Friday, 14 November 2014

Holiday of a Lifetime (with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe)

Thou art pleased,

Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,

Its one green Island and its winding shores,

The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and Cottages of mountain stone -
Clustered like stars...
(William Wordsworth, Home at Grasmere) 

Ah, daytime TV. So comforting. So made on the cheap. So irredeemably awful.

So what compelled me to write about this programme? Daytime TV? Moi? A genre I abandoned entirely after I stopped subtitling it on a daily basis? Apart from a Deal or No Deal thing when my daughter was a baby. (Things were not going well.)

Anyway, the reason is my dad. My dad travels a ridiculous amount. In the past year, he has been to Bhutan, Bulgaria and Botswana, and that's just the places beginning with B. (It's going to be a long time before he gets to "Y" and considers visiting us for a holiday.) He should be writing a blog about travelling, not me. Except he can't write anything longer than three sentences. (Readers may welcome this.) And he couldn't write this blog, because he hardly ever watches television. Certainly not daytime television.

And yet my dad was asked to appear on this programme.

For those of you who know my dad, you will surely agree that the thought of him being on screen with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe is television at its most surreal. Like Royston Vasey, Craggy Island and the USS Enterprise all rolled into one. My dad is a bit socially challenged, and when he first told me about this, I cringed at the thought of how he was going to handle himself on camera. Would he accidentally blurt out something rude about ballroom dancing, or be unintentionally sexist about women MPs? Would he finish each sentence with an awkward "I mean it's a sort of er..." or overuse the phrase "odds and ends"? It was going to be excruciating, but very funny. At least for his children.

However, because my dad never remembers to switch his phone on to receive calls from the BBC on the day of filming, it didn't actually happen. But I watched the programme anyway.

The series involves Len Goodman taking celebrities of - shall we say? - a certain age down a memory lane of holidays they enjoyed in their childhood. Ann Widdecombe spent three nights in Grasmere in the Lake District in 1963, the year of the Kennedy assassination, the Great Train Robbery and the third season of Mad Men.  My dad grew up in Grasmere and moved back there a few years ago. In the summer of 1963, he would have been about to leave the village for the first time to begin a Chemistry degree at Manchester University. He would have spent the summer working for his father, who owned the Grasmere Tea Gardens. As back then the tea gardens were pretty much the only catering establishment in the village, chances are that if the 15-year-old Ann Widdecombe had fancied an ice cream during her holiday, my dad would have served it to her. Which is quite a thought. But that wasn't really the reason Dad was asked to appear - he is just one of the few people left in the village who were around then and can remember what it was like. Plus he is mates with the guy from the Wordsworth Trust (Jeff) who did appear on the programme. Jeff was showing Ann newspaper clippings about hooligans who went on holiday to the Lake District that year. Not that he was implying anything, you understand.

Judging by one of the photographs, Ann went on holiday in her school uniform. She was at a convent school in Bath, and this trip to the Lake District was a big adventure, and her furthest trip north to date. She and her mother drove around in a Baby Austin. Len turns up to collect her in one. Ann shrieks and jumps up and down in delight, banging on the bonnet and losing all self-control. Calm down, dear.

When she has calmed down, Len asks her where they are going to go on her holiday of a lifetime. He is trying to imply that they are outside Ann's house in Devon, whereas anyone with eyes can see from the big mountain and dry-stone wall behind her that they are already in a Cumbrian cul-de-sac. Oh, the lies created by the limited budget of daytime TV!

So Len and Ann then spend a couple of days travelling around various places in the Lakes, including the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway and Waterhead in Ambleside, where they dance on the pier. They also take in the Swan Hotel, Loughrigg Terrace, St Oswald's Church and Dove Cottage in Grasmere. They lay daffodils on Dorothy Wordsworth's grave. They go on a boat trip, allegedly on Coniston (in the wake of Arthur Ransome), although they are blatantly on Windermere. They have a picnic featuring anchovy paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer. Len is puffed out from walking the 150 yards from the car to the picnic spot. Ann is made of sterner stuff, talking about her "ambles" (as opposed to rambles) on Dartmoor. They also talk about Rupert Bear, fighting socialism, how useful Ann found Latin, and her original career choice of astronaut.

