In 2005, the first episode of Come Dine with Me – a reality series that sees strangers compete to hold the best dinner party – landed on British television. While simple in its premise, the show would become one of the most popular reality formats of all time, running for 41 series and counting, and spawning spin-offs in 12 different countries – not to mention taking the number one slot in VICE's Top 50 British TV Shows of this century.
From the contestants' objectionable interior design choices to their two-bottles-of-Rioja-deep meltdowns, the show taps into our fascination with people's private lives – their homes, their cooking skills, the strange trinkets they keep in their bedside drawers – and turns it into a delicious competition of horrible paellas and passive aggressive comments.
While the concept of a dinner party competition show is inherently entertaining, Come Dine with Me wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for narrator Dave Lamb's comedic commentary. Lamb joined the show in season one and accounts for a large part of Come Dine with Me's appeal, throwing in cutting asides and sarcastic narration while everyone loses their shit.
I spoke to Lamb – who, when not on the show, speaks like a normal human – about what it's like to be the voice of one of Britain's best loved shows.
VICE: Hi Dave. How did you first get involved with Come Dine with Me?
Dave Lamb: They did a pilot back in 2004, and I think the notes came back from the channel that they wanted the voiceover to be slightly more animated, more amusing. So they auditioned some comedy writers, some performers, and I was lucky enough to get the job. That's how I got it.
What was it like in the early days?
Daytime TV was completely different back then. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to actually do it. It was nowhere near the big interest genre that it is nowadays. I just imagined I would do it, it would get put out and no one would even know that I'd done it, really.
Once the first series was in the bag, I think everyone agreed that a lot of the asides I was chucking in were actually working in themselves and that we could try writing them in. It sort of grew organically from that first series. Then, ultimately, I lost control of the voice completely and it went completely full-on nuclear for a while, but I like to think I've pulled it back a little bit now. I was losing my voice regularly about six or seven years ago. It just felt like it was on the edge and I couldn't control it anymore. I started to stand up when I did the voiceover, and that actually gave me a lot more space to control the VO. I'm much more comfortable about it now. It's not quite so taxing.
How did you go about developing a voiceover character?
It was just doing the cheeky asides. I think we kept it quite low and quite flat in the first series, and it started to not be a big enough spectrum for the little asides that I wanted to do. Once the asides got a bit cheeky, it threw off the shackles of the formality of what it was doing. But then it did really… about six years ago, it was totally over the top. It was unsustainable. But it's fine now – I can do it without hurting my voice.
What’s the process with recording the voiceover?
The VO is the very last bit of the show that's done. They cut the show, after they film for hours with these people. They have to write the script, because they have to write the story and plot the narrative, and then I'm allowed to improvise around the script. So, the way it's done is that they play the programme and I read the script as it happens. A 30-minute show will be done in 40 minutes. It all happens pretty fast – it's a very well-oiled machine.
As a comedian, is it weird to not have any input in the action or direction of the script?
It's quite interesting not being in control of the whole narrative. If the story is that the show's taken [a position] against one of the contestants, and if I happen to like that contestant, there's nothing I can do about that. I can't change the story of the show. But what I can do – which gives me artistic satisfaction, I suppose – is tweak the lines and way of saying it, and add new lines. That's what keeps me interested. It can be a bit frustrating at the time if you quite like someone that the show has decided is the villain.
You mentioned the contestants – do you have a favourite episode?
It's really weird, because I've done so many now; I've watched every episode of Come Dine with Me there's ever been – and that's a lot. That's a lot of reality TV to watch. It plays tricks with my mind. I find I'm no good at remembering people's names now because I'm so used to listening to people's names, reading them out, then forgetting them, so it's very difficult. But I do remember a snake pooing on a dinner table – that's not something that usually happens. But there's usually something in every episode that's jaw-dropping.
There are some interesting meltdowns too.
They're always good fun. It is amazing that people allow themselves to meltdown like that. I think they start to forget the cameras are there, you know? And just react as they would react. Also, there's a lot of booze. I think that loosens tongues quite a lot. A lot of people like to have a drink to settle their nerves.
Do you have any anecdotes from behind the scenes of the show?
There's a lot of stuff left on the cutting room floor that could never see the light of day. The temptation to say something very shocking rears its head fairly regularly. It's just for [the production], that. You hear stories. Anything that’s been too controversial has been cut.
Why do you think Come Dine with Me resonates so well with viewers?
It's supremely popular – I think it's in 44 countries or something. I think it's just so simple; it's very relatable. Just the act of strangers looking around your house. I think we can all imagine what that would be like, and I wouldn't really want to put myself through that. Or maybe you would. There's a fascination about what complete strangers like about your food. Then there's the flip side, where you could be a brilliant cook, but if you're cooking for the wrong person you're going to get really bad feedback anyway. It's just dinner parties and showing people around your house and poking around people's houses. That's a big fascination.
On the subject of the meals, do you remember any particularly bad or notable ones?
There have been some catastrophic ones. I remember very early, there was a guy who spent like 50p on pigs' trotters. They get a bit of a budget as a contestant, so I think if you think you're not going to win, he took the view, "I'm going to keep as much of this £150 as I can and spend about £15 on this dinner." If you're not going to win, then why not!
What's the future of Come Dine with Me?
Well, it's plodded along for 15 years now, which is amazing. I'd be very happy to continue to do it. As long as we're having fun on the day, as long as we're enjoying it, I hope it continues. It's such a strong format, and there are lots of shows that are a bit like it. It just seems to have this longevity. Long may it continue, as far as I'm concerned.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.