(All screenshots: Studio Lambert/Channel 4)
I stayed in a Four in a Bed-winning hotel once, and I have to say: it was an absolute shitholé. Firstly: it wasn't a B&B, it was a full hotel, rendering it moot to the rules of the series, and I don't understand how an adjudicator didn't intervene to block this sham win before it happened. Secondly: worst breakfast I've ever had the displeasure of, essentially just a clear tub of off-brand muesli, a lukewarm tray of bacon, bad juice. Thirdly: as I said, shithole.
We stay in hotels and B&Bs in moments of desperation – flung far away, unfamiliar towns or cities, places with single-platform train stations; we go there because we need to sleep overnight when we visit family, or go on a business trip, or (as in this case) attend a wedding in some woods 40 minutes outside of London – and, in those whirlwinds of displacement, we look for a port in the storm, a solid place with a cosy bed and a warm breakfast and a clean bathroom, somewhere we can exist as a human being while chaos goes on around us. We don't need a foyer that smells of chip grease and a £125 overnight fee. We do not need the "Smart and Simple" in Tunbridge Wells.
And so we slip beneath the cold duvet of Four in a Bed, the competitive B&B owning show on Channel 4.
Four in a Bed, for the uninitiated, is an extremely slow-paced daytime TV show where four B&B owners compete over the week to have the best value B&B. It is not, crucially, a competition as to who has the best B&B: for a competition that spends two-and-a-half hours of primo daytime TV per week ranking and scoring B&Bs against each other, it is surprising how little the actual best B&B – as in: a nice place with a nice breakfast and unshit-specked toilets – ends up winning. Four in a Bed is a world where a wonky competition mechanic, open to corruption and manipulation, so often crowns a B&B that costs £63 and can only be described as "not, overtly, a shithole" over a luxury spa at £120 a night that has genuinely nice toiletries in it. Which begs the question: what, really, is the point of the show? If it does not provide a metric to say which is the best B&B, then what is the point in spending any time at all looking at these B&Bs? Am I getting too existential about Four in a Bed? Yes. But also very much no.
There are three games going on through FiaB. The first game – the surface game – is hosting people from other B&Bs and giving them the time of their absolute fucking lives about it. Because I figure: people who run B&Bs – tiny three- or four-room establishments run out of what is essentially their own house – never get away from their jobs. They are up at 5AM to start on breakfast. They are doing check out at 11AM. They are cleaning the rooms between 12 and 2. Then the next round of guests, and all the shit they need: one has forgotten a toothbrush, another needs an ironing board. You need to confirm bookings a month in advance. Then they go to bed and get up again and make bacon and dry sausages. When, ever, does the B&B lifestyle stop? When you die?
So you've got a mismatching gang of B&B owners having the best three days of their life before death is kind enough to claim them, and they want to spend those three days in other B&Bs, running stiff fingers over windowsills looking for dust. That's the general idea. Now, things that happen in every episode of FiaB:
– The most anodyne "nice to meet you" shot ever in history. For some reason this amplifies with every passing episode: B&B owners, apparently, despite a major facet of their job being "greeting people at the door", are incapable of greeting people at the door, and it only gets worse as the series goes on. People are looming on high door steps and refusing to curl to one side. People are dawdling on the pavement with an overlarge suitcase. Someone's dog has made a run for it. Everyone is caught in this half-way house between offering a handshake and not. "Hi," the B&B owners say. "Welcome to The New Horse." Then they show them to their room, say "this is £75 a night, and that is including breakfast" then turn and walk out of the room in eerie silence like a robot. And then the fun begins.
– So what happens next is the guests then absolutely fucking take the room apart to find even one speck of dust. They are running hands over windowsills, curtain rails. Up on chairs to touch the top of wardrobes. They are hoisting the bed up and looking underneath it. They are peering into the plug of the shower. The money shot is always this: a hotelier, on their knees at a toilet, shouting "WELL THIS ISN'T VERY TIDY, IS IT" after unearthing a piss globule by wadding their hand with toilet paper and running it beneath the rim.
