Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Our evening at Fáilte Towers

"Oh, I think I have one of your bum cloths"
Michelle Heaton
"I've worked 50 hours in the last two days"
Sean Ó Domhnaill
Every opportunity is interesting - some more than others. When I was invited to take part in an episode of RTÉ reality series Fáilte Towers produced by the fantastic Adare Productions, I was initially hesitant. At least for a couple of seconds. Would it be worthwhile, would it be fun, would I look foolish? Would this be a bad move?

The premise is simple - Irish personalities (TV people, weathergirls, singers etc) running a hotel and being voted off. The bloggers seemed intrigued by how good it would be.

But you only get one chance at things, so why not? So thanks to a very supportive boss and an equally up for the craic partner-in-crime, Niamh and I set out for Fáilte Towers yesterday.

The Hotel:

The show is filmed at Bellingham Castle in Co. Louth, north of Dublin. It's been a hotel since 1968 and speaking to the owner (of 42 years) last night at the bar, it's a place normally used for functions, weddings and the like.

Despite a ban on cameras (the flash affects live camera filming) I was careful enough with ours to grab a few shots.

The show doesn't really capture the size or scale of the hotel, confining the on-screen action to certain, necessary areas. It is however very suited to the style of show - the hotel needs work and updating. It's quaintly decorated in a simple style reminiscent of the original Fawlty Towers hotel.

with certain smile-inducing Irish touches

After being stopped by security at the gates for a bomb-in-the-car-boot-check (seriously!), we made our way up the drive to a dry-ice smoke filled reception, (you couldn't make this stuff up) where we were greeted by a enthusiastic Brian Dowling.

It's always funny to meet TV personalities in the flesh - he's exactly as he appears on screen, even when cameras aren't rolling. But more on him later.

People with cameras were everywhere and while we eventually became comfortable with them, they were never not noticable. Usually (despite the evidence this blog provides) I'm video camera shy, but this wasn't too bad.

Our room wasn't ready when we arrived. When I say "wasn't ready", I mean despite being given the key and directed upstairs, we walked into a mess. No clothes on the beds, crisp packets on the bathroom floor and a coke bottle discarded on the bedside table.

"Uh oh" was the initial impression, especially having watched the first show and seen the disasters that beset them. Down to reception I duly went and returned with a terribly apologetic Brian who assured us it would be sorted and brought us down to the resident's bar where the evening's guests already seemed to be entrenched, being looked after by the gentleman that is Don Baker.

A complementary beverage later - Niamh had a wine (in a brandy glass), I had a Guinness, that, though poured by a novice barman was a very welcome nerve soother - Brian returned to tell us the room was ready. Up we went to meet Jennifer Maguire who had raced very effectively through the preparations to give us what turned out to be quite a nice room...

... with the odd reminder that the hotel wasn't exactly manned by professionals.

We opted for the first sitting of dinner, mostly because we were starving. Brian, still feeling embarrassed and responsible for the room issue, came with us from the bar to seat us, ("I'll look after you both now") talking with a familiarity that put us both at ease.

Having seen the previous episode and reading some newspaper articles about Fáilte Towers, I for one was wary about the food. These people aren't professional chefs, they're not used to cooking and serving food in this way and there was always the danger that things would go wrong in the kitchen.

And with a menu boasting starters of carrot and coriander soup, Thai fish cakes and a Goats Cheese salad and main courses of Roast rack of Lamb with rosemary and garlic potatoes, Sirloin steak and Mussels there was a lot that could go wrong.

I needn't have worried. The food was fantastic - and even more impressively so when we heard that the production team had switched the menu an hour before.

In such an artificial situation it's almost natural, though cruel, to look for defects, for things to complain about, to see if they could be better. While I daren't openly accuse any fellow guests of doing that (despite some seeming to), I found it almost impossible to fault anything. I haven't had as good a meal in ages.

