After the rumours, the reality of village’s TV contest

One transvestite, two lesbians and a family of five from Birmingham. Sarah Freeman reports on the families competing to win a house in Grassington.

On Thursday evenings for the next two months the streets of Grassington, are likely to be unusually quiet.

Between 9 and 10pm, most of the residents will stop what they’re doing and sit down to watch the results of a reality TV show which saw a dozen families competing to win a house in the rural idyll, which stands at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The series, which went under the working title of The Village, didn’t have the smoothest of births with some fearing the production company, Studio Lambert, had ratings rather than the reputation of Grassington at the forefront of its mind.

Hundreds filed into the town hall one evening last June and during a heated public meeting the programme makers were accused of a raft of ulterior motives while rumours circulated the list of likely contestants would include a recently-released prisoner from Liverpool and an Asbo family from Birmingham.

As it turned out the final line-up, which includes a single mum who works as an artist’s model, two new age travellers facing eviction from their caravan in Dorset and a couple who admit to colour co-ordinating their outfits, was a good deal less controversial. There was a family from Birmingham, but the closest builder Steve Warrender had ever come to an Asbo was having a partner who previously worked as a solicitor.

In perhaps a tongue-in-cheek reference to those early disputes, the show has been renamed Love Thy Neighbour and when the first episode goes out this week all those who were involved in the filming are confident it will have a much warmer reception than the 1970s sitcom with which it shares its name.

“I always thought the series was an exciting prospect for Grassington,” says Diane Lowe, who runs the Grassington Lodge guest house, just a stone’s throw from the cobbled market square. “I moved here seven years ago for a better quality of life. I immediately felt at home and I just thought it would be nice to be a part of a project which gave someone else the chance to be part of our community. There is a tendency to think that a place like this is very white, very middle class, very conservative and very insular, but actually nothing could be further from the truth. I certainly think we were welcoming regardless of creed, colour or sexual orientation.

“A lot of creative types and professionals have moved here over recent years and it’s a really vibrant community which wants to drive Grassington forward.

“Of course there were always going to be people who didn’t like the idea of the TV cameras coming here, but Grassington’s economy depends on tourism and this is our chance to show the entire country just what we have to offer.”

Filming of Love Thy Neighbour took place during September and October, with two couples a week going head to head for a place in the finals. Each was looked after by a mentor from the village, the challenge was to show what they could bring to the community. Every Sunday, all the residents, even those who thought the programme a bad idea, were invited to cast their vote in a secret ballot to decide who would go through to the next round and one step closer to the ultimate prize, the £310,000 Sycamore Cottage.

In the first episode the family from Birmingham, who long for a more traditional way of life away from the city they describe unflatteringly as a “series of ghettos” go up against a couple from South London, who have three young children and a glut of reasons for wanting to head north.

Philip Olanipekun and Simone Lazarus, both 35, applied to the show in the hope of giving their three young sons a greater sense of freedom than they could ever offer them in the London suburbs.

“We were worried about raising three black boys in a city with gang crime,” says Philip. “We saw Grassington and being part of the competition as a way of providing them with a simple uncomplicated lifestyle.”

Philip works in security, but he is also an aspiring Tory MP on a shadowing scheme which trains the next generation of Conservative MPs. While in the 2001 census of Grassington’s 1,584 population only two described themselves as non-white, with the village also located in one of the safest Tory seats in the UK, the show was also potentially a good career move.

Whichever family wins, whether it be Donna and Louise, a lesbian couple undergoing IVF to start a family, or transvestite Paul and his wife Andrea, their move into the three-bed stone cottage is likely to shift the demographics of Grassington, a place where villagers claim you have to have three generations in the graveyard before you are considered a local.

However, many believe a dose of new blood is vital for its future prosperity. Like many rural farming communities where schools face closure due to a lack of children growing up in the area and where an ageing population threatens to put pressure on already stretched resources, Grassington is not immune to economic hardship.

The chocolate box cottages may be a magnet for tourists, but if it is to remain a working village rather than a holiday home ghost town it needs to welcome those outsiders they call “offcumdums”.

“There were a lot of silly rumours in the beginning about what kind of families were going to take part in the show,” says 50-year-old Mark Bamforth, a sales engineer who acts as mentor to the competing families in the first episode. His mother was Miss January in the Rylstone Women’s Institute’s now-famous calendar and together with his partner, Jane Ellison-Bates, he is a key member of Grassington’s amateur dramatics scene. Mark says: “In fact there was a real cross-section of families and all of them had something to offer the village.

“This was always set up to be a two-way process, it wasn’t about people who were just looking to move into a nice cottage and contribute nothing.”

Mark wasn’t the only one to warm to his role of mentor. Grassington GP Dr Andrew Jackson, farmer’s wife Jane Walmsley and village stalwarts Rowena “Bunty” Leder and Mary Wilkinson, both of whom admit to slight reservations about the programme in the early days, all offered the wealth of their experience to the prospective villagers.

“There were negative vibes,” says 70-year-old Mary. “When I went to the public meeting I realised the programme was a fait accompli. If it was going to go ahead anyway I thought it was better to be involved than not.

“Bunty and I filmed most of our parts drinking tea and eating cake and I fear we might end up looking like Grassington’s answer to Gert and Daisy.”

If they do it’ll be no bad thing. The comedic stars of wartime radio turned gossip into an art form and acquired a loyal following of fans. Ultimately, it will be ratings which decide whether Love Thy Neighbour has been a success for Channel 4, but for those villagers who got a sneak preview of the show’s early episodes, the signs for Grassington at least look good.

“I’ve heard we all come out of it pretty well,” says Mary, who moved to Grassington with her husband and two sons in the 1970s.

“We met some lovely families and I know a couple of those who didn’t win are planning to move here under their own steam, which is fantastic news and hopefully proof that we did our job well.

“The thing that makes Grassington a truly great place to live is its diversity. Inevitably that means you get lots of different opinions about what’s right for the village. It was a shame that some people did their best to stop this programme, but that’s just village life.”

Love Thy Neighbour, Channel 4, Thursdays, 9pm.