“I remember watching that and thinking: that’s the end of the world, isn’t it? I don’t know how you come back from that.”
Russell Tovey, acclaimed actor and Talk Art podcast host, is telling me about the most shocking moment he remembers from one of his earlier and perhaps lesser-known jobs: as the narrator on Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. “This kid was doing the washing up and he drank too much and threw up in the washing up bowl. Then his mates poured his vomit into shot glasses and they all did shots of it. It was the most repulsive, shocking sight I’d ever seen.”
The BBC Three show launched ten years ago and ran for a total of ten seasons until 2015, including several spin-offs, including Snow, Sex and Suspicious Parents and Festivals, Sex & Suspicious Parents. The concept from TV production company RDF was simple. Every episode, groups of teenagers would be sent on holiday to a Mediterranean resort (Kavos, Magaluf, Malia). Unbeknown to them, their parents would travel out to the same resort and spy on their kids through live footage and video highlights that they’d watch the morning after the night before. At the end of each episode, there was a big reveal where the parents would emerge and surprise their (usually drunk) teenagers.
It was outrageous, chaotic and hugely entertaining. But for a show that has “sex” in the title, it has somewhat surprisingly wholesome origins. Executive producer Tayte Simpson remembers an early brainstorming meeting at RDF, when a CBeebies show called Undercover Dads came up. The idea was that dads would dress up and pretend to be their kids’ new nanny.
“It was like the real Mrs Doubtfire,” explains Simpson. “We thought, imagine doing that but on an Ibiza Uncovered-type show, so when the kids go on that first holiday away from their parents, their parents were there watching it. We thought it was a funny top line.”
It was Jack Bootle, the show’s development producer, who’d brought up Ibiza Uncovered in a meeting. “I used to love the show in the 90s. It featured British people getting off their nut in Ibiza and loads and loads of shagging,” explains Bootle. “The thing I couldn’t get out of my mind was the fact that their parents would watch the series. I thought it would be amazing to film the parents as they watched their kids behaving like depraved animals.”
Bootle led the development team, writing “millions of proposals to try to distill the idea”. RDF was known for making factual entertainment formats with a twist, such as Wife Swap and The Secret Millionaire. “Back in 2009, there was an appetite for shows which were confrontational and in which shock was a key ingredient of their entertainment,” says Bootle.
They pitched the show to the likes of Channel 4, Channel 5 and BBC Three, but every single broadcaster rejected it. “People winced. They thought it was too painful an idea and too cruel,” says Bootle. Simpson remembers being surprised by the response: “We never thought of it as mean, we thought it was funny.”
That might have been the end of it, but for a one-off documentary about Magaluf which aired on BBC Three a few months after their initial pitch. “It got phenomenal figures,” remembers Bootle. “That made everyone at BBC Three go: shit, there’s something in this space.” Harry Landsown, a commissioner at BBC Three, remembered the idea and commissioned a series of six episodes.
If the premise of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents was simple (it does what it says on the tin, really), the practicalities of actually pulling it off were less straightforward. “It was a challenge working it all out,” says Simpson. “How on earth do we find the groups of kids? How do we keep it from the kids?”
The casting team printed out flyers and approached teenagers on the street or in bars. They contacted holiday resorts, asking if they could put up adverts on their websites. Once the teens were on board, the team had to secretly convince the parents. And then there was the paperwork.
“Because this was a show predicated on deception, what they were signing up to was not the show they were taking part in,” explains Bootle. “They’d sign a consent form that had a fake title like: Fun in the Sun or My Mediterranean Holiday and after the reveal, they had to sign a retrospective consent form with the real name of the programme. There was always a danger that the kids would refuse to sign the second consent form and we’d have to junk the whole episode. We lived in fear of that happening.” Amazingly, it never happened.
Despite having to watch teenagers do shots of their own sick, Tovey says he loved narrating the show. “I’ve always felt proud that it was one of my gigs,” he says, adding that it reminded him of going on his own rite-of-passage holidays. “I related to that experience of feeling completely free and like you’re an adult but behaving like an absolute child.”
He slips back into his narrator voice: “Coming up: Ben throws up on the balcony, Rebecca sleeps in her own vomit.”
