A Deep Dive Into ‘Come Dine with Me’, The Greatest Show on British Television
Is there anything more pathetic than watching a middle-aged man try – and fail – to flambé?
Ah, it's all going wrong. Matt – a salt-and-pepper haired calorie counter from in or around Rugby – has put his parfait in to set, but it has not set. "It hasn't set," Matt is saying, in a conspiratorial whisper, as he spoons and then drops thick – but not thick enough – cream with a bit of orange zest in it. A normal human being would follow this up with, "It's not fucking set!" But this is pre-watershed Channel 4, so: no.
"This," Matt says, half-laughing. "This is a disaster."
What Matt does in this situation is what we all do, but none of us would ever get to this point. Or would we? This is a question I always ask myself, when I see a parfait: if you know, weeks in advance, that you are going to make a parfait; and you know that a crucial component of the parfait is leaving it in a fridge to set; and you have taken a day off work specifically to potter about your house making a parfait; with all of this notice for you to make a parfait: how have you fucked up a parfait? And the answer is: I can only assume it is a curse, passed from the TV producers onto you, down from the old gypsy woman who first cursed them to have runny parfaits, and thunder crackles in the sky and ancient gods get inside your fridge and mess with the temperature, because there is no reason – no other reason! – for this fucking mess of a parfait.
ALL YOU NEED TO DO WITH A PARFAIT IS PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE. HOW HAVE YOU FUCKED THIS UP, MATT. SIX OUT OF TEN.
Welcome to Come Dine With Me.
I know that, as a rough guide to the sum of human knowledge, as a vague weathervane for the leaning direction of public opinion, websites like IMDb are good. Like: if 1,000 people rate the same movie and it comes out as an 8.0 out of 10, you know it's going to be fairly good. There will be outliers: a lot of "10" ratings balanced out by an errant "2". There will be gushing reviews and there will be hatred. But somewhere, sort of in the middle, a balance: an amalgamated pool of a rating that gives a pretty good thumb-guide on how good or not-good something is. We all hated Gigli (2.4). We all loved Toy Story (8.2).
But what the fuck: according to IMDb, Come Dine with Me is a 6.9 out of 10 show. Explain this to me. Sit me down and point out how. Because it is clear, I feel, that CDWM is far more than that – love, anger and pancetta all wrapped around a semi-cosy class conflict – and through that has become something more: watching Come Dine with Me soon morphs from a casual activity to a full-on cultish ritual. What I am saying is: Come Dine with Me is the greatest daytime TV show Britain has ever produced. Pan-fry your scallops and pay your fucking dues.
Here's what happens on Come Dine With Me (*1): somewhere between four and five people host competitive dinner parties (*2) in a bid to win £1,000. But like the best TV, the competitive mechanic is hidden, an afterthought: people don't go on Come Dine with Me to win, and they don't go on there to become famous. They go on there to– well, I don't know. There is no mental space I can inhabit where I can understand the human motive for going on Come Dine with Me. But 1,364 episodes have occurred, so a minimum of 6,000 people have done this thing: invited cameras into their small, narrow kitchen; made soup in front of them; staged an extremely awkward visit to their local butcher to buy exactly four small pieces of lamb; tried to make a soufflé and failed to make a soufflé so just served a ramekin of very flat chocolate cake; averaged a 7 out of 10 score for their evening and, in the stark, half-pissed light of their now chaotic post-dinner party kitchen, hair wild, sweat on their brow, tea towel in a hand balanced lazily on their hip, the perfume of "I'll get up early and do the washing up tomorrow" on them, they will have said they've done well. "Yeah, well I had a nice night," they will say. "Everyone ate their starter. And I think I've got a really good chance at the thousand pounds!"
And that is Come Dine with Me.
In the taxi home is where you think the game of Come Dine with Me happens, but I am here to tell you that it doesn't. In the taxi, people score a seven if the food is nice and the atmosphere is gentle; eight if they really like the host (the food, by day two, is irrelevant: winning CDWM is a personality game); they score a six if they didn't really like the evening but it's clear that someone tried. The Come Dine with Me scoring system is, like IMDb, a fucking sham: it's like when you give your Uber driver a five if they get you home without murdering you, and a four if they were anything less than that: the scores are rote, the 10-point scale rendered moot. What does a "7" mean on Come Dine With Me? You know what it means? It means you didn't die.
