man. He wanted to carry on with the torture, but he was getting a bit of a twinge. The guy had no alternative.

Next to go was Ryan, who decided to confess all and blame everything on Lee, and after another four hours, the interrogators stepped up the pressure and inflicted on the three remaining recruits a level of torture not seen in any civilised western society. Yes, that's right, they started playing 'Tragedy' by Steps on a continuous loop. Jason coped remarkably well. But then he did endure Nadia's laugh for two months in the Big Brother house. Let's face it, the man's coped with far worse.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Bea in Your Bonnet

It's a sign of the times that being a single mother doesn't preclude you from taking part in a show called 'Wife Swap'. And hey, why should it? A lot of shows with the word 'celebrity' in the title feature people I've never heard of, so why not an episode of Wife Swap with only one wife? And so it was with last night's sixth series finale, featuring an unemployed mum of four who stated "I like my house buzzing". Which makes sense when your name's Bea.

Bea Livesey, it turns out, has been single for seven years and still likes an occasional night out with the girls, despite being 38. Which is clearly outrageous. Bea is mother to four children, including the beautifully named Chelsey - a variant on the more usual 'Chelsea', which makes it so much more classy.

Actually, I should stop right there, because I think you'll find they're not children. Oh no. As Bea herself said, "I don't like calling them children neither. I call them little tomorrows". Which is lovely. And completely ignores the fact that most of them are on ASBOs. Or probably will be by tomorrow.

Bea's family live on microwave meals, keep rabbits in the bedroom, and leave the ironing to 7-year-old Charlotte. All of which is in slight contrast to the Lloyds of Birmingham. Wife Sue believes firmly in John Major's 'Back to Basics' campaign (so she's used to backing lost causes), and when it comes to washing and ironing, "wouldn't dream of Simon ever doing anything like that". Simon, her husband, owns his own health club, and spent most of the programme shamelessly chasing free publicity by wandering around in a t-shirt advertising their address.

Sue's pet hate is "badly ironed clothes" (her views on child poverty and third world starvation aren't known), but she does like her kids to play golf, and states "If I were to bump into the Queen tomorrow, I would be more than comfortable". Unfortunately she was heading for Manchester at the time, so it didn't seem likely.

Having arrived at their respective homes, Bea got off to a good start by knocking a bowl out of Sue's fridge and smashing it on the floor, while Sue merely stood in the doorway of her new home and declared "there's poo everywhere". Fortunately Bea had left her a manual full of worldly wisdom like "I don't want a man, I've got a vibrator", and "It's bullshit to dictate to your children. If you put a load of restrictions on them, they'll tell you to fuck off. And they'd be right". I only hope that when I have kids (sorry, 'little tomorrows'), I'll be able to back them up like that when they tell people to fuck off.

In situations like this, first impressions count for everything, and Sue's 11-year-old daughter Rebecca was straight in with a critique of Bea, saying "I think Dad's a bit disappointed that she drinks tea". Which suggests he has high standards, when in reality he's just an alcoholic looking for a drinking partner. Bea, for her part, was busy making a salad, which Simon described as "dry", "bland", and "not very good". But hey, at least there was one less bowl to wash up afterwards.

The next morning, Simon received his usual breakfast in bed, and gave Bea instructions on how to use the vacuum cleaner, before complaining that the sound of the hoover was drowning out the TV. I don't think he'd quite thought that one through. Sue, meanwhile, was still coming to terms with her surroundings, stating "I've never seen such a repulsive sight, ever... I can't believe that in this day and age, I'm standing here looking at such a shit-hole". Which is the kind of thing you normally only hear on 'Changing Rooms'.

A quick water fight in the garden, and week two began with Sue finding dog shit in the bed, and Bea stocking up on ready meals. A dining room table was soon installed in the Livesey house, and after a quick fight over a rabbit, Sue took the kids to a golf club. Back in Birmingham, Simon was busy repeating the words "nobody tells me what to do", and getting uppity every time Bea asked him to stop drinking, before stating that his philosophy in life is that "you can have a point of view; we discuss it; and then you agree with me". He must be one of those new men I've been hearing about.

The week ended with Bea organising a sleepover for the kids, during which she helped them paint handprints onto the dining room wall, presumably as some kind of tribute to The Blair Witch Project, while Simon, ever one for the carefully considered statement, described the evening as "armageddon". Not that he's over-reacting at all.

The final night was a time for reflection. Sue asked Bea's little tomorrows what their favourite change had been. The answer was unanimous: "the new table". Though probably only because they knew they could flog it down Cash Converters the moment she left. Sue's children, meanwhile, were making enthusiastic noises about the handprinting sleepover, which had been a total success. The lessons of the exercise were clear.

