The successful author Gill Sanderson has published just under 50 titles to date, which have been translated into 15 languages including Icelandic. You may be a little surprised not to have heard of her before now, given that track record, but you'd be more surprised if you met her since Gill turns out to be a trim, balding Yorkshireman who produces his books from a static caravan somewhere in the Lake District. I won't say "churns out" – the canonical verb for the production of Mills & Boon romances – because it makes "Gill" a bit testy to have his craft discussed in such a manner, and he's a man of sturdy clarity of mind. "I could never have a hero called Roger," he explained in Julie Moggan's True Stories film Guilty Pleasures, and he turned out to be equally dogmatic when it came to hair colour. Would he ever write a red-headed hero, Moggan asked from off camera: "Never have done, never will," Gill replied.
We all understand how a Mills & Boon documentary is supposed to go. On the one hand, you have the consumers – all mundane discontent and hopeless dreams – and on the other you have the synthetic tribulation and bliss of the books, cruelly exposing what's missing from their readers' lives. The prevailing tone will be one of amused condescension at best. And the tricky thing is that there's no getting round some degree of truth to this stereotype. Moggan's achievement was to give her film real emotional depth, without entirely depriving you of the pleasures of the mismatch between dream and reality.
Phil and Shirley – a Lancashire couple who initially appeared to exemplify the yawning gap between real relationships and fantasy ones – were enormously helpful in this respect. We first encountered Shirley reclining on her sofa with a Mills & Boon, box of chocolates and glass of rosé at hand (one of a couple of moments when I wondered whether Moggan had Photoshopped reality just a touch). Phil was in the kitchen, detailing the steady education of the senses he'd been engaged in. "When Shirley started off she would just about manage a korma," he said, "she thought they were furrly spicy... I've got her up now over the years where she'll do a madras, which is furrly hot, but she won't as yet do a vindaloo." Shirley, for her part, appeared to have a comically low threshold for romantic excitement. Phil was an impulsive type, she said, and when you got in a car with him you never knew where you might end up. "I mean to say Ikea! I'd never been to Ikea in me life before I met Phil, and I think that's the adventure of it." Whisked away to Blackpool for the day, Shirley was wooed with candyfloss: "Stuff yer face with a bag of that!" said Phil, suavely.
There was more here than met the eye though, as there was with Stephen, an American model who frequently poses for the covers of Mills & Boon books and turned out to be just as hopelessly lovelorn as the millions of women who fantasise about melting into his arms (a Mills & Boon novel is sold every four seconds, somewhere in the world). Stephen was hoping to encounter his "twin flame" or perfect partner, a concept he appeared to have gleaned from the giant stack of new age, self-help books piled by his bedside. But despite his beefcake good looks, he was lonely, reduced to chanting, "You are lovable, you are worth it" into his mirror to keep his spirits up. When he did finally hook up with a gorgeous woman he revealed an obsession with the cleanliness of his kitchen surfaces that did not bode well. We also met Hiroko, a disgruntled Japanese housewife whose romantic fantasies centred on ballroom dancing, and Shumita, an India woman haplessly waiting for her misbehaving husband, Sanjay, to return to her, and consoling herself in the meantime with books such as The Italian Billionaire's Pregnant Bride.
What Moggan showed you wasn't a revelation exactly – that real love will always depart from the Mills & Boon boilerplate that "Gill" was committed to. But it was very touching and it did supply some unexpected uplift. Hiroko's husband overcame his defects as a dance partner to waltz her to a victory in a local competition – a distinctly underwhelming romantic hero by Mills & Boon standards, but a real one nonetheless. And Phil, we learned, suffered from crippling depressions and had effectively been saved from suicide by Shirley's tender understanding that perfection only exists between the covers of a cheap paperback. Moggan supplied them with a classic "in-love" montage at the end, larking on the beach at Blackpool as The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" played on the soundtrack (Phil's choice). In a lesser film it would have been a sarcastic moment. Here, it was uncloyingly sweet – a happy ending that wasn't in denial about how fragile happiness can be.
Dreams were coming true in Britain's Next Big Thing too, a sort of Dragons' Den spin-off in which hopeful designers and entrepreneurs pitch their products to three big retailers. "For a lucky few, lives will never be the same again," said Theo Paphitis, supplying the kind of Mills & Boon copy line that is now obligatory in this kind of thing. Last night's episode began with Liberty in London and provided several "love- at-first-sight" moments, as buyers fell for novel accessories and high-end bits of bric-à-brac. If you can't afford real shopping, it does very well as a fantasy substitute.
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