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Monday 14 April 2008
Don't get mad...get even: Dom Joly gets his own back
Modern life is driving Dom Joly to distraction, and no one seems to care. Now, with a new TV series championing the art of the complaint, he's embarking on a personal crusade – and he wants us all to join him
Maybe it's because I've just turned 40, or maybe it's because I spend quite a lot of time abroad. I'm not sure why, but I'm really turning into a grumpy bastard.
Everything annoys me in Britain these days – crap service, crazy house prices, traffic wardens, civil enforcement officers (what the hell are those, by the way? I saw one in central London yesterday), CCTV cameras everywhere, rubbish trains, cold-callers, Ken Livingstone... I'm just a big angry person. And yet. Like most of us Brits, I'm a rubbish complainer.
You know the sort of thing. You're sitting in an expensive, poncey restaurant where you're being made to feel lucky that you've even been able to get a table. The service is patronising, the food is over-tampered-with and unbelievably expensive. So you ruin everyone's meal by grumbling about it all the way through. "What is this? Is this tuna? How am I supposed to eat with these weird forks? Eight pounds for a bottle of mineral water? Why are we being chucked out so that a second sitting can take our table?"
But when the waiter turns up and deigns to ask whether everything was OK (not because he gives a monkey's, but because he wants to cement his tip), you lamely reply: "Yes, thank you, it was really great..." and then slink away into the night, full of self-loathing, having left a huge tip to show that you're not cheap. Why do we do this? Why do I do this?
Partly, it's being on telly. Even if I do hate something, I don't want to make a scene, I don't want to have an image of being a prima donna, with waiters saying: "We had that Dom Joly in here last night. Jesus, what a prat, grumbled about everything, didn't leave a tip, what an asshole..."
But it's not just that I'm on the telly, it's something deeper. It's that intrinsic part of being British which doesn't really like to make a fuss. It's what John Cleese describes as the "crippling fear of public embarrassment".
If we were French and we didn't like a meal, we would quote Napoleonic law, which apparently allows every Frenchman the right to refuse to pay for a meal once in their life for no reason whatsoever, apart from being bolshie. In fact, a Frenchman would go through every fault in the meal and then storm into the kitchen and personally show the chef how to cook the dish. Not only that; if the French are unhappy about something, they protest, they burn sheep, they close down the whole country.
I remember being in Paris in the early Nineties when they first tried to ban smoking in bars. Parisians didn't even bother to protest – they simply ignored the law and nothing changed. Magnifique! (One might wonder why they didn't burn sheep on the main roads to Paris and stop the German invasion in the Second World War, but that's a cheap shot...)
When my Canadian wife, Stacey, and I first starting going out, she would put me to shame with her complaining. She complained about this, she complained about that – she complained about everything. We would go for an average meal, where the service was the usual shambles, and she would storm up to the maître d' and demand that the "optional" service charge be removed from the bill. I'd cower by the cloakroom longing to disappear into a hole in the ground, but part of me secretly admired this feisty little blonde.
Weirdly, seven years of marriage to me and living in the genteel Cotswolds seems to have completely changed her character. She now tells me off for "being rude" if I grumble about something too loudly, and talks over me if I even attempt to make a complaint (which I only do knowing that she'll stop me). And yet. And yet...
We should complain. We shouldn't put up with all the bastard bureaucrats and quangos and money-grabbers who plague this modern life of ours. Why should I have to stand with a Vegas-style cup full of 20p pieces constantly having to feed my parking meter, not even being able to actually leave the car because every 20p only gives me 15 seconds of actual parking time? It's not as if I'd take the Tube – the most expensive metropolitan rail network in the world, ancient, creaking, chock-full of malodorous deviants. Vast "bendy" buses just sit at a standstill in smouldering queues of traffic created by Ken Livingstone and the bureaucratic lunatics who control traffic lights. Car drivers are forced to pay £8 just for the privilege. Then there are the traffic wardens, clampers and police who clog up the streets driving round and round waiting to slap huge fines on you for the tiniest offence.
