As December arrives, the filming and production of Christmas specials is in full swing. Last year I agreed to humiliate myself beyond belief by appearing on Christmas University Challenge. This year, surely, it would not be possible to show myself up still further. But indeed it was. My manager, a Prominent Theatrical Agent, suggested that I participate in the Christmas series of Come Dine with Me. Why ever not?, I thought.
A confession. When I agreed to do the programme, I had never seen it. I still hadn’t seen it when we started filming. For those of you similarly unacquainted with the show, the format is a competition that runs over five nights. Contestants take turns to dine at each other’s homes. Each evening is then scored, taking in the food, the hospitality and any entertainment. The prize is a £1,000 donation to charity, which seems to me worthy of effort.
Besides, how difficult could it be? A few evenings – albeit ones requiring a different camera-friendly outfit each night – of going to people’s houses for dinner plus a day at home cooking, followed by an evening entertaining people I might otherwise never have met.
Once I had signed up, I started to reflect on what I had taken on. You do not learn who your fellow guests are until the first dinner. I knew that the others would be drawn from the world of entertainment and sport and that there was a good chance that I – someone who would always choose The Economist over Hello! – might not recognise some of them. I also knew that guests usually arrive with a gift for the host. But what to give someone you have never met?
My first concern when I embarked on the project was that four total strangers and a TV crew were going to be visiting my house. Naturally, we started Operation Clean-up: how is it that I have accumulated so much stuff? “Stuff” just appears everywhere – it seems almost to breed. I really admire people who manage not only clean-desk policies but clean-house policies; alas, I am not one of them.
My second concern was what I was going to cook. I almost never don an apron these days: Mr M is the Chef Laureate. Could I possibly outsource the cooking to him or to the pub next door? No, I could not.
My fellow contestants were Rebecca Adlington, the Olympic gold medallist swimmer, Jennifer Ellison, the actress and singer, Alex Carter, the soap actor and radio presenter, and the very handsome Rav Wilding, a former policeman in Peckham who now presents crime and action shows.
At times, I felt like I had landed from Mars. Four out of five of us had Wikipedia entries; I was not one of them. Four out of five of us left school at 16; I was not one of them. Four out of five of us did not have a PAYE job; I was not one of them. Three out of five of us had a tattoo; I was not one of them.
The others were also very familiar with celebrity reality shows: Ellison had won Hell’s Kitchen in 2004 and made the quarter finals of last year’s Dancing On Ice; Wilding was in Strictly Come Dancing in 2009 and won 71 Degrees North in 2011; and Adlington went almost straight from my dining room to Australia to take part in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! I am old enough to be the mother of every one of them, just. But we all got on really well and in my companions I recognised the energy, work ethic and enthusiasm for life that I have myself.
I cooked venison, a seasonal favourite of mine. Who won? You will have to tune in to find out; the show will probably go out the week before Christmas. But I won’t be watching: our family will be in Australia, celebrating my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. This will be just as scary as Come Dine with Me, presenting yet another occasion for which one must buy a special present and dress up for a dinner. I may well be in for another humiliation – but at least it won’t be on national TV.