Ready, steady, cook as TV3 serves up winner
No hotshot in the kitchen, Andrea Smith is nevertheless addicted to the Irish version of the culinary reality show
Take five perfectly-mismatched strangers, mix in cooking, insults, rows, snooping, and secret scoring, add a liberal dash of sarcasm and a pinch of alcohol-fuelled madness, and you have the perfect recipe for the success of the TV series Come Dine With Me.
While many of us have been fans of the cult UK cooking show for years, the fact that the Irish version is currently on our screens has become a massive national talking point this week.
Actually, it's a safe bet that RTE is kicking itself, given that that 699,000 viewers tuned in at some point to watch the first episode of Come Dine With Me Ireland on TV3 last Monday, and the figures have remained consistently high all week.
Even more tuned in to see Georgia Salpa, Rosanna Davison and Calum Best tackling beauty tasks like boob massage and vajazzling on Celebrity Salon straight afterwards, but that's a whole other story.
The premise behind CDWM is that five strangers take turns to cook a meal for one another at home, and the others score them for the quality of their food and entertainment. At the end of the week, the winner gets €1,000, and when the programme is screened, the acerbic, witty and often downright caustic commentary voiced by Dave Lamb is the veritable icing on the cake.
It's a simple enough premise, and is so popular that I know of lots of Irish people who have done the whole CDWM thing informally among friends. Not me though, because while I absolutely love watching it, I can't cook a single thing. In fact, my oven has only been switched on twice in the past 10 years, making it officially the most expensive ornament in my house!
So given its appeal, there was great excitement when we heard that the production company behind Channel 4's CDWM was coming to Ireland earlier this year to make 30 Irish episodes of the programme for TV3.
And, in a shock move, given the unfortunate tendency among TV executives to kill the very thing that makes the magic work, Dave Lamb himself, who has voiced almost 1,000 episodes of the show, was hired to do the voiceover. I was delighted to meet with the actor when he was in town last week, but found him to be disappointingly refined and polite.
Then again, I wasn't asking him to comment on my cooking, unlike 23-year-old Jamie Knoblauch, one of last week's contestants from Cork, whose main course was pork schnitzel with spatzle, spinach and a mustard-cream sauce. Or, as Dave put it, a dish that couldn't have been more German if it ran onto a beach and threw a towel on the sunbed!
I was slightly apprehensive when the Hertfordshire-born actor told me that he found the Irish version of the show to be slightly different to the British one. While I was worrying that this was because the language was more colourful, given that the F-word is practically our favourite noun, verb and adjective, he assured me that it was because there was a warmth to it that he felt has gone slightly missing from the UK version.
"Believe me, there's terrible swearing in the UK version too," he laughs. "It's on later at night here, so more of it can be left in, whereas in England, it's on before the watershed, and the swear words have to be bleeped or edited out. People seemed to be more up for having fun here, and it just seemed to be more joyous. When I was offered the job, I was a bit worried about being an Englishman and coming in and taking the mickey a bit, but I think everyone knows that I've been doing it to English people for years as well."
Slightly disappointingly for me, who fondly and somewhat naively imagined that Dave comes up with all of the quips by himself, the CDWM scripts are principally written by the people who have been on location during the filming. However, he says that he does have some input into the content, and will make a case for not saying something if he thinks it could be too hurtful for someone.
"I throw in my own ad-libs and improvisation," he says, "and they'll either say, 'Yes, we'll keep that,' or 'No, don't be so rude -- you can't say that on television. I sometimes think about the contestants seeing it afterwards, and know that it won't be a comfortable watch for them, but it's usually just meant in fun, and people know what's going to happen when they come on the show anyway."
The Irish series kicked off last week in the Rebel county, where the "quarter-German" accounts clerk Jamie battled it out with PR maven and jewellery designer Vikki Shorten, country mum Helena Crowley-Hayes, hard-to-please technical support manager Luisa Costello and community worker David Roche.
As I have a menagerie of eight cats and dogs, I was instantly up for animal-loving David at first, particularly when his dog Rudy hilariously scoffed one of the West Cork seafood starters when he turned his back for a second. I was convinced that he would be the perfect man for me, given that he can cook and has dogs, hens and horses wandering around the place causing chaos.
However, just as I was planning to move to Cork and marry him, he revealed to pro-hunting Helena, the ultimate winner, that hunting was once a major part of his life, so I went right off him, even though he said he would be closer to anti-hunting vegetarian Luisa's (and my) side of the argument these days.
With incendiary topics like this, combined with copious quantities of drink, the infighting didn't disappoint, and when Luisa announced in her extremely Cork accent that she was actually Italian, Helena sneered to camera that "if she's Italian, I'm Hyacinth Bouquet".
Tomorrow, five new contestants from Dublin battle it out to win the prize, and there will be four more weeks broadcast throughout July and August -- another from Dublin and the rest from Waterford, Galway and Limerick.
Having clearly seen it all, Dave says that the worst thing happened on a UK episode, where someone brought their pet snake to the dining table. "It did a poo on the table," he shudders, "and while I'm not squeamish, that was truly revolting!"
He says that he would hate to be a contestant himself as he's "hopeless" at cooking and his wife does it all chez Lamb.
"You surely don't score her meals though or slag her off with one of your devastating putdowns?" I ask.
"You must be joking," he laughs. "My life wouldn't be worth living if I did."
Come Dine With Me Ireland, weekdays at 9 pm on TV3 over the summer