How did a sleepy little show about bed and breakfasts become the nation’s favourite guilty-viewing pleasure? Lucy Sweet investigates.
Ah, the Great British bed and breakfast. Can you think of anything cosier? From the overstuffed chintz pillows on the bed to the potpourri in the ensuite, everything in a B&B is meant to offer a little oasis away from the stresses of daily life, complete with a cooked breakfast and selection of cereals in a basket.
However, if you’ve ever watched Channel 4’s Four in a Bed, you will know that behind the net curtains and complimentary rich teas lies a world of bitter rivalry, handwringing stress and downright murderous intent.
On the surface, the premise is afternoon TV at its sleepiest. Four B&B owners visit each other’s gaffs, stay for one night and pay them what they consider a fair price. During their visit, which includes a room inspection, entertainment (anything from husky racing to morris dancing) and an evening meal, the judgment is nonstop. They rate each other on cleanliness, quality of sleep, cooked breakfast and entertainment. At the end of each visit, it’s decision time – will they pay the normal room rate? Some generously give extra, but most underpay, with the final episode a showdown reserved for fierce debates over comments and the declaration of the winner – the establishment named best value for money. There’s a lot of discussion about the provenance of eggs and sausages and lots of pelmets, bedspreads and Union Jack cushions.
You would think it would have run out of steam and hung up the No Vacancies sign years ago, but, now on series 13 with nearly, staggeringly, 600 episodes under its belt, it seems that Four in a Bed is an unstoppable juggernaut of white-knuckle drama.
Why? Because it’s a cavalcade of petty arguments, questionable taste, faux politeness and hideous snobbery – all things that the British really excel at. No detail goes unremarked and undissected. Beds are turned upside down, toilet bowls examined for stains with the gusto of a forensics team and everyone is horribly rude about the décor, while smiling through gritted teeth and pretending everything is lovely. Until payment day, of course, when the knives come out, a woman with big hair cries because someone underpaid, and a bloke in an England rugby shirt puts a protective arm around his wife and says something like, ‘I’m not staying here to be insulted. Let’s go, Eileen.’
It’s perfect viewing, but there have been many casualties along the way and scandal regularly comes knocking upon the serving hatch. One contestant in Northumberland, Lizzie Middlemiss of 1 Sallyport B&B in Berwick-upon-Tweed, had to call the police after receiving hate mail.
Other participants have received abuse ranging from excrement through the post to fake TripAdvisor reviews. It even upset Charlotte Church’s mum Maria, who owns Dexby Townhouse in Cardiff and appeared on the series in 2011. ‘Some of the comments were irrelevant and really nit-picky. I was outraged,’ she said, when her fellow contestants criticised everything from the photos of her famous daughter in the lounge to the crispiness of the bacon. But that’s entertainment at its finest. The tantrums and simmering resentment can stay with you for ever. Who could forget Gary, from series 11, a former IT consultant and owner of a high-tech B&B in Newport? Despite spending the week wearing a top hat and grandly ordering every permutation of egg at breakfast, when it came to his turn, his egg-making gadgets failed him. We were treated to the sight of Gary cracking up, screaming ‘THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!’ while his poaching machine threatened to explode.
Then there was prankster Raj, who ran the Kirribilli in Newquay. He was accused of planting hairs in the breakfasts, demanded his boiled egg be unpeeled and painted the tiles in the showers in his hotel with emulsion so everyone would get covered. Perhaps sensing he’d gone too far, his pièce de résistance was dropping out of the contest, never to be seen again.
But the real joy of Four in a Bed is its reliability. It is always different, yet always the same. Someone criticises a room because it’s too clinical and ‘not my cup of tea’. The owner of a Blackpool guest house slags off the owner of a posh country house hotel. Pubic hairs are uncovered, dead insects are pointed out. It’s so British. So vicious. And makes you incredibly relieved that you don’t run a B&B.
What really happens on the show? Ex-contestants spill the beans – and the eggs benedict – overleaf.
‘Our host emerged with a tray of Pimm’s – and not a stitch on’
Lynnie Jolly, who owns the Higher Gitcombe B&B in Totnes, Devon, with her husband Paul, appeared in 2015.
Paul and I used to convert derelict barns into beautiful properties. Unfortunately, the recession hit so we couldn’t sell our latest property and that – combined with the news that Paul had aggressive prostate cancer – forced us to switch track. When Paul got better, we thought why not turn the barn conversion into a boutique B&B?
We got a website set up, started getting guests and soon we were asked if we’d be on Four in a Bed. At first I said ‘no way’, because the people on it are all so horrible, and after what we’d been through we didn’t want that. Then the director and a cameraman from the show came to visit and filmed us, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but my name is Jolly and I’m not doing anything horrible.’ We had to trust them.
The first place we visited was a Grade One listed stately home owned by John de Bruyne, who used to be the Queen’s whip and glove maker. He came downstairs in a smoking jacket with his son, who was a drummer called Johnny Thundersticks. Among the other contestants were a couple who ran a pub in a hotel, and Tim, who owned a naturist hotel and spa in Birmingham. When I found that out my jaw dropped to the floor. Tim emerged with a tray of Pimm’s without a stitch on and nobody knew where to look. By the time it was our turn, I think they all thought we were Mr and Mrs Boring. Tim found a dead fly under a cushion and complained there were too many coat hangers. But we won!
It’s a lot of hard work to be on the show. You don’t know how it’s going to be edited or what the angle will be. But afterwards the phone went berserk and we got lots of bookings. We found the whole thing massively exciting and felt so lucky.
It was one of the funniest episodes so it’s been on about 15 times. We get nice people coming to stay who’ve seen it and are really kind and put good reviews on TripAdvisor – then from that we get people who’ve found us organically. It’s been brilliant – a completely positive experience.
‘Being on the show was the most stressful experience ever’
Chef Ross Williams, who owns the Kilpeck Inn in Herefordshire, went on Four in a Bed with front-of-house manager Kath Capel in 2017.
We thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase the business. That was our agenda – just to have a bit of fun. But you end up getting caught up with other people’s agendas: the contestants who really want to win and the TV production company that is constantly engineering conflict and drama. There are five episodes filmed over two weeks, with a lot of travelling, and they film and interview you all the time – when you’re in bed, last thing at night, first thing in the morning… so you end up in a pressure-cooker situation.
The first show was a B&B in Stratford-upon-Avon owned by Julie, who was one of the most difficult people I’ve ever met in my life. My bedroom was painted entirely in green, with others in red and one in black. Our breakfast – eggs benedict – was barely cooked and virtually inedible. They just weren’t up to scratch. Our strategy was to be fair and nice, but we couldn’t not say anything. So we underpaid by about £10.
When it came to our turn, the housekeepers let us down the night before and we ended up cleaning until 3am, so some specks of dust were found. One of the contestants also dismantled an antique light fitting to reveal some dead flies.
Then at breakfast the next day Julie ordered…eggs benedict. It wasn’t on the menu, and we didn’t have any of the ingredients so I did the best I could – and it was still a million times better than hers. There was also an incident where she claimed our front-of-house manager swore at her, and said that oak sap on the windowsill was spit. In the end she underpaid by £40 and gave us two points [out of ten] for everything. She really had it in for us.
It took a while to get over it, but at least I don’t wake up in a cold sweat any more. It was without doubt, hands down, the most stressful experience I’ve ever had. Moving house, buying a pub, starting a business… none of it was as stressful as being on Four in A Bed.