Earlier this year I decided to apply to be a contestant on the reality television programme Come Dine With Me. If you have escaped its afternoon omnipresence, Come Dine With Me is a popular TV programme where, five complete strangers, whose personalities have been hand-picked to attract, clash or, in some circumstances, to have nothing but contempt for one another, all host a night in competition with each other to win the £1,000 prize. The gist of this cooking competition is to vote your fellow competitors in accordance to their ability to cook, host and provide entertainment: or at least, that’s how I voted. Big mistake.
The audition process consisted of filling out an application form and sending in some photos of myself and my house. I knew I had to stand out in order to progress to the final stages, so decided to send a picture of myself fully ‘triathlon’ suited and booted and ensured my application reflected my key character traits (with a little spin added to catch the eye). I have my first Ironman planned for later in the year, so over egged this a little to enhance my application giving the impression of myself being a dedicated, super-fit athlete or arse, depending on how they edit me.
The application process was very slick and swift. I applied, heard nothing for three weeks then received a call from one of the researchers advising me I had been shortlisted to the final twelve and they wanted to come to my house the following day for a short audition. A week later I was told I was in – subject to final vetting by Channel 4 and filming was to start the following Monday. I was strongly advised to take the week off work; fortunately this was possible. A word of warning for future competitors: this experience would not have been possible without the week off work.
I have no idea how they will portray me in the final cut. Apparently I will receive a DVD a few weeks before airing but have no say in the content.
What soon became apparent to me was that the producers are meticulous in their ability to distil each contestant’s personality down to one isolated attribute. In my case I am a little worried it may be a pretentious twat. Or is that two? You get my drift? I suppose my only reassurance is that after watching the programme since filming, no one really gets to be themselves and they all have an equal share of the global character assassination.
Whilst I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan of Come Dine With Me, in my pre-C-list celebrity acting days I enjoyed sneaking a peak into strangers’ homes. Normally I watched said programme when there was nothing else to watch on those remote free view channels during idle channel-hopping.
I think the most worrying aspect pre-airing is not what colleagues, friends, wife or son will say, think or feel; it is the barrage of abuse you get from the #ComeDineWithMe brigade live on Twitter each night. The comments can test even the most rounded and fulfilled individual questioning all aspects of their sexuality, personality and physical appearance.
So, this is a food competition I was applying for, so my food needed to be a thing of beauty and tantalizingly tasty. My mantra was to be clean, clinical and sophisticated, with a little bit of finesse. As part of the application process, I had to provide a three-course menu. I later found out that if it was not to the production team’s liking they would change and manipulate it. In addition, if you had stolen any part of the menu from the internet or from a celebrity chef then they would skin you alive and dip you in a bath of salt, unless you made three major changes. Fortunately for me, the producers were more or less happy with my choices:
King scallops with double grilled bacon and a pea and broadbean puree with garlic and thyme infused oil.
Chicken Saltimbocca with fondant potatoes and asparagus and pak choi
Banana, pistachio and chocolate filo wraps with homemade (not with an ice-cream maker) vanilla and pistachio ice-cream.
Accompanied with a dessert wine.
If anything went right about my week, I have to say the food did. In my view, it was the only food that was well-seasoned, had any flavour and was cooked to perfection. This modest view, I hope, will not be my downfall. Occasionally I have visions of the other contestants mimicking throwing up and laughing with glee at the thought of their only competition fading into insignificance when the programme is aired.
I prided myself, with a little prompting from the producer, that I was a highly competitive person; the production team loved it and egged me on more and more. I can hear the words ringing in my head: “So David, do you still think you can win this competition,?” after being encouraged to use culinary negative comments to destroy each contestant dish by dish.
I was told I had been given ‘the best slot’ (aka the last night) when I received the phone call from the producer to confirm I was on the show. I was secretly very pleased … it’s got to be better than first, hasn’t it?
Come Dine With Me is a prime time television programme which I would say 80% of the working population has heard of and for a few weeks I felt quite privileged to have been selected out of the millions of applications down to the last five. (Ok. It might not be millions).
The first three hours of ‘your day’ (Friday, in my case) is spent filming about you and your life. Filming took place at various locations and they picked my location to suit my over-promoted Ironman façade. The producer had me suited and booted again in my triathlon suit, and I can assure you there is nowhere to hide in it, biking up various steep hills at a very plush country house, followed by a session in the gym. The local members were mightily perturbed about this, as they were asked to vacate their gym. The worst thing of all was that I don’t do weights and even though, whilst filming, the weights were set at the lightest setting, the following day the tendons in my entire upper body had shortened by half and I was unable to raise a mug of coffee to my mouth.
The peak experience of the filming phenomenon occurred one afternoon during day three of filming. My ‘menu reveal’ location. The location was a good hour and a half from where I lived, so after a little negotiation they agreed for the evening taxi, my regular driver, to pick me up early and I would take my change of clothes. This seemed a good idea at the time as a driver was only provided for the evening meal and return – for menu reveals, I needed to provide my own transport.
