I’m going to sound amazingly pretentious and snotty when I say this but… I don’t watch TV. About 2 years ago, I moved to my current house and in the months it took me to settle, I didn’t bother connecting my TV to an aerial (the aerial socket was in a weird place) and I realised very quickly that I didn’t miss television. I’d taken to watching DVDs on my laptop and was working really hard for the first 18 months here, so I was never in that mood to collapse in front of the telly and let whatever was on play out in front of me.
Also, as someone who had grown up glued to the box, the frustration about the decline of UK TV since 2001 – the rise of reality shows, the lack of new comedy and drama with any voice and the dumbing down of everything else – was getting too much to handle, I was better off out of it.
When the BBC launched their Iplayer service and channel 4 similarly launched 4OD, it was the dream solution. So, when I now have my winding-down couple of hours at the end of the evening, I’ll hit iplayer and see what documentaries they have and I’ll watch one of the few ‘reality’ shows that I’m capable of enjoying – any of the cooking ones, Dragons Den and The Apprentice. On Iplayer, the docs are all stored in the category ‘factual’. Factual is a mixed bag, mainly dominated by lazy syrupy demi-consumer-based-gameshows; Flog It, Bargain Hunt, Car Booty or shows about property – Escape to the Countryside, To Buy or Not to Buy, Homes Under The Hammer. It’s as if the BBC has looked at society and said ‘they all want to own homes but they’re too poor and have to buy crap from car boot sales – so this is what they probably want to see’. It’s a wasteland.
But I have a new obsession. I don’t know why I first clicked on the show called ‘Don’t Tell The Bride’, as I have no surface interest in weddings but it’s a show in which an impoverished couple is given 12k by the BBC of licence-payers money to have a wedding. The comedy twist is that the groom has to organise it himself with no input from – or contact with – the bride. The title sequence stresses that this is agreed ‘in front of a lawyer’ – so it’s pretty serious.
It is neither the subject matter or the premise which has struck a chord with me, though. I’m not convinced the programme-makers are even aware of the cumulative effect watching a whole series of this show has on painting a social portrait of modern relationships. It is absolutely fascinating. I suppose they could only attract a certain demographic to appear on the show – young enough to be whacky, poor enough to be desperate and, maybe, thoughtless enough to stage a wedding at just 3 week’s notice. There is a mean smugness behind the concept where the BBC seems to be dangling a financial carrot infront of desperate families to risk their most important day for our lascivious pleasure. They don’t have to participate, though. They deserve as much sympathy as the Big Brother contestants who are prepared to forego their complete dignity for a shot at fame and money just as these people are prepared to forego the beauty of a meaningful wedding for a bit of a free knees-up.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that every episode of this series would be radically different – different couples, personalities, problems, outcomes… but they are all disconcertingly identical. This consistency – that the BBC has found so many identical couples (and the show doesnt feel like it’s made with the kind of effort it would take to do that on purpose) – paints a really compelling portrait of love in our time.
These couples are all already living together – some already have children – and they talk about how much they love each other. The episode starts with them being separated. The women cry, the men assume a pose of desperate confusion until the car is out of sight and they relax a bit and make no secret of their feeling of freedom. At this point the best man arrives. These guys are, almost without fail, utter twats. The brides span a limited emotional spectrum in regard to these chaps from uneasy toleration to unbridled hatred. As they should because these guys all represent the fact that the grooms are not ready to get married in any way. In footage of the couples together, the grooms are sedate, docile and permitted to do basic household chores under supervision. In footage of them with their best men, they are animated, alert, happy and say ‘dude’ a lot. Sometimes, there is more physical affection displayed between the groom and best man than the groom and bride.
At this point, the bride goes to stay with her family and the groom and best man go to the pub. The bride details exactly what her dream wedding is, intercut with her husband-to-be detailing the exact same description but prefaced with ‘she definitely wouldn’t want…’ It kind of boggles the mind to think that not only have they never discussed this but that the men’s instincts about the women’s tastes could be SO out of whack. You get the first hint that these guys don’t actually ever listen to what their partners might be saying.
The first two days of wedding planning are spent either drinking with the best man or playing computer games with him, self-assured that they are geniuses who deserve a break. Then they start making calls and reality sets in – what do you mean you can’t book a church with just 2 weeks notice? What do you mean invites have to be sent out? It becomes a huge hassle to them and they make decisions with little care or thought. Thought being the main problem. A wedding can be the most important day in a woman’s life to her but the grooms give only the slightest of thought about that. they choose the venues they are impressed by (this could be in spirit or price) themselves; pubs, tents, horrible cheap hotels under the Heathrow flightpath. They also prove that when man is left alone to organise catering, he will invariably opt for a ‘hog roast’ – an entire pig carcass rotated over an open flame. Always amusing when the bride’s family come from cultures who don’t ‘do’ pig.
The groom goes on to pick venues, catering, the dress, flowers, cake and entertainment all, almost without fail, not just the exact opposite of what the bride wanted but specifically singled out by her as something she would kill him for if he chose. The groom has to meet the bridesmaids in some horrible chain store to sort out their dresses. He always treats them with barely concealed contempt and stresses to the camera beforehand ‘they’ll wear what I tell them to! I’m not having any backchat!’
This contempt is always comically restated when the hen/stag nights occur – the groom sends his to-be and her mates off to the bingo or some crappy pub whilst him and his mates hit the town Vegas-style and have a full-on money-burning binge complete with dirty girls.
The big day arrives and one-by-one the disappointments are revealed to the bride – the meringue dress which she had categorically said she would rather die than wear, the tiara she denounced as tacky by concept, the bridesmaids who look like prawns, the ridiculous and inappropriate venue, the choice of day (who gets married on a thursday???), the hog roast complete with withering starving vegetarian guests, the string quartet she had hoped for replaced by a karaoke machine and some train wreck of a relative belting out ‘I Will Always Love You’. Everything wrong and misjudged but one-by-one immediately excused and forgiven. Each show ends happily with everyone agreeing that it couldn’t have possibly have been a more magical event and what an incredible job the groom had done and how much they love each other.
It’s very sweet. Isn’t it?