During my time as a TV producer, I’ve working on hundreds of programmes and inevitably, some are more memorable than others, for good reasons and for bad.
Of the bad, probably my experiences doing undercover investigations (ie secret filming) for UK’s Worst stand out.
The programme came out of the same stable as the BBC’s Watchdog and Rogue Traders, and was presented by Nick Knowles and Rhianna Scipio.
The clue to the problem is there in the programme title: by its very nature going undercover on a programme called UKs Worst is not going to be fun.
Of the programmes I worked on, UKs Worst Hotels and UKs Worst Hairdressers stand out.
Nominations for the programmes were made from the thousands of complaints received by the BBCs Consumer Unit every year, but we had to use solid research to make sure they really did deserve to be a candidate.
That meant that as well as gathering plenty of evidence from those who had suffered at the hands of the nominees, you had to experience the problems yourself.
For UKs Worst Hotels, each contender for the title was ‘recced’. Essentially we’d check in pretending to be a customer and have a nosy around. If the hotels were only moderately bad, you’d make your excuses and leave (‘I’ve just had an urgent call, I’m really sorry I have to go’). If they were really really bad, you’d fire up your undercover filming kit and stay the night.
Just a word about the kit: we generally wore a shirt with a tiny camera lens fitted into a button, wired up to a camera and a battery pack secreted somewhere on your body. That was either in the pocket of combat trousers, in a tight elastic corset round your waist, or strapped to your thighs. None was particularly comfortable and the kit was liable to stop filming at any time.
Some of the more mentionable things we experienced: filthy, mouldy, damp and even rusty bedrooms and bathrooms, ‘body hair’ (the acceptable on-air description) in the beds, hairs in the breakfast, and offensive and abusive owners and managers – one of whom even locked us into her guesthouse.
Our hotel expert was the lovely Irish hotelier Marnie Corscadden, who now runs the beautiful Ballyseede Castle Hotel in County Kerry. She had a multitude of tricks up her sleeve for finding out how clean a hotel was: look at the toilet brush, check underneath the bowl of the sink, and inspect the top of the fire extinguishers in the corridors.
When the hotels were really bad, we’d all sleep in the same bed in sleeping bags so we didn’t have to touch the covers (after a few glasses of wine to steel ourselves for the night ahead – sorry BBC Expenses!)
Everything had to be filmed – either close ups of the dirt and grime in our rooms on a DV camera, or secret filming of the public areas.
The hardest thing was keeping up a pretence you were someone you not, remembering your back story, all the while making sure you were capturing the very worst on film.
For me, probably the most difficult undercover task came on UKs Worst Hair Disasters.
We were investigating a hairdresser’s in Norwich, which allegedly did dodgy braided hair extensions. I ‘volunteered’ (!) to have them done.
My cover story was that I was going to a Norwich Union party with my brother, and I worked at the hospital in Norwich; cover stories are always easiest if they have a grain of truth: my brother works in insurance and I have a friend who is a consultant at the hospital.
Anyway, anyone who knows me would realise I’m absolutely not the kind of person who’d ever have braids put in my hair, so we relied on the gullibility of the employees at salon.
For once I wasn’t wearing a secret filming rig, but my ‘friend’ Emma, who’d come with me, was kitted out, and also had a bag with a secret camera which we placed strategically so we’d be able to film the whole thing from two angles.
The salon lived up to its terrible reputation. It was dingy, messy and dirty, and it’s staff included a 15-year-old girl working illegally underage, a middle-aged woman smoking spliffs, and a rather dodgy elderly man.
If you don’t know what happens when you have braids put in, your hair is divided into tiny sections and a strand of fake hair is plaited into each part. This takes many hours and is extremely painful as it involves much pulling of your hair and head.
Problems started immediately – there wasn’t enough false hair for my whole head, so they scrabbled around on the floor to gather up enough. Even so, they ran out twice, and had to send the young girl out to buy more.
But the worst thing was the way they sealed the ends of the false hair – using a naked flame.
The whole thing took eight hours. Throughout Emma had to film, with hourly tape changes, which involved her ‘going to the toilet’, ‘buying a coke’, or ‘making a phone call’.
The end result wasn’t pretty. But I couldn’t take the braids out as we had to film all the next day in Swindon, while our hairdressing expert Steven Goldsworthy assessed the damage – open sores on the back of my head.
I certainly suffered for my art – whoever said TV was glamorous?
PS: don’t even think of looking this up on Youtube, it’s not there!