As for the filming process, Simpson says it was “planned like a military operation”. With two groups of unruly adolescents, two sets of parents and two TV crews, all in these relatively small and extremely chaotic resorts, it’s not hard to see why. “It was a logistical nightmare,” says Colin Rothbart, a director on the first series. “I had three or four cameras, the teenagers were groups of four or five, then you have the police to deal with, the release forms, the fact that everyone is drunk. People would unplug your cables or throw drinks at you and you couldn’t put a camera bag down because someone might nick it. It was full-on.”
Over a week’s filming, the crew had to wrangle a chaotic schedule while functioning on very little sleep. “We got about two or three hours’ sleep a night,” says Rothbart. “Someone had to chaperone the teenagers. Often it’s their first holiday and they’re going out and getting wasted. We might get to bed at four or five in the morning and then the runner would have to wrangle the footage for 9AM when we’d meet the parents to show them the previous night’s footage.” Bootle says the production team “looked like ghosts when they got back”.
Still, Rothbart remembers it with love. “The most fun we had was keeping the whole thing secret and, on series one, they really didn’t know. We were working it out on the ground and thinking: what would be the cheekiest thing we could do?”
He remembers one scene in a lap dance club with a teenager from Blackpool, where the crew managed to get his parents into the venue ahead of his arrival. “It was so cringey,” says Rothbart. “The lapdancer was taking the son’s clothes off and the parents were watching from the booth and you’re like: oh my god, your son is basically getting a hard-on from a lapdancer two booths away.”
Rothbart worked on a series one episode with a group of rugby players from Sussex. “They were doing drinking games and getting naked all the time.” Any activities on the show were generally planned in advance, but one of the teenagers suddenly decided they wanted to do a bungee jump, nude. “Bungee jumps are notoriously difficult to insure. So we had frantic calls back to the office asking if we could do it.”
They got it on film in the end, but then they had to deal with the nudity – something that frequently came up in the edit process. “For any extreme nudity we’d have to put blurs on,” says Simpson. “There was quite an old online editor and he’d have to sit there blurring penises all day. I always felt bad – he probably didn’t think he’d be sat there blurring penises in his 50s.”
The group of rugby lads stands out in Simpson’s mind, too. “They called themselves the ‘rugger buggers’. The crew were waiting for them to come off the plane in Ayia Napa. They came out and one of them was in a wheelchair – he’d drunk so much on the plane that he’d got paralytic. He had a wet patch on his trousers.”
It made great television, but the BBC had concerns. “Even though they’d signed the release forms, we thought they should probably see the footage. So they came in to watch the show and I had to sit there with them. I thought they were going to freak out. After about five minutes they went: ‘This is brilliant. It’s hilarious.’ I remember thinking: ‘God, what would it have to be for it to be embarrassing?’”
When I spoke to people who featured on the show as teenagers, the word that comes up repeatedly is “cringe”. Jenn Getz, 28, was on the first series. “It’s just cringe, isn’t it? I've watched it so many times – people always make me watch it because it’s embarrassing,” says Getz. “But I was 18, we got a free holiday and it was a fucking laugh. I don’t regret it.”
Her episode nearly got canned after she found a crew member’s phone and saw texts that revealed that her mum and stepdad were there too. “I was pissed off. It wasn’t a TV series that existed before so I didn’t know what was going on. I texted my mum being like, you’ve lied to me and my friends, what the fuck?” They stopped filming for a day or two and a few evenings later, Getz’s parents were waiting in her room when she got back from a night out. They had an emotional reunion in the early hours of the morning while Getz was in fancy dress as a bottle of ketchup.
Getz’s mum, Carol Edwards, remembers the show being “hard work”. One night, they climbed up the fire escape exit of a club and went into the attic, where they sat with all the lights off, watching live footage of their daughter partying downstairs. “They tried to get a reaction out of you,” says Edwards. “My big bugbear is smoking and of course I saw her smoking on screen.”
Even so, Edwards thought the girls came across as “well mannered” and she wasn’t ashamed of anything she saw. “To be honest, it didn’t matter how drunk she got because it wasn’t going to be me waking up with a hangover, was it? It was going to be to her detriment if she looked like a right plank on telly,” she says. She remembers the reveal moment being quite emotional: “We were anxious because we didn’t know how she was going to react.”