Following the menu reveal, I was asked to wait in the local public house which was very pleasant and approximately an hour before show time I got changed in my makeup room, which was in fact the disabled toilet and went for what was becoming a regular nerve calmer, a large glass of white. During this time, the locals had begun to notice the cameras moving from the pub to a nearby house and word got around: Come Dine With Me was in town. In the space of an hour I had my photo taken with a few locals three times and was commended for my stupidity by the entire pub. I could have had free drinks all night but I knew I had to stay in control, so declined gracefully and sensibly.
I probably should let you in to a few trade secrets about the whole experience as a contestant on Come Dine with Me which in hindsight are pretty obvious. At the time of writing this piece, you were provided with £125 towards your costs – which isn’t even close to covering your costs.
Do not expect to get anything more than about two hours sleep each night. In my experience filming went on until 4am most mornings. On my night (the last night) filming started at 8am Friday morning and the crew finally left at 5.45am Saturday morning!!
Each contestant gets filmed for at least 30 minutes:
After arrival (first impressions)
Scoring in the taxi
Do the maths!
In addition to this, you have the menu reveal which normally takes place mid-morning and can take up to two hours. You also have to factor in the adrenalin rushing through your body which prevents you from getting to sleep in the early hours and wakes you up with waves of panic after about a few hours.
No matter how pristine, clean, minimalist or clinical your home is, the crew (whether lighting or sound) will find fault and demolish it. Halogen light bulbs are taken – don’t mention the high gloss work tops which the lighting crew described as the devil’s urine. Do not plan where you guests will sit, this will be decided on the day. In fairness they were very good at putting things back as they found them before they left and there was very little damage.
I remember at some point early on in the week one of the researchers enlightened the group with some wise words that proved to be true in my case. “At some point over the week, or after it’s all over, you will all have a mini-breakdown of some sort.” The caveat to this was those of us who went into meltdown during the week would fair much better than those who survive the ‘come down with me’ after it is all over.
My meltdown was Thursday morning and I think it was down to the stress and general lack of sleep. I was ready to throw in the towel and couldn’t see the wood for the trees and didn’t know how I was going to perform on my day. There were a few tears and, after some stern but kind words from the oracle, I pulled my socks up and never looked back. I do now wonder how those contestants are doing who didn’t have a wobbly moment during the week.
Why did I enter? If you know me, you wouldn’t ask that question! I felt quite natural in front of the camera and the crew seemed very happy with my ‘one take wonder’ attitude, which meant they could break sooner. I genuinely thought I would win the competition and in hindsight I realise that the competition is not about cooking: it’s about scoring tactically, which I did not. I love cooking and still love cooking and entertaining. And whilst we’re on the subject of entertaining …
My entertainment was originally going to be a ‘70s disco. But this idea was quickly squashed once I made it through to the last five. I was told very clearly the entertainment should last no more than thirty minutes and will take place between main and dessert. Then the heavily ladened suggestions came from the producer: What about … How about … This would be good.
”You line ’em up, and I’ll hit them out of the park,” I can hear myself self saying to him. I must have been a producer’s delight agreeing to most suggestions. We agreed on an ‘80s-themed gym class fancy dress and all leading the contestants through a string of exercises, the harder exercises went to the contestants I least liked.
All this was to be to the theme of Olivia Newton John’s Lets get Physical. I still wake up with that reflection I caught of myself in the conservatory window looking like a cross between Mr Motivator and Po (the red teletubby). It was the all-in-one red lycra jumpsuit I was wearing! All the contestants were given individually stupid ‘80s fancy dress costumes, which I had already been filmed trying on at a local fancy dress shop. For the record, I am completely at ease with my sexuality despite how I may come across after editing!
It’s not all glitz and glamour as there is a lot of hanging around between scenes, although four out of the five of us got on really well and were never short of something to talk about. In fact, we didn’t always remember if we were on-camera or not, as we felt equally comfortable with the film crew.
At each destination you can be kept waiting in the car for up to 1.5 hours before you are called to do the famous knock on the door. You have no idea what to expect when it opens or who you are going to meet. Once you arrive for your welcome drink you then go on the organised house snoop: unlike past episodes, where the host’s guests could ferret through your most intimate possessions, such as your knickers’ drawer. My wife had several meltdowns about this during the preceding week, frantically removing anything incriminating. Had the contestants gone through our drawers they would have wondered how we lived such a frugal life with no clothes or underwear.
The film crew stipulates which rooms contestants can enter and they have prearranged which items you are to leave out to view. This helps them get an insight into the kind of person you are and any surprising secrets, which then stimulates discussion around the dinner table. Following the tour, you then all sit down for your starter, followed eventually by the main, before you are each individually interviewed by the director in one of the bedrooms. You finally get to eat your dessert around midnight.
Often in the early hours of the following morning each individual contestant gets in a black cab which drives around the block and is filmed giving the score so it was always a long day.
Looking back with those rose-coloured spectacles on, the week was very enjoyable or, at least, the memory was.
You forget the stress and lack of sleep. I calculated I slept for just 12 hours over the five days and five nights I lost 4kgs, probably because I felt physically sick every morning, not through the volume of alcohol consumed but through the general stress of the week and thus never ate a thing until the three course meal every night. The compulsory large glass of white before the taxi arrived usually settled my stomach.