Flat-sharing is a modern rite of passage. Steve Bailey followed three groups of Londoners as they agonised over choosing a complete stranger to share their lives - and bathrooms. Photographs by Paul Reas
Saturday 06 April 1996
The Islington Boys were students together at Oxford: Alex, a 24-year-old trainee barrister; Andy, also 24 and a City broker; and Jim, 23, a TV researcher. They now do a passing imitation of Men Behaving Badly, living amid discarded pizza boxes and unwashed breakfast crockery, in fashionable north London. They are seeking two women to join the party
Zoe is sitting alone on a huge sofa, nervously adjusting the hem of her skirt as she waits for the next question, which might be, Do you keep your books in alphabetical order? Or, How would you cope, living with three men? Any objections to meat-eating? drinking? smoking? untidy habits? Each new enquiry is delivered in that voice - the one that comes free with private education - until she finally laughs to snap the tension.
"I don't mind telling you, this is like the interview scene in Shallow Grave," she says, rising to her feet and smiling to order as the camera flashes. The developing Polaroid snapshot is thrown into a pile with the others.
"Thanks. We'll let you know."
The Islington Boys win few Brownie points for tact and sensitivity, but at least they're thorough. You have to be when you're looking for a cross between Sharon Stone, Mother Theresa and Tiggy Legge-Bourke.
"There's probably a good, pagan way of making the choice," says Alex, ever the comedian, as he sifts through dozens of photos, character notes and telephone numbers. Most of them - surely this is coincidence? - appear to be young, female, long-limbed and attractive. "Maybe you bury them for five years and see which one grows into an apple tree or something?"
He wonders what will happen should they pick someone absolutely gorgeous. One of them might get a crush on her: "It would be horrendous."
Early casualties include the girl who insists on knowing what kind of floors the flat has: "Are they hardwood, or carpet over concrete?" The words, "Eight-inch boards", are swiftly followed by "Goodbye". Things pick up when two young women - one blonde, one brunette - admit "We've got all the vices, unfortunately."
But then an attractive girl with long, brown hair takes her place on the inquisition sofa. "So you're Claire, 24, video psychology?" ventures Alex.
"No, I'm not. I'm a trainee solicitor."
But she was called Claire - and she was eminently suitable. There was a varsity link (she had read law at Downing, Cambridge) and, to their mutual surprise, they had friends in common.
Soon, Alex was polishing her wardrobe-to-be with Pledge as the admiring Claire looked on. "That looks wonderful, Alex," she tells him. "I'd like to see you scrubbing on your hands and knees."
They had met their match.
The Acton Girls are young, lively professionals who like to live communally - often cooking and eating together at the kitchen table, and mulling over the day's problems. Kate, a 33-year-old actress, shares the house with Jude, also 33, who works in book publishing; Pamela, a 31-year-old teacher; Alexis, 27, in telephone sales, and Anna, 25, a radio journalist
"Men in suits don't seem very comfortable here," says Kate. "Probably because we're looking at them, thinking, `Ugh! You've got a suit on'."
By their own admission, these girls are intellectual snobs. Your average Mr Right wouldn't stand a chance, not unless he could upgrade his performance to Mr Right Every Time.
"I think any chap would be a little intimidated by having five of us sort of standing around, staring at them," says Jude. "People who think they could live with us will probably think, `Oh, they're quite interesting'." And the others? "They're bound to swing through the door and think, `Oh God! What a horrendous collection of women'."
The candidates troop in, one by one, some wearing the expression of bewildered enthusiasm worn by civil servants "boarding" for a top job. The interrogation is carefully planned. Nothing directly about Proust, but dunderheads will soon be leafing through Yellow Pages for the nearest YMCA.
When the dust settles, they have found not one suitable man, but two. Leigh is a trendy social worker from Lancashire; Chris, who works in marketing, is a part-time DJ and loves loud music. In the Flatmate of Your Dreams competition, the girls couldn't separate these two by the thickness of a cigarette paper. So they cleared out their spare room and asked both men to move in.
With such an enviable talent for finding wonderful blokes, it's not a flatmate these girls need, it's a good agent.
Brockley, SE4. Clubbing Christians seek someone to share their fun and friendly house share. Washing machine, TV etc. Near to station
The Born Again Christians are three single girls, all aged 28, intent on finding a fellow believer (in that order). He must be popular, with a circle of (preferably male) friends for the girls to meet. Anne, a temping secretary, confesses, "I suppose I am looking for someone to marry." Her housemates are Angela, a nursery nurse, and Allison,a nursery teacher
How would Jesus advertise for a flatmate?, ponders Angela. "Would he even use the word `Christian'?" Whatever the wording, He wouldn't have wanted the sort of calls Angela is receiving.
"Another weirdo," she says, wearily, replacing the handset.
The calls from people claiming to be "Christian in their heart" generally mean that their only experience of being inside a church was followed by much confetti-throwing. An unmistakeable note of reluctance enters their voices at the first mention of group prayers. "We're going to have to do some serious praying," says Anne. They take comfort from the fridge magnet, which bears the inscription, with faith, all things are possible.
At the interviews, the girls sit abreast on the sofa, jotting down the occasional note.
Thomas, a rather laid-back young man, is quickly dismissed. "I am a Christian in my heart," he winningly announces, but rather spoils it by declaring that he intends to spend large amounts of time alone in his room.
Andy, a blond guy in his twenties, is pleasant and talkative, but he stops the conversation when he says that God came to him while he was alone on a train. Anne clearly feels this statement demands some sort of reply. "Thanks for sharing your testimony," she says, haltingly. "It's... unusual."
Then, a terrible mistake. Andy wants to check that Angela has written down his telephone number correctly. Before she can stop herself, she hands over the sheet of paper which contains his number - plus her hastily- scribbled character assessment.
Amid much shuffling and embarrassed giggling from the girls, he changes tack. "If you're thinking, `He's a bit weird, he's a bit funny', just say so." He pauses. "Can I have a look at the basement?"
There is silence as the girls exchange anxious looks. The phrase "serial killer" hangs unspoken, like a bad smell. Angela speaks first: "Storage?"
"Just a few things I want to bring."
Andy goes, and, gradually, the girls' hopes of a Bible-carrying, Tom Cruise-lookalike disappear, too. They settle for 23-year-old Sarah, whose charm and Christian directness make her seem ideal.
As they wait for her to move in, they pray together in the garden. "We are thinking of getting to know Sarah. Please help us to do that, Lord."
Too soon, their prayers are answered. Sarah immediately reveals a hitherto undisclosed enthusiasm for loud rock music, and a male friend, who sometimes stays overnight. Anne finds herself apologising. "He's not well, so Sarah lets him sleep in her bed, while she sleeps on the floor." Nothing wrong in that, she says tightly.
Still, when asked for her solution to the problem with Sarah, her response is immediate.
"A one-bedroomed flat."
These stories will be shown on BBC2's `Modern Times' on Wednesday
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