In fact, Tovey often found these moments tough to watch when he recorded the narration. “I’d sit in the booth and I’d cry at times,” he says. “That emotion at the end is so raw.” What upset him most was the parents who had to watch their kids disappoint them – if they’d abandoned a friend who collapsed outside a club or hadn’t stuck up for someone. “The times I got upset was when [the kids] didn’t do that because, for [the parents], that must have been like: fuck, what have I raised? Why, in that situation, did they not hang around?”
The first series aired in January 2011. “We weren’t sure how it was going to rate,” says Simpson. “The first episode did really well, I think it got over a million, which on BBC Three was a big figure. We got a call from the channel the next day. They were delighted. We knew it was a hit after the first programme.”
The show’s popularity was a double-edged sword. The more people knew about it, the harder it would be to hide what was actually going on from the teenagers appearing on it. In 2012, the series was BBC Three’s most-watched unscripted show and most requested on BBC iPlayer. “We thought we’d get one, slightly ropey series out of it,” says Bootle. “It ran for much longer than we ever thought.”
As time went on, it got harder to keep up the subterfuge. “In our series, no one knew what was going on,” says Rothbart. “But I know in subsequent series, they went back to the same resorts and people used to shout ‘Oh, are you filming for Sun, Sex... Your parents are over there!’”
There was even an official list of things you could say to a contributor if they asked if they were on the show. “Because it was the BBC, you weren’t allowed to lie,” says Bootle. “The production team had this list of approved lines they could use that would sort of deflect the question, so they’d say ‘Oh my god wouldn’t it be hilarious if this was Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents’.” In the later seasons, Simpson says some teenagers saw going on the show as “a badge of honour”.
Cian Hughes, 27, appeared on series three. For a while after it aired, he reported any illegal streams of his episode on YouTube. “I didn’t want anyone to see it because it was cringey, but now it’s been so long that I find it funny.” He applied to appear on what was billed as a new BBC show called The Big Vacation. “They only gave you a few days notice so a lot of my best friends couldn’t go. I was on Facebook like: ‘Who’s free in a few days’ time and wants to come on a free holiday?’.”
He suspected he might be going on Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, but couldn’t be sure. “I wasn’t sure if my mum would agree to it. She’s quite a busy businesswoman. I thought: would she sacrifice a week of her life to come to Zante?” As it turned out, she would. At one point, Hughes was at a paint party, where everyone wears white t-shirts and squirts paint at each other. The production team positioned his mum on a balcony above him, squirting paint on him. “She loved it,” says Hughes. “They had to drag her out, she didn’t want to leave.”
The people I spoke to became quasi-celebrities for a short while after they appeared on the show. The week that his episode aired, Hughes got ambushed at a Rita Ora gig. “I was mobbed. I had 15-year-old girls asking if they could take a picture with me. I thought: you’ve seen me on TV being a mess, why would you want a picture with me?”, he says. “I’d go and visit my friends at uni and people would be like: ‘oh my god, you’re that boy’, for about a year afterwards.”
Getz experienced the same thing for years after the show – she even got recognised by fellow Brits while travelling in Thailand. Meanwhile, her parents got recognised in the Co-op in Eastbourne. “We were walking down the aisle and there were people following us. We heard this family go: it’s them, it’s them! They were on the telly!”
Ten years on, what I remember most about the show was how the parents were so gushing and proud, even after they’d watched their kids throwing up on national TV. “It was nuts,” says Bootle. “That reveal was intended more for drama and fireworks than emotional redemption. But it ended up being quite a moving moment in which the parents were like: ‘I’m so proud of you, you’ve become an amazing young adult’, even if they’d behaved in this debauched and deranged drunken fashion.”
He thinks the parents reacted like this because their kids were at a pivotal moment in their lives. “Maybe I’m being too profound, but I think the reason the show had multiple series and the reason why people still talk about it is that it was a series about a really important rite of passage in our culture,” says Bootle. “It was shocking, grotesque and ridiculous, but at its heart, it was about something quite moving.”