So we know the end mechanics of the game, but we do not know the start of them. They are these: the Come Dine With Me week begins at the most agreeable host's agreeable house (first venue should always be a two-bed, minimum; final venue should definitely have a garden. If a student is one of the hosts, living as they do in a fucking hovel, then that is for the Wednesday episode). This is where we learn that nobody in Britain is capable of walking through a door, kissing the host on the cheek and/or shaking their hand and presenting them with a bottle of wine: something always goes wrong. They bend in for a kiss in the same direction, or mid-kiss the wine bottle is being forced sight unseen into the vague space where a hand should be, and both of them have forgotten to say their name, so you are just watching, for one perfect moment, two sober strangers kissing because TV producers made them, and then someone will break the spell by saying "ooh" and then "come in!", then pour them a tepid-looking cocktail out of a jug. Everyone will stand facing the camera in the sitting room and do together a weak cheers.
It becomes more obvious as the next 20 minutes unfold that Come Dine with Me was formulated with the sole purpose of humiliating British people for their awkwardness. Consider this: the least flattering angle a human being can ever be viewed from – and I include "accidentally switching to front-facing camera while you're in bed" in this – is running down the stairs while showing off your party outfit. Yet every episode of Come Dine with Me has this shot. You know how it goes: the narrator goes: "With her lamb done, Sally runs upstairs to freshen up for her guests," and then a mum-of-one with a singed orange tan jogs downstairs in some sort of flamboyant two-piece, saying: "Ready to partay!" in the least convincing voice ever. Or: "With his steak in to chill, Ron will prepare them when his guests arrive," as a former landlord collapses down carpet-lined stairs in a darts shirt with his own name embroidered on the back, and he emerges from a self-imprisoned cave of double chins to pump his fist at the camera and say: "Rock ON!"
Producers make this happen because they are cruel.
The beauty of Come Dine with Me, I suppose, is that it sticks to the same format with only very minor deviations, but still results in compelling viewing every time. Things that always happen in an episode of Come Dine with Me: someone makes scallops as a starter; one guest will bring the same bottle of anaemic-looking rosé to every house. One host will be an amateur DJ or singer and will – awkwardly, often while they poach in a hot tub – perform for his guests. Someone will hold a fancy dress or themed night with a tight dress code that someone's dad will turn up to in the jacket they were going to wear anyway and a wig they bought on the way from a petrol station (*3). One cook will smell their own food and instantly cough; one cook will say "this will wake them up" while thumbing three ancho chillis into a mild starter; one bloke will be incredibly begrudging about having to make a single vegetarian option. There's always an aggressively flirty woman approaching middle age; there's always a nasal post-grad student who doesn't know what a haircut is; there's always, always, a bloke in his late twenties who describes himself as "a joker". An Eastern-European woman is crying in Dudley. A Jamaican man is carefully forking through Jim from Leicester's jerk chicken. There is often, often, a lost-looking, half-baffled American. Come Dine with Me is a curious state, devoid of politics (there are never political arguments) or racism or sexism, but dwelling somehow in its smoke, a study in class.
"At the start of the week," a man with a five-bedroom semi-detached will tell a welder called John, "I didn't think we'd get on, you and I. But as the nights have progressed, we've actually talked, haven't we?" And John, gracious, will say: "You're a good– you're a good bloke." And they will shake hands across the table and dance horribly in a half-silent sitting room while a local two-piece for some reason plays a three song set, and vote each other 7 out of 10 because their puddings let them down.
I sometimes sit and think what my Come Dine with Me menu would be. Main: I followed a good pulled pork recipe once and I think I could do it again. Starter: … uh. Is "rice" a starter? Pudding: I have never cooked a pudding in my life. All anyone on Come Dine with Me ever does is poach a pear. I could poach a pear.
Thinking about your Come Dine with Me menu is a bit like thinking about what your "skill" section would be on Take Me Out: you realise, with a clunk of dread, that you have no skill – certainly nothing you could perform in front of 30 braying make up artists from Grimsby – and so what, really, have you been doing with your life? Just you and the lights and Paddy McGuinness, and you're stuck in the beam-like gaze of the six remaining girls, and you, an entirely skill-less human male, try to do something that everyone else on Earth can do, but impressively – there is a complex set-up that has you puffing up balloons quickly, or something, opening six cans of beans in 30 seconds while Paddy McGuinness waggles behind you with a feather boa – and, truly, I cannot think of anything more nightmarish than having to go on Take Me Out and impress women with a small demonstration of skill.
