When I first moved to the UK in 2012, class wasn’t something I was deeply aware of. Growing up in suburban Ohio, the institution of class was something I knew about and was exposed to, but not necessarily something that was apparent to me at all times. Old money didn’t really exist where I grew up, at least in British terms of old money, and the only real signifiers of class were what part of Florida you went to for vacation and whether or not you owned Victoria Secret sweatpants.
Spending time predominantly with British people in my first few weeks (and, really, for the entirety) of university, my new friends joked about immersing me in UK culture. So, every night in the common room, we began watching the likes of Come Dine With Me, Made In Chelsea, and The Only Way Is Essex. After about a month of exhausting the live reality TV that was on offer in autumn 2012, someone suggested we go on YouTube and teach me some of the classics. More specifically, someone suggested, we watch the 2003-2009 phenomenon Holiday Showdown. At the time, I found it absolutely hilarious. But looking back, it’s probably one of the grossest reality shows to hit noughties Britain’s small screen, opening my eyes to the severity of class divide.
On the surface, the reality show seems harmless. Two families each go on each other’s holiday for one week (importantly: on each other’s budget) in order to give an insight into the diversity of lifestyles and tastes in choice of relaxation from all around the country. At the end of the episode, the families get together and review the two holidays they’ve gone on together and reflect on what they learned and whether or not they would take a trip like that again. The show was critically acclaimed, even nominated for a BAFTA for its 2005 season (only losing out to Gordon Ramsay’s Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.)
But the true outcome of Holiday Showdown was something far more sinister. Masquerading as a wholesome, enlightening programme, it was a show built to laugh alongside posh people, disgusted at having to “slum it” on absolutely normal, working-class holidays, and to mock the poor people gawking in awe at expensive, lavish, extortionate foreign getaways.
Rarely did Holiday Showdown show us two sides of the same class coin. Instead, it showed a middle-class (and richer) family in literal tears over not going for a week-long break in Europe, alongside a working-class (and often marginalised) family feeling uncomfortable at the opulence of Bornean resorts.
Would you like to go to a five star resort in southeast Asia? Maybe head to Cancun to drink cocktails on the beach? Or would you prefer to go camping in Cornwall? How about banger-racing in Skegness?
The show was riddled with class sneering, and didn’t even try to hide it. Every hour-long extravaganza followed an almost identical format, where we saw upper-class families clench at the sight of a budget hotel and working-class ones uneasy with having multiple service staff catering to each person.
Take a classic episode: the Trusses and the O’Connors. The Truss family (relation to Liz unclear) regularly go on a “luxurious” safari in Kenya, where they are “waited on hand and foot”. Dad Jonathan is a wildlife painter whose art goes for tens of thousands of pounds, and who makes enough money so that mother Mel can stay at home full-time. The shots of their home feature grand dining rooms and high ceilings, with china on display in glass cases and their kids having private opera lessons.
They are paired with the O’Connor family. Mothers Lisa and Dawn are parents to three boys whose favourite holiday is to go to Blackpool off season, referred to by the presenter as the “gay capital of the north”. The shots of their block of flats is accompanied by “Song 2” by Blur and clips of their three sons rough-housing in a tiny, dark living room.
The parents talk about going to drag shows and arcades with their kids and partying in the seaside town in winter “because its cheapest”. Their sons, quite heartwarmingly, speak about how great it is to have same-sex parents and how it’s no different to the heteronormative nuclear family.
To, I’m sure, your shock and surprise, the two families do not quite enjoy their counterpart’s choice in destination. The Truss parents are homophobically horrified at the gay clubs in Blackpool, with Jonathan saying, after witnessing two men kissing, that it was “revolting” to him “as a straight man”, and Mel warning that she didn’t want any gay people “approaching” them.
On the the other hand, the O’Connors are enthusiastic about seeing giraffes, warthogs and other wildlife, but visibly disturbed by the enormous number of service staff constantly on hand in Kenya.
“I didn’t really feel comfortable while we were eating breakfast,” 16-year-old Paul O’Connor explains to camera after a five-star, heavily staffed meal. “It’s not something I’m used to, having people do everything for you… I don’t know if I like it.”
The Trusses give patronising rules to the O’Connors when they arrive in Kenya, such as “there isn’t any fast food here, guys, we’d like to see you eating healthily”. They even go so far as ordering the O’Connors more expensive clothes so that they have the “right attire” for their dinners. On that particular liberty, Dawn and Lisa tell the producers that they felt “degraded” and like “second-class citizens” who didn’t know how to dress themselves or their children.
In the end, the O’Connors are still gracious and open-minded throughout the entire Kenyan experience, and speak kindly about the adventure the Trusses took them on. However, through gritted teeth, the Truss family say they would never go back to Blackpool, passive-aggressively noting that it “opened our eyes a bit”.
And this, this is how most episodes go. Rather than families actually understanding each other’s differences, and perhaps gaining a new perspective on how other people live, the posh family almost always sneers at the working-class holiday, and the working-class family either acts appreciative of the new experience, or only critiques the wasteful opulence of it.
Holiday Showdown mercifully ended in 2009, but not before making five dreadful series and 41 humiliating episodes. While the show can make for some funny moments, especially at the expense of over-sensitive millionaires, we should all be glad to have this classist charade relegated to the annals of TV history.
Read more from the New Statesman’s retro reality TV week 2018 series here.