By Jason Heppenstall
I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for it. I had barely lurched out of the car, roadmap still in hand, when a young man with the impressively sized shoulder-mounted television camera was in my face.
After a leisurely lunch featuring gambas pil pil I had only just rolled into the pretty village of Cacin, hidden away in the countryside near Alhama de Granada, when I found myself looking down the barrel of its lens.
Some hidden instinct told me to pretend it wasn’t there; just ignore it and it will go away.
I was here to meet Clare and Jamie Waldron and their family and find out what had lured them to this rural idyll and, more intriguingly, what had persuaded them to allow a film crew to intrude upon their lives.
I stumble up the path, cameraman in tow, and there is Clare extending a welcoming hand and asking me if I found their place alright (answer: no. There can’t be many foreigners living in such secluded locations as this).
“Yes, fine,” I say (my first TV lie). She doesn’t seem to notice the camera and immediately launches into an explanation of the considerable thermal qualities of insulating concrete formwork (ICF) for the benefit of either me or the viewers at home, I’m not sure which.
Perhaps some explanation is required at this point.
Clare and Jamie recently moved to Spainand wanted to build their own house. From previous visits they knew that it can get very cold here in the winter and wanted to ensure their house was properly insulated.
They knew of a company in the UK that made polystyrene building blocks from which you can safely assemble buildings ‘like Lego’ and then pour concrete between them at the end of the day when the structure is complete. Bingo – an instant house!
They were so impressed they bought the company.
Well, not quite. But they did decide to become the official Spanish distributors of the product.
In the shade by the house are a whole gaggle of relatives. Young and old alike mingle by a half-built outdoor kitchen.
Jamie steps forward and shakes my hand. “Hold on, I know you from somewhere,” I say.
There follows a short geographical narrowing down of previous lives, the epicentre of which turns out to be the Saddler’s Arms in Solihull, where I misspent a portion of my youth.
He looks at me with narrowed eyes “No, sorry mate, don’t recognise you.”
I tell him to imagine me as a teenage goth – all black hair and wincklepickers – and take 18 or so years off me. He shakes his head; this is going nowhere.
And all the while the TV camera records our conversation with its all-seeing lens. Only a prolonged pause induces the cameraman to hit the stop button.
“Hi, sorry about that,” he introduces himself belatedly “better to get it, you know, raw.”
“Fancy a glass of wine?” says Jamie.
I get the sense that everything here is a bit… manic.
“We’ve been up since the crack of dawn doing the garage in time for the filming,” says Jamie gesturing at the glaring white building at the end of the garden.
This is, I am told, the last day of filming and all stops must be pulled out to ensure the narrative strings are tied together.
Christian, the cameraman, will be driving back to an editing suite in London the next day with the precious tapes containing eight weeks of filming.
Jamie takes me inside the garage with Seanie, his young son, to show me the finished product.
I knock on the walls – they feel pretty solid. He is keen to promote the insulating blocks’ green credentials and tells me they have amazing insulation properties – with a u value of only 0.2 (for the technically minded that’s 0.2 watts of energy passing through the structure per degree centigrade difference per square metre) which is indeed astonishing when compared with, say, uninsulated concrete, which lets up to six times the heat either in or out.
“A single light bulb will heat this space.” he says.
I go over and chat to Clare again, who seems more relaxed now the camera is off.
What persuaded her to endure trial by television when moving to Spain, I ask.
“Well,” she says “someone nominated us for the series and we agreed to it after thinking things through and deciding the exposure might give our business a boost.” I say “We’d like to do a feature on you, focusing on what it feels like to be subjected to television scrutiny,” There’s a click at my ear and the whirring means we’re being filmed.
“Can you just say that again,” whispers the cameraman, “but without mentioning the filming bit, if you get what I mean.”
I don’t, but try to continue nevertheless. The heat of the mid afternoon sun and the white wine don’t help my head as it tries to get to grips with this media looking at the media looking at the media situation.
I imagine Nadia Sawalha narrating jauntily over our conversation – a prospect that further impedes my thought processes.
“Er, what makes you think this polystyrene idea will be a success?” I ask ineptly.
“Er, well…we liked the product before we came out…” Clare pauses.
A minute ago we were two grown adults having a flowing conversation but the camera has turned us into complicit numbskulls. I want to ask her how she and her family can put up with type of intrusion on a daily basis – but I can’t because she’s on camera and it just wouldn’t be fair.
Instead I ask something about whether she thinks Spanish people, with their conservative tendencies, are likely to buy into ICF and I immediately realise I’ve put her on the spot as the camera lens zooms in on her face.
She gives a spirited answer (she’s had two months to practice) and I bow out.
Off camera I ask Jamie how it’s been.
“You get used to it” is his response. They’ve been filming their whole Spanish adventure to date – including a trip to the ayuntamiento to apply for planning permission.
I suggest the subsequent approval may have been helped along by the presence of a film crew.
“I don’t think they’d ever seen a camera before,” says Jamie.
Later, leaning against a (brick) wall I chat with a Finnish member of production team. – a platinum blond who looks like he just stepped out of London Fashion Week into rural Andalucía and was wondering how to get back.
I say they must get hundreds of potential subjects for each series.
“Hundreds,” he nods. Hmm “And some of them must have some pretty interesting ideas for getting on television?” I venture. “Yup.Some of them.”
“And how,” I ask “do you select the ones to appear?” He turns his expensive shades to me “Oh, let’s just say that if you’ve got the photogenics…”
The afternoon rolls on and other guests turn up for the end of filming party. “It’s a rap,” calls Christian and everyone seems full of jittery energy. I imagine the relief everyone must feel now the filming has stopped and they can simply get on with being themselves again.
I wonder, as I get in the car, what angle the producers will decide to take once they construct the narrative that ‘reality TV’ requires from the hours of film.
Unfavourable comparisons of ancient Rome arise in my head.
Will they be kind or will they be merciless?
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
We shall just have to wait and see.
“Living in the sun” will be shown on BBC1 throughout the month of January 2007.