The true power of a show about B&B owners competing for a completely meaningless title.
We love underdogs in Britain. How else can we explain championing Tim Henman, voting the Lib Dems into government, or giving Will Young a pop career? When we do occasionally let someone bask in the glory of a victory, they invariably explode into hysterical modesty, unable to get their head around the whole thing. See: Nadiya from the Bake Off. "She's never been the winner before, has she?" one of her kids half-asked, as Nadiya wiped her tears away with her apron. It was entirely free of fist-pumping shouts of "YES MATE, I'M NADIYA, UNDISPUTED QUEEN OF CAKES."
Fortunately, there's one British institution where winning is everything, where our fellow countrymen and women have inspired each of us to stop at nothing to be triumphant: Four In a Bed, the reality TV contest first screened in 2010 where doughy-cheeked hospitality professionals across the country go head-to-head in a bid to win a title that is ultimately meaningless.
Some have amateurish operations in villages still using dial-up internet. Others go for the mid- to high-range Airbnb look, with confusing taps and Nordic light fittings. They all share the same goal: to be crowned "the best-value B&B of the week", based on scores given by their competitors, who all spend the night in their B&Bs. Just best of the week. That's all they get, until another lot turn up the next Monday, and so on and so on, each one slowly sinking into the abyss of daytime Channel 4 programming.
Even with full knowledge of the competition's fleeting importance, contestants take things very seriously. Words like "revenge", "game plan" and "tactics" are bandied about during each episode, as the hosts go to extreme lengths to pick holes in each other's establishments, and to underpay their rivals by as much as possible. Everything is written down on anonymous feedback forms. Where Come Dine With Me contestants get mad, Four In a Bed folk get even, in the name of their commemorative plaques.
Take recent contestant Kathryn from Cornwall, a Mary Berry doppelganger with a cold brand of tyranny. She marked her night's sleep at Shannon and Trevor's in Glastonbury a two out of 10, blaming a noisy clock. "I went into the kitchen, and actually took it off the wall and shut it in the bathroom," she recalled, brimming with indignation.
"Why didn't you just take the battery out of it?" asked Shannon, cackling at Kathryn's "ineptitude". Of course, this wasn't incompetence: she and her husband had been playing the long game, and underpaid by £20 because there were no corn flakes at breakfast. From dusty drawers, wonky toilet seats and dodgy grouting around the bath, to traffic noise and the smell of curry the aim of the game is to find every last fault in your opponents' business. Then mention it a lot, and then a little bit more.
Sometimes the criticism gets too much for even equally scheming contestants to bear. Who could forget Leanne of series eight, reduced to tears watching rival Gordon complain about the breakfast at someone else's hotel (too many extras on his plate). "All along they've been backstabbing and slagging each other off," Leanna lamented to camera, seemingly incredulous.
The Glory of Victory
In her book The Discourse of Public Participation Media: From Talk Show to Twitter, niche academic Joanna Thornborrow argues that "the personality and character of competing B&Bers are constantly under scrutiny, and episodes are edited to foreground areas of potential conflict", in shows like Four In a Bed and Channel 4's Love It Or List It. But despite the undeniable role that editing plays in Four in a Bed, there's something entirely ruthless about the participants that makes me believe that their obsession with victory is real.
As tabloid TV critic Kevin O'Sullivan has put it, this is is a "journey into the dark heart of middle England". It shows that a nation which has long favoured fair play and uncompetitiveness can actually churn out the sorts of people who will use special mirrors and latex gloves to search for fluff and toenails late into the night. "Friendships, what are they?" asked recent participant Sylvia from Cumbria, as she stared into the middle-distance with eyes of steel.
This is the kind of thing that we need more of. We need more competition. We need more conviction. Four in a Bed has taught me to that it's OK to be afraid of finding pubes and bloodstains in provincial guest houses, but that we needn't be afraid of striving for victory.
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