Grace Dent on TV: Only happy campers in a portrait of the soggy-sandwich brigade

This week Grace watched... My £9.50 Holiday BBC1

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The Independent Culture

The viewing demographic for My £9.50 Holiday possibly split neatly into two categories. On one side, people who knew exactly what the lay of the land was on a dirt-cheap token-discounted family caravan trip to Skegness. On the other hand, people with no life experience of financial restrictment, who were jolly fascinated by poor people “scrimping”.

Demographic wise, I was the former. I have walked a soggy mile in the flip-flops of £9.50 holidaymakers like the Pearsons from Southend, who had five children under the age of 11 and were treating themselves to a week in California Cliffs, Great Yarmouth. I have paddled in the shadow of Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, spent coppers saved by my Gran in a Bell’s Whisky bottle and weed in a bucket so as to avoid midnight toilet-block daddy-long-legs. I have spent long weeks scooping a gift shop fishing net drably through a West Cumbrian caravan car-park puddle.

I won’t pretend to be remotely in need of a £9.50 holiday nowadays. The irony in Britain today is that by the time a less privileged writer is at the point where they are alloted a platform to discuss breadline Britain, they’ll have probably jumped the class boundary and be typing gritty memoirs into a MacBook Air, perched on a Tuscan terrace eating sun-blush tomato focaccia with an elegant tumbler of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I won’t pretend I would cope well these days with an off-season week at California Cliffs, where the “bronze” basic £9.50 caravan deal meant no heating in the bedrooms, no bed linen, no net curtains on the window to aid your modesty – and where the cleaning of one hundred vans is done by two people per day.

Caravan sites the length of Britain are kept in business by these bargain-price newspaper token deals. For the holidaymakers who took part in the show, these tokens provided their loved ones with their only chance of a break that year. It was hard to feel anything but happy that these cheap and cheerful vacations existed. It feels like common sense.

Still, “Creating Amazing Memories” was the holiday company’s motto – and for the less hardy holidaymaker, a £9.50 deal would be hard to forget. Essentially it was a week in May in an ageing aluminium box, close to a kid’s club and a no-frills canteen, dodging rainy downpours by playing bandits and bingo. Not that the Pearsons were straying towards the club-house and dining facilities much as they’d stocked up at Lidl pre-holiday to cut costs. At 7pm, for those wealthy enough to visit the park’s nightspot, a female holiday rep would honk through Celine Dion classics in the style of a drunken town crier. Tweenagers in crop-tops danced the Macarena and embarrassing uncles danced to “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé, pointing repeatedly at their groins and waggling their dentures. Sparky the Rabbit – a park employee in a rabbit costume that looked like it had been mistakenly boil-washed half a dozen times – would appear randomly to wind the kids up to a mouth-frothing level with his hand-jiving and Usain Bolt poses. Admission to Sparky’s Party was not included in the £9.50 deal.

In one drafty caravan, Suffolk teenagers Nina, Corrine and crew binge-drank WKD blues and ordered a takeaway delivery of kebab meat in Styrofoam cartons, before jumping about in the clubhouse to “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers and “The Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga. Some lads in Kappa shell bottoms – also on the £9.50 deal – joined them for a flirt and a potential snog. This all looked rather good fun. Corrine, however, was very homesick. The poor girl was over an hour’s drive away from her mother for the first time in her life, leading to tearful pining to camera. “My dream holiday would be Magaluf,” she said. “But I’m glad I had my first holiday away somewhere close, ‘cos then I knew I could just get in the car and go if I was too upset.”

Corrine may have dreamed of escaping, but there was no reason to leave the caravan park, the park staff claimed. All one’s needs were catered for. Did I mention the kebab meat delivery and Sparky’s Party? Okay, if one truly insisted on leaving the park, near the Skegness resort there was Natureland, featuring some fed-up looking penguins and a “feeding” show where petulant teenagers chucked around buckets of fish.

Some concerned types tend to stick the label “poverty porn” on any TV where a camera is pointed at working-class people doing anything, but this wasn’t the case here. Nothing felt exploititive. Yes, it was hard to know what the documentary was driving at aside from a sort of Bono-style Band Aid mewl of “Well tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you”. But the more I watched this documentary, the more proud to be British I became. Nobody does terrible holidays like we do on this fair isle, and it pleases me that since the 1980s, when I entered “dance with your dad” competitions in Prestatyn Pontins and slept on a fold-out bed downwind of a cheese-encrusted grill-pan, we British have only further honed our capacity for awfulness. No children looked remotely unhappy during the making of this documentary.  They were having the time of their lives “creating amazing memories”. One thing’s for sure: there ain’t no party like a Sparky’s Club party.