This is where drama happens, where rifts begin, where truth bombs are saved up for the feedback forms. The couple who find a cobweb on Day One will bring it up again so inevitably on Day Five. And then, if you want to set a nuke off, make sure of this: leave a pube out. The absolute worst thing that can happen in Four in a Bed is someone can find a pube. Hotel owners do not have pubes and have never seen one before. When they find one, stark and black against a bedspread, lazing in a shower, they will point to it with a single stubby finger and say, "There." And that's where Four in a Bed becomes magical.
– What I don't understand, though – and this is where I must for a moment wear the skin and assume the form of a B&B owner in Salisbury – is why there is ever any dust in these rooms. Imagine the scenario: a camera crew is coming to your hotel. A fellow B&B owner is coming to your hotel. You know, for a fact, that this hotel owner is going to look for dust in your hotel. Why are you not cleaning that room three, four times over? Why haven't you got professional deep cleaners in, then again the next day? Why is there ever a pube in these hotels? I don't understand it. I don't understand why there are so many pubic hairs on my telly.
– I need to mention that if a couple is driving to the B&B – they are always driving to the B&B, this game is not geography-based like Come Dine with Me is; town-dwellers are always driving past a single field and going "too remote for me, this"; farmhouse owners always complain about the noise of a road when they have to stay in a hotel anywhere near actual civilisation – then the more prostrate, meek half of the couple is always sat in the back of the car, like a dog, directly behind the driver. Ostensibly this is so a cameraperson can sit in the front seat and get a good shot of the two of them, but it always quietly tells the hierarchy of a relationship.
– Because FiaB is a game of couples. There are exactly six types of competitive teams who go on this show: a husband-wife team who start beef with the other husband-wife team; a pair of male friends who work together and Share Good Banter; a pair of female friends who work together and seem to hate both each other and everyone around them; a lone B&B owner, normally a quiet short-haired woman in her fifties, who has bought her cheery mate Sue along for moral support; lone male hotelier, ex-army; mother and son team who are eerily, unusually close. No arguments. No disambiguation. Those are the only teams going.
– One of the venues is always, always, always called "The Old Dairy".
– During the day the teams have to half-compete in some sort of activity that is supposed to show off the rich wealth of Things To Do in whatever fucking dead sub-3,000 population sandstone town they are in this week, which so often is something like "do pottery" or "ride a horse" or "arrange flowers"; some low impact bullshit that literally doesn't matter at all but all these adults have a jolly good go at anyway, and a winner is always arbitrarily decided and nobody really celebrates much more than you would if, say, you won a chocolate bar in a raffle, but still they persist with this, they put hardhats on and try to climb a dry wall, they make jam in a local kitchen, they do something so futile it makes you question the very point of living;
– Evening meal in a shithole restaurant. If the shithole restaurant is attached to the B&B or hotel, the food will somehow look even shittier. Even worse" there is never anybody else in the restaurants, at all;
– Horrifically close-up shot of a full pyjama-wearing couple chastely kissing in bed before turning the light off; the exact same breakfast served to anyone, but someone makes a really dramatic thing about getting a slightly hard poached egg; all drive off in 4X4s; host cries over the feedback forms, then says, "They're playing a game, they are. I know who this is and they're playing a game."