They sample various local goodies in a bid to find something akin to Mother's Cake, which Ann Widdecombe remembers from her childhood. During this tasting session Ann is very snippy about Grasmere gingerbread. I bet my late, great baking grandmother could have whipped her up an authentic Mother's Cake in no time. But Nanna could have also baked her a batch of authentic Grasmere Gingerbread too, since she always claimed her family recipe was the original one, very different to that made by the Sarah Nelson business at the church gate. There's a proper village scandal in there somewhere.

Reminiscing some more about cake, Ann says she used to eat madeira cake with cream. Len calls her posh. He says he preferred to get a "sticky willy" from his local bakery. The mind boggles.

And the only ice cream man they visit is a man with a van, whose family business started in 1902 with a horse and cart. Oh, you missed out, Dad.

As a result of having relatives there, I have always been lucky enough to have free holidays in the Lake District whenever I like. I didn't really appreciate this until I left home. To me, going to the Lake District just meant visiting my grandparents. I paid minimal attention to the scenery outside. (Possibly because it was always chucking it down.) It was only when I lived in London that I properly began to crave that glorious, exhausting mountain air. The stars and the silence at night, bar the the baa-ing of the lambs and hooting of the owls. And the colours - the fields of golden daffodils at Easter, the rainbow azaleas in May, the glorious shades of autumn and the snowcapped fells and holly berries at Christmas. It's all just part of me, in my bones and in my blood.

Like my mother before me, I ended up marrying a Cumbrian. In a bizarre twist of fate, my husband and I got together after having lunch in a cafe on the site of the Grasmere Tea Gardens. The place is obviously jinxed. My mother went to work there one summer as a student because she fancied the owner's son, who she had met through the university hiking club. The same son, of course, who maybe served Ann Widdecombe ice cream in 1963.

According to this programme, most people thought the Lake District was horrid until William Wordsworth started writing poems about it. The Romans marched straight through. Daniel Defoe found it "frightful". Even in 1963, it had very much a summer season only trade and the majority of visitors stayed in simple bed and breakfasts or youth hostels. Wainwright was still to publish his walking guides. Now, millions of people flock there all year every year. But the youth hostels are being forced to close because visitors prefer to stay in holiday cottages that locals can no longer afford to live in, luxury hotels with spas, or boutique B&Bs with en suite bathrooms. In 1963, Ann Widdecombe took a dressing gown to protect her modesty during night time trips down the corridor to the loo.

Now, the inside of my dad's house looks like this:

But the view from the doorstep kind of makes up for it:

And we can use it as a free holiday cottage whenever my dad is away on his travels (so pretty much all the time). This is particularly helpful when he goes away in August, a month when any other holiday cottage in the world would be too expensive. We had a lovely week there this summer, with only one day of torrential rain - quite a result. Our daughter is still too young to be persuaded to do much in the way of walking, though we did drag her around Tarn Hows one afternoon, moaning every step of the way. So the rest of the time we had to engage in more child friendly activities like reading Beatrix Potter stories, feeding ducks, visiting National Trust properties (Allan Bank and Wray Castle are like giant play dens and quite brilliant), going on boat trips (we at least didn't confuse Coniston and Windermere), and doing Gruffalo trails in the woods at Whinlatter.
Moaning round Tarn Hows

Wray Castle

A boat trip on Coniston

Duck Central
Gruffalo hunt
And Charlie Cat came too

Apparently Len and Ann were in a thoroughly bad mood by the time they arrived at Dove Cottage. It seems that they weren't having quite the "jolly hockeysticks" time that the programme implied.

So my dad didn't get to appear on TV, which he was very relieved and I was very disappointed about. Instead, he launched his media career with an interview (in the guise of "local historian") during the breakfast slot on BBC Radio Cumbria a couple of weeks later. He was meant to be "live" from the village war memorial in the park, but was in fact standing outside the Coop. (Radio finds it so much easier to pretend it's somewhere it isn't.) My dad was trying to find out more about the people behind the names on the memorial. And, true to my expectations - boom!- he did inadvertently say something sexist when asked why one of names was female. Thankfully, the subject of ballroom dancing didn't come up.

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