I'd chosen a sirloin (medium); Niamh went for the lamb. Both were delicious, with a great garlicky flavour to mine. Dessert too - brownie for Niamh, lemon tart for me were both very tasty. The food arrived well presented, hot and yummy.

Camera men went around getting reactions of the guests. There was quite a mix. Models, teachers, culchies and actors all chatting and waiting to see what, if anything, would happen. Having a hotel inspector there too caused a stir.

Brian, Jennifer, Michelle Heaton and former MEP Patricia McKenna were serving the tables. At one stage Patricia confided that there were substantial whispers that Bertie Ahern was due in that evening. "Possibly to make me serve him" she said with a smile. It didn't happen. That would just have been weird.

Post dinner we went back to the residents bar to await the start of the live show and eviction. The locals from the village came up bedecked (very much so) in their finery, the cameras were moving and the tension high.

For those of you who haven't been watching, the show documents the day to day activities in the hotel and has a live show where one of the "celebrities" is evicted. Each personality is supporting a charity and the proceeds of the calls that the public make for their favourite celeb goes to their chosen charity. Therefore, the longer they stay in, the more money they make.

Before the television show (which we got to see some of) there was good craic in the bar. The nudists of that night's show posed for photos (hence Michelle's bumcloth remark), and we got to meet fellow guests on the night as we chatted about our shared surprise that "it's so real, they're working so hard." I was convinced the lovely Emily (below) was a reporter, she that I was a spy or something.

We didn't get to meet all of the celebs taking part, though saw many of them. On my own list to meet were broadcaster John Creedon, weather person Evelyn Cusack, model Clare Tully and the McCauls, primarily because of the charities they were supporting but also with a morbid sense of "Are they really like that?" that I sometimes indulge in. Unfortunately they didn't seem to be in the 'public' part of the hotel so the people we got to meet were:

Brian Dowling

Brian is *that* guy - the overly camp and effervescent winner of 2001's Big Brother and subsequent successful shows in Ireland and the UK. He is great. As I said earlier, completely personable both on and off camera, he took a real interest and ownership of each guest, working hard to help where he could, responding to everything with a smile or an inappropriate but funny comment.

It would be rather difficult not to like him, exuberant as his personality is, and as the lovely Marian tweeted me this morning, he'd probably be great to go for a pint with.

Don Baker

Don, a "renowned singer-songwriter and harmonica and guitar virtuoso" is a gentleman. His sincere warmth and humour behind the bar remained unaffected by the somewhat ridiculous demands of some of the patrons. He was plain spoken, polite and affable.

I had a long and very funny chat with him this morning before checking out where he - in a very cheeky and sarcastic, but still friendly mode - quizzed me about my friendship with Niamh, about Limbo and about my motives. I strongly think that he'll do well out of this. He's extremely proud of the funds he's raised for his chosen charity and he seems a positive influence on the younger staff who both liked and respected him.

Michelle Heaton

Niamh knows a lot more about this ex Liberty-x singer than I do, so she wouldn't have been familiar to me. She seems like a confident and able young woman, managing busy dinner tables, pulling pints or dealing with car alarms at reception with great ease.

She is not as "up herself" as she seems to be portrayed, though I did note her checking the mirror the odd time to see if her make-up was okay. She's actually quite ordinary in a nice way and I doubt the show is doing her career prospects any harm. It would be nice to see her do well, now that she's moved to Ireland.

Baz Ashmawy

Again my lack of TV watching let me down here, as Niamh told me who this presenter of How Low Can You Go and Celebrity Bainisteoir was.

Baz, who is co-presenting the show is a very ordinary, friendly and good natured bloke who spoke to the guests as easily has he did the celebrities or the cameras. Niamh says he's exactly like he is on the telly, and if his party antics last night (till nigh on 5.30 am) are anything to go by, she could be right.