Come Dine with Me tickles those same panic receptors. Imagine going on television and cooking a meal. And inviting people into your home, to snoop around it. And when everyone sits down and chows into your starter, Linda from Bedford goes: "This is nice, did you make the bread?" and you say "no" and you already know – you already know – you're getting 5/10 later because "he could've made the effort".
Occasionally food criticism wobbles into savagery, and that in turn goes into a fight, and I would estimate this happens in around 50 percent of Come Dine with Me runs. You know it's going to happen on day one: a nice group, a harmonious group, will quietly chew their food and make "mmm!" noises and then, if it's shit, go and slag it off while sat in private on the host's bed. The other group, which always has someone who introduces themselves by saying "I have very high standards for my food," just immediately starts off two-footed – "A tart is a very basic starter, isn't it?" – and from there it gets messy: day two and someone will pretend to find a cat hair in their mash; day three and a bodybuilding mum-of-one will leave the room crying and flapping her napkin and go to the kitchen to waft her hands at her face and accuse someone of being rude; day four starts with a to-camera shot of a diner, ferociously hungover, bumping up the "2" they gave last night to a "4". By Friday, everyone is sick of each other, so can barely bring themselves to huddle together (for some reason they always huddle together, four full people on a single two-seater sofa) for the introduction of the money cloche, and the diners barely even go through the X Factor-style who-has-won-it-performance and nobody hugs when they win. Weirdly – beyond this, the greatest moment of televised rage ever captured by man – Come Dine with Me is an outlier: a reality TV show which suffers, rather than improves, with the addition of conflict.
Come Dine with Me, then, is an at-once delicate and robust ecosystem (the format can survive tantrums, four extremely boring people eating suet, cramped flats and glamorous nans who insist on reading the day's menu in a bubble bath; it is ruined by the addition of "couples" and genuine aggro), and much of that is thanks to narrator Dave Lamb. Even after 40 seasons of the show, his voiceover is perfectly balanced – chiding without being mean, self-aware without going too meta, and, truly, is there anything better than someone tripping over the pronunciation of "bouillabaisse" three times before Lamb shouts "GET ON WITH IT?" There is not: in my experience, you never watch Come Dine with Me in anything other than a state of deep psychic disrepair (hangover, day off work, chronic unemployment), and it's in those little moments that the show sings. Lamb is the egg in the fishcake mix, binding it all together (*4).
Fundamentally, though, the show is a portrait of the Great British Eccentric, or rather people who think they are it, which I guess is the only remnant of the G.B.E. we really have left now: people who have "losing five stone" down as their only personality strand, dads who DJ weddings with "Agadoo" remixes, Every Single Person Who Has Ever Bought a Yellow Carpet, amateur dancers, students who are just on the show to take the rumoured £250 cooking budget and stretching it out to feed them for weeks, everyone who has ever described themselves as "the life of the party", half-pissed, red-faced posh lads who view the working classes like you would a curio in a museum, quiet office workers with concrete opinions about how duck à l'orange should be prepared and served.
It's a cosy glimpse into the lives of people who feel they are five to ten magnitudes more interesting than they actually are, and want to prove it by cooking with chorizo. For a handful of half hours – chain-watched while wrapped in a duvet on a hungover Sunday, checked on religiously in the mid-afternoon, stumbled upon during a late-night repeat run – these people and their bland cooking are your world. And not fucking one of them knows how long in the fridge it takes to set a parfait.
1. I have to, at this point, tell you the format of Come Dine with Me as if you have never been a student, never been off work or never spent a hangover chain-watching More4 because it's the only intellectual challenge you can deal with right now, i.e. essentially that you have not ever seen Come Dine with Me ever in your life, which is false. Every human being in the UK has seen at least one episode of Come Dine with Me in their life, making it essentially the most unifying bond anyone else in the UK has with one another. We just have to go through this bit, like you have just emerged from a 12-year coma, because That's The Way It Is;
2. In single-issue hour-long episodes, it is four competitors; in strung-out-across-the-week half-hour episodes, it is five (we can argue which of the format is better in a companion piece, but it's the five episode version);
3. It's actually insane that a Come Dine with Me guest hasn't turned up to a dinner party in blackface yet, such is the profile of the usual contestant – small northern town dwelling, Leave voting, "traditional English menu" cooking dads – which makes me think this has definitely happened, minimum of one time, but could so easily be four or five, and each time producers have intervened to stop it from coming to air;
4. For proof of this, watch literally any non-British version of Come Dine with Me, like the Australian one, where a perky voiceover just says "Sounds delicious, Margaret!" over and over again, rendering the show unwatchable.