Everybody chill out!! In Italy, you can park on the pavement, nobody dies, everything carries on OK. There's a lesson there.
We need to fight these bastards at their own game. Make your own clamp – and clamp a clamping van. God, it feels good. Take an hour and read the book that tells you about parking law. Armed with this knowledge, you can get off almost every parking ticket because it has been incorrectly served, or the bay is badly signposted, etc. It makes you so happy. Go do it. Beat these bastards at their own game.
It doesn't have to be a big French-style burning to have an effect, either. I went on a very British demo against First Great Western, the worst of all our appalling train operators and the one I am forced to use to get into London. It's the most expensive train journey in the world, mile for mile, and you're far from guaranteed a seat. A campaign called "More Train Less Strain" organised a "fare strike" day, on which we all turned up brandishing fake tickets and refused to pay. When the barrier guards refused to let us through the barrier, we all sheepishly pulled out our season tickets and went on to the train, where we were all jammed in, angry cheek by snarling jowl, but mostly by TV cameramen. To me, it all looked a bit rubbish and I wondered whether we should have burned down Bath station instead.
But I was wrong. Even this small-scale demonstration of people-power generated sufficient bad publicity for First Great Western to announce a big investment in the service and to be rapped on the knuckles by the Government. It was hardly the poll tax riots, but it's what we should all be doing. If something gets on your wick, don't be British about it – complain.
For my new TV show, we took a vote in the production office on the most annoying things in life. Curiously, they tended to be the little things that are definitely challengeable – people reading over your shoulder (solution: don't wear deodorant); people shouting into those ridiculous Bluetooth headsets (I'll leave that one alone, if you don't mind); kids on buses playing music through their mobiles – what you might term "minor but significant nuisance".
We tackled a gang who were doing just this on a bus. In their defence, they claimed that they didn't hassle people reading books, so why shouldn't they be allowed to do their thang? There was a lot of talk about "respect" and them living in "da ghetto" (Hackney). The best bit was when a sweet puppy trotted by and they were all terrified of it. Don't be afraid of these people – complain. Just tell them to shut up. (Maybe wear a stabproof vest, just in case. Harriet Harman does a lovely range of these.)
Since we apparently live in a country where children's birthday parties are cancelled because of the risk of harm from balloons, and packets of peanuts contain warnings that "this product may contain nuts", I decided to dress up as a health and safety officer for a day and stamp my "authority" on a municipal park. I made pedestrians wear helmets because of the possibility of "something falling on your head". I made tennis players wear knee and elbow pads – "You could fall over" – and managed to warn several dog owners about the possibility of their dogs using their teeth "irresponsibly". Had they considered having the teeth removed?
The extraordinary part of all this wasn't that most people did what they were told, it was that nobody questioned the existence or the powers of a fictional health and safety officer. Everybody took it as completely normal that one should be wandering around poking his nose into other people's business.
Estate agents were a huge source of venom. Not just because they've made so much dosh out of the property boom, but because they flaunt it so. Once upon a time, they'd have a Marks and Sparks suit and a modest Mondeo. Now they wear loud ties and designer whistles and drive those stupid decorated cars to announce their arrival. We lured several into showing us flats while we redecorated their cars with signs saying things like: "Honk if you hate estate agents..." Not clever, I'm sure you'll agree, but somehow deeply, deeply satisfying.
When we were filming a scene on just how ridiculously expensive London has become, we discovered that one of the most blatant rip-offs was the food and drink in cinemas. Order two soft drinks, a hot dog and some popcorn, and you can walk away with no change from £20. Complain. Tell them you're not prepared to pay. Take your own picnic with you. They'll soon get the message.
In short, enough is enough. It's time to stop being British and not to be content with just grumbling to ourselves any more. If we want to do something about the things that really piss us all off, then we have to get out there and be proactive – otherwise we're going to end up with the country that we deserve.
