"Do you think we could pick your brains? Come film? Find out everything you know?"
"Sure. What's the fee?"
"Oh I'm afraid we don't have a budget."
Why the fuck not? They are getting paid aren't they? To send people like me, people who actually know what they are talking about, begging emails.
Or maybe not. One I spoke to today said, when I suggested that he book for the restaurant if he really wanted to know what it's like, said
"Oh I can't afford it"You work in TV and you haven't got 25 quid to book a place? What's that about?
At least four TV companies are doing a show...all of them variations on the theme 'Home dining'."We get couples to open a restaurant in their living room" the researchers announce gleefully, reinventing the wheel.
'Come dine with me' is a huge success. They want a different but similar concept. Really similar. Nothing too different. It's like a scene from The Player.
Nobody has actually done a show on (newly) established home restaurants. You know why? Because authenticity is not the name of the game here.
"haha I'm not a documentary maker" said the impoverished young 'producer' "I make entertainment. In fact you probably wouldn't be very good for our show. You are too professional. It's all about the journey you see. We want viewers to engage with the journey. You are further along the journey. We want tears, frustration, panic. 24 hours to turn your home into a restaurant. That kind of thing".
The journey? I inwardly groan. Do none of these people have an original thought in their heads?
You want a journey? I'll give you journey. I'm a single mum. A real one. No hidden bloke. No training. No money. This recession? Don't make me laugh. I've spent years without money. I've also spent years making my flat nice by picking up furniture off the street, crockery from flea markets. I learnt to cook because I couldn't afford to go to restaurants. A year ago I took out an extra mortgage to fulfill a long held dream...an Aga. I thought, how old do I have to be before I can have what I want? Just do it.Find the money somehow.
In 2000, the year I moved into this flat, fleeing my Camden studio flat for a larger space in which to bring up my child, I turned on the TV one night. I'd been clearing the jungle-like garden all day. My hands were like claws, dirt ingrained in them.
Exhausted, I numbly flipped channels. On Channel 4 there was this weird programme. A bunch of young people, some in bikinis, sitting about in a house.
One of them was coming out with this story about his wife dying in a car crash or something. He was sweating.
Cut to another scene. The young people go to a little room, in turns, sit on a big chair, talk to the camera. They are unselfconscious, natural. And even when they are unnatural, they are natural. They talk about their problems with the others, about boredom. It's sunny outside.
At first I was tempted to turn over. The pace was slow. It was all a bit dull. But it grew on you. Watching it was a Zen experience. You were watching nothing, minutiae. It was rather soothing. One of the guys had a guitar. One of the girls flirted. One woman, who turned out to be a lesbian nun, came across as thoughtful and intelligent, a rare thing on TV. Another of the boys was Northern, with an impenetrable Newcastle accent.
I found myself watching it every night. I started to feel sorry for the Northern boy. He was 'nominated' to leave every week by the housemates but always kept in when it came to the viewer's vote. He seemed nice but was obviously irritating to live with.
The sweaty guy continued to lie. He got caught. There was a confrontation. He said to the camera in the diary room, memorably "if you live by the sword you die by the sword". It was a bravura display of 'Je ne regrette rien'.
Along with me, the rest of the country had also gradually become interested. In fact, bit by bit, we were all watching these young people. And what was so delicious about it is, they clearly had no idea. At one point helicopters, paid for, I believe, by The Sun newspaper, flew over the house, trying to get a glimpse into what was happening inside. The 'housemates' inside, remarked upon the circulating helicopters, oblivious to the fact that they were the story.
This was great TV. It was never as good afterwards. These contestants were virgins. Every following series included inmates that had had their TV cherry popped, with all the knowing and degrading complicity that goes with that.
I stopped watching.
Last week another series started. We are now post-Jade, the ignorant girl who made a million, ruined her reputation in public and resussitated it by dying.
But they cranked it up again. My daughter turned it on for the opening episode in which the chosen housemates enter the house. Once assembled, Big Brother called a male contestant into the diary room.
"If you want to become a housemate you must find someone who is willing to have their eyebrows shaved off and have glasses and a moustache drawn on them with an indelible pen. You have three minutes."
He ran out of the diary room, breathless, explained. One girl, an attractive black girl, volunteered. He shaved her eyebrows, drew on the funny glasses and moustache. Except it wasn't funny. It was Abu Ghraib. Degradation. Exploitation. Removal of identity. In this era of economic difficulty, when young people are most likely nervous about their future, the dreadful prospect of working very very hard for very very little money in boring jobs, Big Brother was laughing at them for aspiring to be something more. And encouraging us to do the same.
Hahaha. Aren't you ridiculous? We are supposed to think. How desperate are you?
I don't feel that way. I feel cringing embarrassment, shame. These young people, some of them little older than my daughter, exposed and ridiculed. Forever known as 'that Big Brother contestant'.
It's 'They shoot horses don't they?' the book by Horace McCoy in which depression era couples, starving, must dance for days on end, the rules preventing them from proper sleep.
And now every TV programme is like that. Competance, grace, talent is not enough. TV wants "the journey". Ask Susan Boyle.