Since Lindsey is very keen on it, I’ve taken the unusual step of watching some episodes of Come Dine With Me on C4’s catch-up site. I say unusual, bearing in mind that I watch very comparatively little TV at any time, and when I do it’s often movies on DVD. Like the Apprentice, it’s the sort of cringeworthy programme I watch between my fingers which chewing a cushion in utter despair and anguish.
Logically I should take an interest in this programme, since its apparent subject matter is food, or, to be strictly accurate, dinner parties hosted by each contestant in turn, then marked in secret by each guest. The winner takes home £1,000 and the rest just get their hour of reality TV fame… at a cost.
If it were about food I would sit up and take a keener interest… but purist foodie show it ain’t, and that’s where the cost comes in. The real point of the show is to bring out the worst in people, exploit their most appalling characteristics then bounce them off one another – people chosen expressively to rub one another up the wrong way – under the mercilessly unforgiving microscope of a TV camera and the sneeringly sardonic voiceover commentary of an actor by the name of Dave Lamb.
Every kitchen cock-up, every faddy dislike, every drunken verbal faux-pas is recorded and broadcast; every shade of devious manipulation, every shrill outburst, every catty remark, the lot – it’s all on screen for millions to tut at. Every contestant becomes a sad and often grotesque parody of themselves, prostituting their dignity, having their home scrutinised and their cooking nit-picked just for a chance to win a grand.
Would you want to do it? Well, I could use a thousand smackers and I can cook pretty well, but I would have to be scraping the barrel to undergo that sort of torture. And in any case, I would not be the type they chose – too polite and gracious, not the kind to slag off anybody who had just fed me dinner.
But then, everybody probably thinks of themselves like that… until the camera is pointing at them. Something strange happens then. Would these dinner parties continue so explosively were the cameras not there? Would people be so bitchy if they did not have to manoeuvre and wind each other up to outscore the opposition and win the price? Almost certainly not!
Some of the comments are clearly designed to justify giving others low scores while playing themselves to the gallery in the hope of prize-winning scores, though sometimes they are rumbled. Comments on the food are probably justified, though the scores often bear no relation to the quality or the presentation, nor indeed of how good the host has been or the entertainments he or she put on. A beautifully elegant dish might be dismissed as being “too easy” or because “I don’t like X” or “not up to my high standards.” In real life they are probably shrinking violets who would not say boo to a goose.
What you do have, and for many it is richly entertaining, is a lesson in the psychology of group dynamics with a good helping of game-playing thrown in for good measure. No doubt the programme-makers rub their hands in glee whenever a contestant lacking in mental robustness flies off the handle and launches into an (expletive deleted) rant or bursts into tears, but you do fear for the people and their long-term mental health after such an ordeal.
And indeed you wonder what happens off-camera: a team of counsellors to ensure that nobody walks out in a huff or ends up being sectioned as a result of the narcissistic cruelty exhibited within the programme? Surely they all knew what they were letting themselves in for when they signed up? Maybe they thought they knew but put it to the back of their minds, but it makes you wonder how seriously the programme makers take their responsibility for the people they subject to this ritual humiliation.
That said, I can remember occasions when formal dinners or parties went askew in real life, including a Christmas party dinner for my dad’s office crowd that ended up with one drunken guest (male) hitting another drunken guest (female) and being sent home to cool his heels. I guess that bloke did not work there long after that episode!
Whenever I’ve held dinner parties, I generally make sure I know what the guests do and don’t like, something that never happens on CDWM since they have to announce their menus in advance. The only concession to preferences is that they are told if they have vegetarian guests, though veggies will still have to put up with the sight of carnivores stuffing their faces with meat.
I’ve also tried to pick a compatible group of people – with some common interest or theme that guarantees a fascinating conversation over the table and thereafter. In other words, to make for mutual respect and admiration, whether or not they agree, rather than deliberately guaranteeing conflict and guests at one another’s throats. To do otherwise makes for a zoo, but that is what makes for entertaining TV in the opinion of the majority; dinner party conversation about the respective merits of Ibsen and Chekhov may not draw in the same audience, for example (not that that is the topic for discussion at my parties!)
So do enjoy the psychology of competitors trying to sound civilised, air-kissing cheeks and offering wine and flowers while simultaneously slipping the stiletto between the shoulder blades. Just don’t invite any of them to my house!