We are the most CCTVed country in the world (20 per cent of the world's cameras. Why?). In Coventry, they've even got cameras that will shout at you in the street (very Big Brother) and soon they'll be all over Britain. Get this: they are making cameras at the moment that will analyse the way people conduct themselves in the street and pinpoint anyone who is "walking weirdly". Exactly whose antisocial behaviour are we talking about here?
Don't even get me started on lost luggage and the nightmare of air travel. We found an auctioneer in south London which is the place where your luggage goes when it's lost by the airlines. These people are supposed to go through the bags and try to identify the owners. We bought a job lot of 15 bags and found the identities of three owners immediately from the contents – business cards, etc. We returned them to their owners. Shouldn't the airlines themselves be doing this?
The proceeds from these lost-luggage auctions are supposed to go to charity, but none of the airlines we asked could tell us which charity it gives the cash to. Everyone we spoke to said the problem was the lack of space at places like Heathrow airport – and that when Terminal 5 opened, everything would be OK. Very clearly, everything is not OK.
So come on, for God's sake! Let's get out there and shout to the rooftops. Let's complain like the French, let's get value for money, accountability from bureaucrats. Let's send these civil enforcement officers packing and reclaim our nation for normal, sensible, reasonable people. Come on Britain, let's start complaining.
Standing under CCTV camera with 'who watches the watchers' signs
Britain is the nation most covered by CCTV, and I've always wanted to know why we don't seem to mind being filmed constantly. We put these signs together because, under CCTV laws, you are entitled to request a copy of the image taken of you by any CCTV camera. We wanted to see if that was actually true, but it didn't work out too well. Of all the places we tried, only one even got back to us, but at MI6 I got arrested. It would have been funny but it ruined our first day of filming. I was outside MI6 headquarters with a sign saying 'watches' and they summoned an armed rapid-response unit. They seemed to think I was some kind of sign-brandishing suicide bomber.
Going through the bins of Barnet councillors
This was fantastic. We decided to look into recycling to see if it's just a money-making scheme. Barnet council has started to fine people who allow a stray bottle or can into their rubbish. I got into my commando gear and blacked up to sneak into the back of this councillor's block of flats to look through his rubbish at 2am. The main culprit, who sadly we can't name, didn't recycle a thing. He did send us a letter calling us scum of the earth, though.
Transvestite getting wolf-whistled at by builders
We all know that women get a pretty hard time from leery builders and complain a lot about it, so we set about getting some revenge for them. We had this idea of sending a really good-looking and frankly convincing transvestite out to a building site to catch them out. As he went past this crowd of builders, they went wild for him, shouting as builders do for him to get his tits out. He seductively pulled up his dress to reveal his absolutely huge penis. I don't think that is quite what they were expecting. Sadly we can't show his penis on television. It certainly kept the builders quiet for a bit though.
Giving tickets to traffic wardens
Traffic wardens are universally accepted as the worst kind of officialdom on earth, and we wanted to mix in a bit of comedy with beating them at their own game. We came across this kind of anti-traffic warden who specialises in the details of the parking regulations and sent him off to deal with the traffic wardens.
We found out that your average traffic warden may not be that bright. As far as I can see, they're the ones who don't make it as far as clamping school. So when our guy told them their hats weren't at regulation tilt, or their walk was wrong, they believed him. Even better; they were upset they hadn't had the right training.
Clamping the clampers
I've been clamped many times and they are the scum of the earth. You have to be a bit psychotic to be one. Clampers are bastards who assault your car then come after you for ludicrous sums of money. So we followed this chap, and as he clamped his innocent victim, we got his van. At first he was apoplectic: he couldn't believe we'd done it to him. But it didn't take long for him to go totally mental. What do you expect from a clamper though? They do nothing but create unhappiness; they must go home at night and weep.
Dom Joly's new show The Complainers starts tonight at 10pm on Five
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