Reality TV. These days you just can’t avoid it – it’s become such a popular, relatively cheap format for TV producers in recent years that virtually no life experience or situation has gone uncovered. From business-themed shows such as the Apprentice and Dragons Den, to cooking shows such as Great British Bake-Off or Master Chef, to celebrity torture / ridicule shows such as “I’m a celebrity get me out of here” or “The Jump”, to social experiment-type shows such as “Big Brother” and “Wife swap” there’s a show for virtually any interest.
Given my impending move to the Lake District, and the complete lifestyle change that I’m hoping the move will bring, it’s perhaps no surprise that, rather than joining the millions of people in the UK who are apparently entranced by “Love Island”, I’ve found my attention captivated instead by the wonderful, far less widely-reported BBC2 show, “Life Swap Adventure”.
The format is fairly simple – take two people of a similar age, from wildly different backgrounds and living thousands of miles apart, both at a crossroads in their lives, and get them to swap lives for a week, in the hope that an insight into each other’s lives may give them some clarity as to what they wish to do with their own lives.
I discovered it quite by chance, flicking through TV channels one evening and landing on an episode in which Leslie, a larger-than-life, bubbly B&B owner from a small town in Alaska, swaps lives with Lilian, an army wife from Nottingham – and while I’ve since watched all the other episodes, this is still by far my favourite, for the sheer enthusiasm with which both women approached the challenge, the huge contrasts between their two worlds, and the clear benefit that the challenge provided to both.
At the start of the show, Leslie talks about her longing to travel – she has spent her life in a small town where everybody knows her, and has never set foot outside of North America. She has big dreams – in her words, “I wanna be an explorer. I wanna be Columbus. I wanna be Star Trek Captain Kirk going where no man has gone”
Lilian, on the other hand, has followed her husband all over the world, moving home 17 times in 25 years, each time having to make a new home for themselves and their children, make new friends and build a new lifestyle. She is tired of moving, and now that her husband, Stuart, is planning to retire from the army, she is looking forward to finding somewhere permanent where they can put down roots.
When she finds herself in the small town of Wrangell, Alaska, surrounded by people who make eye contact and show a genuine interest in getting to know her, Lilian is delighted, and appears almost immediately at ease. As she says at one stage in the programme, “I have never felt so like the real me as I am at the moment”.
Leslie, on the other hand, dumped in the middle of Nottingham with nothing more than a piece of paper containing vague directions to find Lilian’s house, at first has no clue where she is. She assumes she’s in the centre of London and, on discovering she is, in fact, in Nottingham, proceeds to ask various strangers if they know who Lilian is . Of course they don’t, and most of them rush past her as fast as they can, clearly not wanting to take the time to understand why this crazy American lady is bothering them.
Even when she eventually gets directions to Lilian’s village, and starts knocking on doors on her street, neighbours don’t know who Lilian is. It is only when she knocks on the house next door to Lilian and Stuart’s, that the owner is able to say, “Oh yes, she lives next door”.
I always wonder, when watching shows such as this, how the TV producers manage to find people to take part. After all, it’s not just a case of finding two individuals willing to swap lives for a week – their families and friends also have to be involved, in order to make the other person feel welcome, as well as work colleagues who have to go out of their way to explain what the person they’ve swapped with does on a day to day basis.
So while Lilian gets to work making beds and trying to serve up blueberry pancakes for the guests at the B&B in Alaska, Leslie is dispatched to a local hospital to take over Lilian’s usual role as a nurse looking after elderly patients. Despite her bubbly nature, it is clear she is very far out of her comfort zone.
But it’s later, when she gets invited to accompany Stuart to a formal dinner at his barracks, that she really appears to be a fish out of water. In one scene which I found particularly cringeworthy but simultaneously hilarious and heartwarming, she is seen surrounded by extremely tall young army officers, all looking incredibly po-faced as she struggles to find a suitable topic of conversation, the young men seemingly making no effort to put her at ease.
It turns out, however, that she’s a gun-lover, and she tells them about the new rifle she’s just got – a Henry Repeating, 22, octagon-barrelled, which allows her to load 15 rounds at a time. One of the young men asks her, incredulously, “So what do you shoot with that?” to which she responds, “Whatever gets in my way – how about that?”
One-nil to Leslie.
Lilian, meanwhile, is absolutely loving the way she has been embraced by the local community. At a barbecue organized by Alan, Leslie’s husband, to introduce Lilian to the rest of the town, she asks one of the young men, “What are the downsides to living in such a tight-knit community” to which he responds, “Dating. You’d better know you’re not related first”.
The people of Wrangell, it seems, are full of choice phrases – my particular favourite coming from Alan, who responds to Lilian’s query as to whether it’s awkward in such a small town when two people fall out with each other, with the words “Don’t let them know where your goat’s tied up”. He goes on to explain, “You know how people can get your goat? They can’t get it if they don’t know where it’s tied up!”
At the end of the programme, the two women get to meet each other and swap notes on their experiences. Not surprisingly, Lilian is full of praise for Wrangell, and for Leslie’s life – she has loved being part of a small community, and says that this is exactly what she wants for her and Stuart in the future.
Leslie, meanwhile, can’t wait to get home – she has loved the experience but in her words, “It’s taught me a lot about who I am, and who I’m not. Mostly who I’m not. I fancy myself as this world traveller…. but you know what, it’s really not who I am, it’s just a pipe dream. Really I’m just a hometown country girl from Alaska”.
She admits to Lilian that it absolutely blew her mind, that when she was trying to find Lilian’s house at the start of the week, knocking on doors on her block, nobody knew who she was. She never realised how much it means to her, that everybody knows her.
I think we all have a need to feel part of a community. It’s one of the reasons that despite my love of London, I’ve never felt completely at ease living or working there – I’ve never been able to afford to live close to work so have always commuted, and the combination of work and commuting have always taken up so much time in my life that I’ve never had the time or the energy to engage properly with any of the local communities in which I’ve lived.
I’ve lived in my current home for just under ten years and I still only know the names of the neighbours whose properties directly border mine. If I were to swap lives with somebody from another part of the world, they would have just as much difficulty in finding somebody locally who knows me, as Leslie did when trying to track down Lilian’s house.
On the other hand, in the last few months of travelling back and forth between my current home, and my soon-to-be new home in the Lakes, I have already got to know many of my new neighbours, and I already know many of the local residents and retailers. I’m not expecting everybody in Windermere to ever know my name, but I’m thoroughly looking forward to living in a smaller community, where, to use Lilian’s words, I can hopefully be valued “for being part of the community, not just because I have a job to go to”. And while I’m not swapping lives with anybody, I’m extremely excited at the prospect of building a new, completely different, life for myself. And in a place where, due to all the rain, the grass genuinely is greener.