There’s a TikTok doing the rounds on Twitter (don’t worry if you don’t know what any of these words mean, they are just in the way of prelude and context) of a young man, Mr B Dylan Hollis – who has been seized by the need to create something called a chocolate potato cake from a recipe found in a cookery book dating from 1912. His incredulity builds as he goes (“Skins stay on?!” “It smells like dentures!” “I bet this recipe is just all the wrong answers on a baking test”). He tastes the finished product and begins to laugh before screaming at his plateful: “You’re not supposed to work! That’s incredible. And I’m mad about it!”
This, roughly, is the same emotional trajectory you can expect to follow while watching BBC One’s latest light entertainment offering, This Is My House.
This chocolate potato cake of a show is presented by Stacey Dooley. I love her, but – to throw another ingredient into the mix – she is something of a Marmite figure for viewers, although those who object to her often seem to do so on the grounds that she has a Luton accent and – uh – no PhD in … television presenting?
The set up is this: four people claim they own a house – a converted barn in Ashford, Kent, in this opening episode. They show us, and a panel of judges who sit in a room watching the feeds, round “their” home. The judges must decide which one is telling the truth.
I know. I know. Trailing about after people pretending a sofa belongs to them and serving up backstories about where a penis-shaped corkscrew came from? Sounds too “skins stay on?!” for words. Then Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen turns up as a guest judge and it all begins to smell a lot like dentures. All the wrong answers on a light entertainment commissioning test.
The hostility builds quickly and – you know in at least one case – genuinely
And yet, it’s fantastic. It works SO well. It is instantly compelling. There are so many interpersonal dynamics at play that your lockdown mind, so long stripped of group stimuli, is both dizzied and awakened. “Yes!” some tiny, dormant part of your brain whispers as it stirs and struggles to rise. People! Talking – together! Relating, engaging, interpreting, misinterpreting. Sometimes – saying the thing which is not! Lying, that’s the word! And being that thing, that thing … passive-aggressive, yes!
It acts on you like a drug. The quartet of owners – here all known as Fern – each assert their right to ownership immediately and march round proprietorially. And everyone reacts precisely as you would if someone walked into your home and started acting like they owned the place. The hostility builds quickly and – you know in at least one case – genuinely. When Fern Two licks a stain on the sofa to prove it is the fruit yoghurt she says it is, the other Ferns, Stacey, the panel and, I daresay, viewers reel as one. Surely that means it’s hers? I would no more lick someone’s sofa than I would lick their – never mind. But just because I wouldn’t doesn’t mean no one would.
But there are also much less abstract joys. The personal enmity between Ferns One and Two, for example. So painfully different and yet even more agonisingly similar, they are natural and implacable foes from the off. All of human life is here. The casting director should win awards, as should the three actors for providing astoundingly convincing and consistent character choices within the remit of “Be the owner of a converted barn in Kent.”
And then there’s the judging panel. Looking for clues and slip-ups, sure, but soon strolling in to the philosophical thickets, too. How much of a sense of humour would one need to keep a penis-shaped corkscrew gifted by a friend? An extensive one, or none? So which Fern would that be? Llewelyn-Bowen is the best at this sort of thing. Fern Three, he reckons, is someone more likely to take a house and convert it back into a barn, while Fern Two simply “fits the space better than the others”.
It’s all the best bits of Big Brother, Through the Keyhole and Would I Lie to You?, with a large dash of subjective Guess Who? thrown in. I was so invested by the end that when my preview ended before the big reveal of The True Fern, I nearly punched the screen. It’s not supposed to work. It’s incredible. And I was mad about it.