Swapping done, the two women made their way home, stopping only to describe each other's lives as "crap", at which point Bea immediately got rid of the table and Sue called in the decorators to remove the handprints. Marvellous. That's what I call learning from your experience.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Multicoloured Swap Shop

If there's one thing which guarantees reality show success (apart, that is, from desperate b-list celebrities hoping to boost their flagging (or in some cases non-existent) careers), it's the word 'swap' in the title. In the past three years we've had 'Wife Swap', 'Holiday Swap', 'Gender Swap', 'Age Swap', and of course 'Flip Flop Cop Swap'. Well ok, I might have made up that last one. But I'm sure it's only a matter of time. Anyhoo, proving this to be true, last night Channel Five gave us 'Race Swap', which sounds like an opportunity to see Michael Schumacher winning the Tour de France, but was in fact a light-hearted make-over session featuring the kind of racial integration not seen since The Black & White Minstrel Show.

The programme saw the welcome return of Sam Fox to our screens, a woman who, according to the opening voice over, "is famous as a former page 3 girl and a pop star". One out of two - close, but no cigar. Sam of course has already done a real life 'sexuality swap' in recent years, but on this occasion was paired with ageing Olympian, Linford Christie, and the two challenged to switch racial identity in an effort to fool their nearest and dearest. It was a lot to ask, because as Sam herself pointed out, "when you think of me, you think 'Britain'". Well, Britain and knockers, surely?

Fortunately the pair had a triumvirate of experts to assist them in their task: prosthetic make-up artist Neil, image consultant Vanessa, and vocal coach Louise, who had her work cut out with Linford, who seemed to think his best chance of playing a convincing white man lay in his ability to talk like he had the kind of breathing problems not seen since the death of Darth Vader.

But undeterred, the team set about transforming Linford into a classic English gent, and Sam into a reject from the Kumars at Number 42. Having been measured up by Neil and Vanessa, Linford wasn't best pleased to hear that he'd be "majorly covered in rubber", but Frank Bough must have been straight onto the phone to his agent, demanding to be booked for the next series. Neil soon set about making casts of their heads, while Louise got to work on their acting ability. Or lack of it.

Her aim with Linford, we were told, was to "disguise the athletic poise" and "make him look overweight", something Steve Ovett has managed all on his own, and sure enough, after a day of intensive training, the results were there for all to see: Linford announced "I feel like a right dick", and threatened to walk out.

Over in the bimbo camp, things were going a little better, with Sam doing a fine attempt at the Indian accent. If they ever bring back 'Mind Your Language', she's got a job for life. Although she did seem limited to shouting "Sanjay!" in a loud voice. It was enough, however, to prepare Sam for her first test - phoning a wedding planner who only deals with Asian customers, and convincing him that she was an Indian mother-in-law with £100,000 to spend. He seemed quite willing to believe her, but then if you're being offered a hundred grand to throw a party, you're not going to tell the customer they sound like Alec Guiness in 'A Passage to India'. And besides, he commented afterwards that "her English was particularly poor", so you can't tell me he didn't twig who it was.

Linford's test meanwhile, was to call "a close friend", Dr Bernie Henry, a researcher at the Department of Materials at Oxford University. No, I don't know how they became friends either. But despite talking like he had a life-threatening sinus infection, and sounding marginally less convincing than a Les Dennis impression, Linford somehow managed to fool the good doctor. Which just goes to show that not everyone at Oxford is a genius.

A couple of weeks later and the prosthetics were ready. Sam Fox's make-up (right) was actually quite impressive. Linford Christie's looked more like something out of The Evil Dead. Which had been left next to a radiator. But hey, you can't have everything.

The pair were then taken out clothes shopping, with Linford being told "You've got to think like Donald Trump" (appropriate considering the shocking wig he'd just been given), and Sam meeting a group of Hindu ladies, who told her "If you're not educated, you will have a strong Indian accent". Which explained a lot.

The ensembles completed, and with Linford looking increasingly like a Spitting Image puppet, it was time for them to take their first proper challenges. Linford was given the task of posing as a journalist and fooling his lifelong coach, Rocket Ron Roddan, while Sam was expected to play the part of an Indian restaurant manager, and serve a group of her closest friends.

Having perfected his voice beforehand, Linford took the last minute decision to chuck it all out the window and do an impression of Marlon Brando with laryngitis, while Sam seemed more intent on hamming it up as an Indian version of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. The two mounds of rice in the shape of breasts were a master stroke on Sam's part. Although, as she's only too keen to point out, she's known for so much more than just her tits.

Anyhoo, challenge number one successfully completed, Linford moved on to his children's school, where his partner Mandy spotted him within three seconds, and before he'd had a chance to open his mouth. There was still time for him to mentally traumatise his kids though, with 4 year old Tate looking genuinely disturbed, and mumbling "You're not my daddy" in a shaky voice. But hey, I'm sure it's nothing that can't be sorted out with a few years of therapy.

Sam meanwhile paid a visit to the radio studio of her old mate (adopt the voice of Smashy & Nicey when you read that), Pat Sharp, where she disrupted his show by sitting on a stool and singing 'Touch Me' in an Indian accent. Sam was convinced that he "didn't have a clue it was me", and announced that she deserved an Oscar.

And the verdict from Pat? "I just thought you were a fucking lunatic". So he obviously knew who she was all along.