Making a spectacle of themselves: Six students have become the stars of a living television soap. Owen Slot joined them for episode one

Friday night at 7.15, and six Manchester students sit down to watch television. After months of waiting, months of warning, after being told that they are mad and will be stitched up like turkeys, it is time to face the music and watch themselves as the stars of BBC 2's The Living Soap.

'It just seemed like a glorified home video,' one said later. A home video that would attract four million viewers, that is.

The Living Soap is fly-on-the-wall television. The six, selected in the summer from a thousand hopefuls, were given perks - free rent, an above-average student house - and innumerable problems: housemates they'd never met before; the prospect of a year with camera crews in the house, in lecture halls, in pubs, in clubs; and 30 half-hour episodes, starting last Friday, in which their private lives will be stripped bare before the nation.

This television genre dates back to 1973 and An American Family; the parents of the chosen family had been married for 20 years before the the cameras arrived and were divorced soon after. A year later came a British version, The Family, a picture of mundane verite lacking in domestic bliss. Twenty years on we saw Sylvania Waters, whose stars, Noeline and Laurie Donaher, were distilled into hate figures on an operatic scale.

Spencer Campbell, series producer of The Living Soap, had warned the Manchester Six that they would be shown at their worst. But none had watched Sylvania Waters, so they probably couldn't imagine quite how bad their worst moments might appear. The power of the editing suite was about to be revealed . . .

The opening credits roll. Intense concentration, nervous grins all round. First on the box is Simon, who covers his face and swears he'll be dieting before next week. This sets the standard: Karen and Spider hate their spots; Spider hates the way her eyes roll; Matthew - a ringer for Jesus but for his passion for death-thrash metal - can't believe that of all the garden cricket footage, they showed the one off-break that went for a wide, but he is dead chuffed with his guitar riff.

Overall, there is relief all round, though the introductory episode was always likely to tread softly. Yet it is clear that, despite the obvious objectives behind the unnatural selection of six characters in search of a single common trait, they get on fine. Even Conservative-supporting, womanising Dan, touted in the BBC as 'the student from hell', is regarded by the girls as 'an absolute sweetie'. As thick-skinned as his heroine, Margaret Thatcher, he laughs at his screen portrayal. The projected clash with Simon - right-wing versus right-on - so far hasn't materialised. They are straight off to the pub.

But Simon has nothing to celebrate. As a taster of what could come, footage shot weeks ago shows him in the first episode referring to a former girlfriend as a 'bitch'. It was said in jest but he is crestfallen and keen to clear out before the girl now known nationwide as 'bitch' is on the phone.

All are wary of letting their guard drop in the way Simon did, but know that the cameramen are rapidly becoming part of the furniture. 'That's the danger,' says Karen. 'And they're always asking probing questions.'

As Simon and Dan go out into the night, they are cheered on the bus. The trappings of fame may get worse: Matt is being lined up as My Guy's Man of the Month, and The Big Breakfast is threatening a morning raid. What student would want to be wakened at 8.15am by Keith Chegwin?