Sub-variants of the above:
– Someone will get the green nightcam out to do a diary entry about how they couldn't sleep because of something exceptionally unnoticeable – an owl outside, a too-hot blanket, too many or two few pillows, the bed is too big or too small. If they are such picky sleepers I literally don't know how they survive in this world without dying;
– Someone cries at dinner on the third night after someone suggests their hotel décor was slightly too red, but they cry in that way people try and cry when they don't want anyone to see them crying, which is looking to the ceiling and blinking, pressing the puffy wet under-eye area, then flapping your arm sightlessly at anyone trying to help while repeating the mantra, "I'm alright, I'm alright." Then they exhale deeply and go outside to do a to-camera about how Megan from Streatfield is a bitch;
– One couple, two single beds in a cramped room, are relegated to the "quirky room", which is either some caravan out back or a literal shed, and this is presented as if it is a fun quirky option, and not unheated hell;
– Someone renames their "English Breakfast" to something local to the area – "And Pete can I interest you in the Staffordshire Fry?" – even though it's always the same Tesco bacon inelegantly fried in a pool of vegetable oil;
– Everyone tells the one person who is running a B&B on their own that they are doing "amazingly" and then marks them fours across the board for the state of their shower tray;
It is among this repetition that patterns emerge: look, for example, at every room that has ever been broadcast on this show. Every B&B room in Britain is the same. Magnolia walls, cream carpets. The surface of the wall is either new-build smooth or deliberately patterned plaster. Padded white bedding with a coloured bedspread. The colour of the bedspread matches the colour of the feature curtains, which are appalling and let light in. Three coat hangers. There is always, always a canvas print of a flower above the bed, the sole decoration in the room. Every single room has a six-year-old flatscreen mounted to the wall in some unwatchable, mad corner of it, the visible wire dangling beneath it. En suite bathrooms the size of small bins are gone over with a white glove for pubes. Sometimes there is a "shared bath" that nobody dares to use. Every single guest does a fun shot where they jump on the bed. There is always a B&B in Blackpool that seems to have discovered a level of PVC window beyond "triple glazing".
But the real vein of energy that runs through FiaB is beef. Beef starts on Day One when someone leaves slightly mean feedback about a bathroom (the FiaB ranking system is arbitrary: an acceptably clean bathroom is rated a ten, a single soap stain makes it a five; there is no in-between), and is lightly stoked and tended to by the format for the rest of the week, as the first hosts go on a mad hunt for pubes and revenge. But it's all artifice: there is no naturally occurring beef to be had in going to four B&Bs with vaguely pleasant owners. But under pressure, each hotelier goes mad, convinced the others are playing some unseen game; they undercut each other, make dry comments about breakfast; they say any room with anything more than a single feature wall of wallpaper is "overwhelming". Suddenly, tiny faults become amplified into arguments worthy of a war (a recent episode I saw had two couples going at each other over a toenail clipping). And then, at the end, the fifth episode of the week: Payment Day, an over-the-table episode dedicated entirely to beef.
All hotel owners dress the same (men: falling apart like big, bull-hearted ox, they go to dinner in a cream blazer over collar-popped polo, wraparound shades balanced on the top of their heads; women: wearing a jazzy scarf; there is always a couple of hard-faced barmaids who look like they just got done cleaning a toilet in matching hotel-branded purple polos), and the Beef Showdown is always held in the same echoing red-tabled room at a decent hotel somewhere among rolling hills, and they always go outside with their hands in their pockets and say who is playing who, and who is being petty, and they always sit and explain with a straight face that their bacon was slightly overdone at breakfast and that's why they underpaid by £20, and then, always, the prize goes to the sort of shithole that is underpriced but not so underpriced you can't overpay them for it, and some dead-eyed B&B lad from Thetford emotionlessly opens champagne and drinks it, warm, with six to eight people he hates and never wants to see again, The End.
The point, I suppose, of Four in a Bed, is to showcase the myriad diverse towns, cities, villages and holiday destinations dotted across the UK, this wonderful land, this exciting, possibilities-are-endless island. But then it sort of sticks the landing and shows four identical couples squabbling over whose hotel was most magnolia, who served the hottest breakfast, who had previous guests staying with the least amount of visible pubes. FiaB is meant to pick like a winkle those tiny unknown gems that are supposed to be scattered all over our country, but instead shows Britain for what it is: the same ten sugar packets arranged in the same stiff fan in the same white bowl on the same affordable cabinet kit in the same magnolia room among the same pube-ridden carpet in the same new-build five-bedroom on the same grey driveway in the same anonymous town in the north or the east or the west or Wales or Blackpool, again and again and again, and again, and again and again and again, amen. It is astounding television.