Julie Burchill: I'm Julie get me out of here!

From 'Big Brother' to 'Wife Swap', Julie Burchill loves trash TV - and she wants to tell you why. John Walsh sits down with Britain's proudest couch potato

Throughout her career, Ms Burchill has displayed great skill in suggesting that the personal and the universal are the same. If she likes (say) walnuts, she will argue that there is only one nut worth eating. If she leaves London to live in the provinces, she'll explain that only a madman would stay a minute longer in the metropolis. Now, if she spends every evening slumped in front of Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity..., then anyone who doesn't must be a snob or a plank. But it's still embarrassing to have to confess one's ignorance to the nation's most devoted "intellectual couch potato" as she describes herself in Reality TV Is Good For You, the first of four documentaries she's made for Sky One.

Her debut is a ringing defence of the genre that has spread like poison ivy over the television schedules in the last six years, bringing controversy, obloquy and delight in about equal measure. She is a passionately OTT advocate. "I believe opponents of reality TV are against life itself," she says, declaring that "TV snobs" attack the genre simply as a way of "sneering at the working class without voting Tory."

She wheels on John Humphrys to say that reality TV is "dishonest, demeaning and deeply and profoundly boring", and Andrew O'Hagan to describe Celebrity Love Island as "the lowest point in Hell", before advancing her counter-proposals. They are very simple. She likes reality TV because a) it makes working class people into stars, b) transforms the participants' lives, c) takes the wind out of celebrity sails and d) teaches you to be tolerant of people like Kemal and Derek on Big Brother 6.

Why did she feel it needed defending? "I just caught several little digs in the papers about Big Brother, and it got my goat because I knew they wanted to have a dig at the working class but couldn't. I'm not being chippy. I know that's what they meant."

But surely the tabloid papers are the forefront of the attack - aren't they're the voice of the Tory working class? "If you meet these boys from the tabloids," Julie says, "they're public schoolboys, like Kelvin MacKenzie. It doesn't matter what the paper is they're working for."

In the documentary she meets Jade Goody from Big Brother 2, the plump, soi-disante minger with the rudimentary grasp of geography, who represented a low point in public reaction. Objecting to her porcine features, her fleshiness, her loudness or all three, the press as good as called for her execution. She received death threats and police protection. Burchill confronts one of the scribes who wrote the incendiary pieces. "There seemed to be a kind of sexual loathing in the articles," says Burchill. "When I met Kevin O'Sullivan from the Mirror, he was sweating like a pig, and when he talked about Jade, it was like he was expressing sexual disgust for a woman. I said, 'You fancied her really, didn't you?', and he went, 'No, I was so repulsed by her', but as he said 'repulsed', he jerked his groin a bit, and I thought, repulsed, yeah..."

Ms Burchill is a very unfair arguer. If she can short-circuit an argument with imputations of lust, she will. To all my objections about reality TV - that it uses dim and vainglorious human beings as lab-rats - she argues that the participants enjoy a kind of working-class gap year. "I spoke to Saskia from Big Brother 6. She was immensely sensible. She said, 'I knew when I came out of the house there wouldn't be a limo waiting to whisk me off to Hollywood. I got some nice clothes, a couple of nice holidays. I've already got a nice boyfriend out of it. And soon I'm going to get back to work'. They're very sensible people."

Did she think the more attention-seeking housemates in BB demeaned themselves? Or did she think that there should be more entertainment involving vaginal wine-bottle insertion?

"Oh come on, John," says Ms Burchill. "I don't think that was demeaning, I thought she was a sweet girl. I got friends who behave like that. Haven't you?"

No I haven't. "You should get up here more often. I'm sorry, but I don't find it very unusual"

"Up here" is Brighton, where we met in the Hotel du Vin, with the pong of bladderwrack and Brighton rock. It's a decade since she decamped from London for the breezes of East Sussex - Hove, to be precise. "I thought I'd retired down here for a quiet life. Believe me, you don't want to move to Hove if you want to stay in the game. But now I'm doing television programmes. If you'd told me that, at my age with my weight and my teeth, I'd have a TV career, I'd have said you were effing mad."

She has changed from the spiky crypto-Stalinist who scowled from her columns in the late 1980s and seemed able to conduct a dozen fights simultaneously. She is married toDaniel Raven, brother of her former inamorata Charlotte - indeed, she is "Mrs Julie Raven" on her AmEx card - and is devoted to a life of lotus-eating hedonism and as little work as is compatible with earning lots of money.

"I'm doing four documentaries a year for Sky, six days' work on each, so I'm getting £100,000 for 24 days work. I'd be a fool to turn that down. But I'm not going to put myself out."

She writes a column for The Times and is licking her wounds after an unhappy time at The Guardian. "They were bastards. Three times I was going to be prosecuted for being racist, twice by the Catholic church and once by the Muslims. I got off in the end but I was told by a friend there were cabals who were saying, 'She's going to get it this time'. I was working for a newspaper that's supposed to be a bastion of free speech and there were people there who want me to go down - not for preaching hatred, but for expressing an opinion about the Pope or Islam, which I'm allowed to do.

"To know your colleagues are rooting for you to get prosecuted, that upset me. And when I asked for a raise, they offered me a sofa. A sofa! I bet they didn't offer Polly Toynbee a sofa when she asked for a raise. It's because I'm a woman of working-class origin. If I was black, would they have offered me a year's supply of fried chicken?"

Her troubled first marriage to Tony Parsons - they met as young punk writers at the New Musical Express, he 22, she 17, married, moved to Essex and had a child; Julie walked out to marry Cosmo Landesman, leaving Parsons to bring up their son - has been charted in the press for years, as their respective writing careers have burgeoned, and they have chewed bits off each other in print. Interviewed about his new novel at the weekend, Parsons spoke in conciliatory tones about his ex-wife, as having been his "best friend".

"I was surprised by how nice he was," says Burchill. "The thing about Tony was, I never saw it as a feud, I saw it as being a bit of camp old knockabout, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Tony takes it all more seriously than me, because he's a man and wrote all this 'daggers at dawn' shit. I thought we were having some camp fun at each other's expense. So on my side, there's nothing to forgive."

Excellent news. How very heart-warming. So did she admire his sentimental novels of family life? "I think they're appalling," says Burchill. "I read the last one, The Family Way, and I don't recall ever being so shocked since I first read a Mills & Boon novel. Too much research. You can imagine him on a hot date, having a gorgeous dinner at the Caprice, and during the dessert he'd whip out a notebook and say, 'Can I just ask about your periods?' Hahhhh." Ms Burchill's laugh is definitely more Bette Davis than Joan Crawford.

All she wants is a quiet life - a home, which she shares with her second son Jack (her husband lives nearby), cocaine and clothes-shopping with her cleaner, evenings watching reality TV with Daniel and weekends hanging out at a lap-dancing club with "my stripper and prostitute friends" while her husband is "off with his boyfriends".

It is, she says, a bracing corrective to media London and "people who talk and think and talk and think and do nothing else. Now I can go out with a bunch of women and get pissed on alcopops. It's just like an old dear on a spree in a Beryl Cook picture. It's a great relief."

'Reality TV Is Good For You' will be shown on Sky One on Sunday 4 September

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