Jennifer Maguire

The image above is how I had pictured Jennifer - an ex Apprentice contestant - would be. A hard-nosed, direct and intolerant woman who wasn't going to let anyone stand in her way, and as such would neither be approachable or fun.

Imagine my relief so to find that Jennifer, though very professional and productive with a good eye for detail in everything she does is also a funny, sarcastic and witty woman who is enjoying the experience as much as she can, despite how different it seems to be for her. I'm glad I met her in person, as the side we see on the show and on the Apprentice doesn't do her actual persona and character any real justice.

Bibi Baskin

Ahh Bibi. I'll admit that I had a great wish to meet this woman, not only because I grew up watching her on TV but because once again I had this desire to see if she was really as she was portrayed in this recent interview. Personally I don't get what happened with the journalist because the Bibi I met was charming, engaging and friendly to the random young man who shyly approached to say hello.

We chatted about her hotel in India - she moved there because of an interest in Deepak Chopra and Ayurveda - and she gave me her email address and a warm invitation to come visit. Despite working all day and having to make a brave but brutal decision to evict one of the celebs, she was both accepting and happy to talk.

It's easy to see why the woman was a sex symbol (I really wanted to mention the famous "Where would you like to be buried question...", but didn't) and she still oozes charisma and style. I'm glad I took the opportunity - it was a treat of the evening. I could have done without her telling me the hotel dressing room was haunted though...

Donna and Joe McCaul

If there are two people in that hotel that deserve to win by sheer dint of hard work, effort, personality and enthusiasm, it's Joe and Donna McCaul. Legends is not the word. Both with duty manager roles last night, they were anywhere they needed to be, with a smile on their faces and a warm word for colleagues and guests alike.

Donna is strikingly beautiful - much more than she appears on screen in my opinion. She played a blinder in the restaurant last night, not only serving and clearing tables but checking at appropriate times if everyone was okay, making sure complaints were dealt with quietly to the satisfaction of the guest and the contestant.

Nothing was too much trouble and she was happy to talk, to invite us to join them at the bar and to enjoy ourselves. A memorable encounter, albeit all too brief. I didn't get a chance to ask for a photo as she was working too hard.

Joseph, above with Niamh, seems very different to his sister, though in the best possible way. He's a guy who knows how to get things done the right way. His skill was in speaking to people, to making them smile and in making them feel good without them realising what he was doing. He's a smooth guy with an undeniable charisma that should mean success no matter what he does.

Yes, he has a strong personality but what may not transfer is that in no way is he vindictive, malicious or disruptive. Everything he does is with concern for others and in their best interests. He looked after poor Clare Tully after her eviction like she was a close friend, rather than someone he met a week before. Joe would definitely be someone I'd buy a pint for.

it's easy to criticise, to point fingers and say "ahh saps" as a lot of people seem to have done to the McCauls, but in person they, as individuals as much as a duo are so natural, so warm and so inherently Irish that it's hard not to want to hug them. For some strange reason I was proud to see how well they managed everything.

The eviction:

I was sorry to see Clare Tully leave, not only because of the charity she supported but how much she'd fought to get someone on her side in an effort to make a real difference. More-so than anyone else perhaps, you have to admire the guts of the girl - her decision to model as a page 3 girl would have garnered enough criticism - who chose not to let the naysayers get her down, but instead to use the publicity she'd been receiving in an effort to do some good. it's very admirable and I hope it stands to her.

Her departure seemed to have hit the participants hard, as I'm sure it will every time. Here's a team of people all training, living, working hard and laughing together only to be faced with the truth that they're all against each other, no matter how worthy the cause is. As Don pointed out to us, it will get harder - the less people there are, the more jobs per person there are to do. It's not a task I envy them, given how hard they all worked already. They're exhausted.

Their camaraderie too was impressive. Sean Ó Domhnaill arrived to the bar late to give Michelle a hand, giving her snacks and chatting with her and the other guests about how difficult the few days have been. Niamh and I joined Joe and Michelle outside where they - like any other colleagues - chatted about the jobs, about the pressures and about their experiences with the other participants.

