First-Person Accounts Magazine

Kaiser Wilhelm’s Folly

Helping people find their place in the sun.

It was my first day at my first job after leaving university, and my new manager gave me some advice.

‘You won’t make any money working in telly, ’ he told me, hands flounced apart (as if I needed any reminder of how little I was earning) ‘unless you come up with an idea and sell it to a channel.’ He took a drag of his cigarette.

I had found myself working for the production company that makes the daytime television programme A Place in the Sun. We called it APITS.

The manager continued, ‘It doesn’t have to be complicated. Think of this programme: two Brits go abroad, they look round some houses, if they like one, they buy it.’

For the uninitiated, I can’t provide a better summary of A Place in the Sun. Since its first broadcast in 2000, millions of retirees and adults pulling sickies have watched two Brits do just that.

Each morning, I’d get the Metropolitan line and commute out of the city into rural Hertfordshire. As the train clattered past the M25, the carriage emptied until it was just me and my fellow APITS researchers on board – all women, all under 25. Our job was to find out everything we could about the people coming on the show, and to source a dozen properties which vaguely matched what they wanted to buy (within budget). We then managed their expectations and organised a filming schedule for the film teams in France, Spain and Greece. The presenters first see the properties on the day of filming, the same time as the house hunters. On a few occasions this has led to the presenter getting lost mid-tour, opening doors to a ‘stunning master bedroom’ which was, in fact, the toilet.

As we clunked along from Zone 1 to 7, we’d discuss house hunters we’d been assigned that week:

‘My lot are weird… but nice.’

‘Budget? ’

‘60k. They want a beach view.’

‘Ha! Fuengirola? ’

A heavy nod.

We’d disembark in Chorleywood and trample through fields until we reached the farm-turned-business-park that housed Freeform Studios, my erstwhile employers.

‘We’re aspirational but accessible, ’ was the refrain of one producer. As such, the show features a range of budgets – but the richer the house hunters, the easier the job. I thanked God I could speak French; a miserly £100,000 got you a flat in Marbella, but it fetched a four-bed avec piscine around Bergerac. Meanwhile, between calls with French estate agents, I scrabbled through SpareRoom, begging to be considered for a Tottenham flatshare – £800 p/m, unfurnished.

The week began with a call with the house hunters. First you had to ask if they absolutely had the money they said they had, and, tactfully, ask where they got it. Usually, it was with help from an elderly/dead parent but, if the couple had met later in life, it often came from one of them moving in and selling up. You’d ask if they had read/understood our Brexit advice pack, and with that out the way, you’d move onto their job, kids (NAME? AGE?), pet (NAME? AGE? BREED?) and their relationship to the other house hunter (usually they were a couple but not always. I once had two sisters looking for a plot of land with two identical houses on it for under £200, 000, including fees.)

We then wrapped up the foreplay and got to business: would they tolerate a house with stairs (‘not with my Jim’s knees’), or one near a factory (‘yes, if it knocks off £5k’). Finally you’d venture into why they want to move to Brittany/Torremolinos/Cyprus and what they were going to do there.

This last section was the most intriguing. Often the couple had only an uncertain sense of France. Take my first set: she was a nurse and he fitted bathrooms. I liked them a lot but, apart from a single weekend in Disneyland, they had never visited the country.

And why were they moving somewhere they’d never been, and on national TV, no less?

‘We love the French way of life. Walking to the boulangerie, the wine, fresh produce… You don’t get that here.’

But this French Way Of Life rarely matched what actual France had in store. Everyone wanted to live ten minutes from a bakery – only, these days, few rural villages have one. One asked me not to look in a certain town: it’s too large and its population too diverse. Now, that’s not a bad thing, he explained, it just wasn’t what he wanted – namely a ‘traditional French lifestyle’. The next town over was also impossible: too close to one of France’s 56 nuclear power stations.

And yet, any eye-rolls soon dissipated. For that week, I lived for them. We discussed everything: their painful divorce, their daughter’s anorexia, their childhood memories, how and where they wanted to die. We only knew each other through long, sometimes daily, phone calls but this created a sense of remove, an anonymity that breeds confession. Lord knows the script would reduce a 40-year romance to something like ‘Sue and Mick met at a disco in 1988’ but they’d still talk me through the details of their courtship. To them, I was a friendly disembodied voice asking them to conjure up a dream house, a dream life.

And I wanted to magic up these fantasies. It was quietly heartbreaking to call an excited but nervous woman several times a week to tell her that her dream of looking out to sea with a G&T wasn’t happening in this lifetime. Why shouldn’t she have that? Why shouldn’t they all?

Alongside sourcing the properties for the house hunters, I also had to organise a tour of a luxury property. This appealed to the audience’s curiosity more than anything. It was usually a stonking château going for upwards of ten million. You wanted to go for one with some kind of gimmick like a novelty swimming pool. Maybe Tom Cruise once stayed there or, failing that, Louis XIV. My couple’s request for a second bathroom seemed more reasonable after a call with a moody estate agent bemoaning the fact no one went for rococo architecture these days.

A few weeks after I left APITS, I was sent the rough cuts of my first two episodes. These didn’t include the closing credits so I didn’t get the ego trip of going ‘hey, that’s me! ’ as my name flashed on a screen.

Watching these episodes was bittersweet. Working at APITS was about as fun as a job can be and bizarrely rewarding, but with the fixed-term contract I was on, I knew it couldn’t last. I moved back in with my parents and started a better-paid job elsewhere. Before long, I rarely thought of my time there.

Then recently, I was at home, ill. Choosing a Netflix series seemed too much. The gentle passivity of terrestrial television was all I could stomach.

I happened upon one of my episodes. A house hunter called Sean, my favourite, was putting in an offer for a two-bed near Toulouse. Sean was buying the house with money he’d inherited from his mother, who had lived with him until her death. Now, he lived alone. He’d call me his ‘superstar’, and use the dancing lady emoji at any opportunity. Unlike almost all the other house hunters, he had made a decent stab at learning French.

He’s brought his friend Paul along with him ‘to make sure he wasn’t getting carried away’. He’d met Paul, also a bachelor, online and the two had formed a ‘bubble’ through the lockdowns. Sean would practise his French for an hour a day while Paul would cook dinner.

But Paul or no Paul, Sean was moving to Toulouse alone. He wanted to live there and paint, he told me. No, he hadn’t painted much before but it seemed like what people did in France. When my colleagues in France told me he’d bought the house I knew he’d like the best, I was thrilled for him. ‘Come and visit, superstar! ’ he texted me after filming.

Two years on, I listened to his voice crack as he explained what buying the house would’ve meant to his ‘lovely mum’ and for a moment, APITS transcended a television show sponsored by a cruise line. There’s something precious about the programme. It’s one of the few pieces of reality TV which isn’t out to divide its audience or humiliate its participants. They aren’t after money, celebrity or an Instagram sponsorship deal, just a place to relax and be left alone. If there is a British dream (nostalgic, deluded, property-obsessed and yet rooted in a quiet dignity) I can’t think of anything which encapsulates it better.


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