In such a bizarre and unique situation, it was somehow both amusing and reassuring to know that these people were all doing it for the charities, for the fun and they wanted to make the best possible go of it.

Equally the production team were amazing, particularly Lisa from Adare who worked tirelessly to make sure everything went well. In reality things could have been a hell of a lot worse. A lot of professionals worked hard to make sure that didn't happen.

As for me - well there's a reason I include the photo above. I took this at 5.45am, when the bar had finally quietened down (residents staying up all night, doing dares, naked races and other such stuff!) and quiet sleep was finally beckoning. Suddenly a car alarm shattered the silence. And did so a number of times. Not wanting to cause trouble but just to see what could be done, I had to go down to the now shattered but still working and cleaning Michelle to ask if something could be done.

What happened next? Despite an expectance that it may be on the TV, I think we escaped the camera's watchful glare. The experience was enough - meeting lovely people and getting to see a different side of things once again. All the episodes will be online here.

Details on voting and the charities that you can help by just sending a text message are all here.

Our thanks to everyone who made this a memorable experience. We're both dreading seeing if we end up on camera, but if we do, please be kind in your feedback!


  1. Brilliant glimpse behind the scenes Darragh! I'm very jealous...not of any of the food or pampering or celebs, I've just had a random wish for rather a long time to get myself a cool piccie with one of those film shutterboard things that I just can't think of the name of right now....very cool altogether

  2. thanks for the link Darragh, I'm so glad that Brian Dowling was nice. He seems so nice on tv but all too often you discover that people have a tv face and a real face. Sounds like you had a ball anyway. Will keep an eye out tonight for ye.

  3. @ Sineadkeogh - it's a clapperboard. (one of the very few things my meeja degree taught me hehe).

    That sounds like such a laugh Darragh. I'll have to keep an eye out for you tonight :D

  4. What a laugh!!! :)

  5. I'll be watching tonight. Only caught about 10 minutes of the opening show but looked good. I have a problem with the amount of reality programmes RTE churn out but something like this is a bit of summer fun and the charity element is good too.

    Clicked through to the interview with Bibi Baskin. I think the journalist is making herself out to be all innocent. My reading is that she WAS getting at the "why is there no man in your life" with the way she phrased the question:

    "OK. And can I ask ... people looking at you from the outside in would say, 'Bibi Baskin -- a good-looking woman with a great career behind her, has a lovely hotel business built up in India, everything going for her ... but,' then there's a 'but'. And I think for everyone there's always a 'but'."

    Very bad piece of character assasination by the indo there in my opinion.

  6. That sounds lika fun experience.

    Where will you turn up next?

  7. If I knew this earlier I would've watched out for you.

  8. Which episode are you expecting yourself to not be in? :D

    I'd save the videos of all the episodes, but I don't want to clog up my hard drive :P

  9. Ah Darragh, you're far too nice! I get the feeling that you have buckets of zest and vigour for all life's got to offer and you emanate good vibes wherever you go...but I'm sure it was really another bloody dreadful, low-rent, tacky RTE production!

  10. Darragh, have to agree completely with your comments. These guys are working their butts off for their charities and dealing with the most ridiculous demanding and nutty situations that Adare Productions can concoct. We were part of the wedding on the show and I must say that (although it was fake) was one of the best "weddings" I have been at in years, i never laughd so much in my life !! Each and every one of the celebs did their utmost to deal with all of the (staged) calamities that occurred during the 24 hours we were in the hotel. At the same time they did look after each one of us with complete professionalism. they all deserve deserve to win, but more importantly deserve to raise lots of money for their charities just based on the hard work, good humour and sheer talent they have put into running a hotel. Well done to all of them !

  11. Great pictures, of both you and Niamh. Have to give you credit Darragh you do get around. Not impressed with the program but your post may make me take another look.