Last Spring, écovallée got a phone call from ITV asking if we’d be interested in being filmed for “Little England” – a 12-part prime-time TV series scheduled for broadcast later in the year.
Four and a half years ago we’d have said no.
We’d just had the BBC round to do a piece on the Daughter’s school in Brighton. A very well-dressed, well-spoken guy showed up at our house at 7.30 in the morning. He did all the filming himself, and the sound recording, and the interviewing, filmed some more at the school, and even more at a political party conference, then cut together a few minutes for the lunchtime news and a longer special report for that evening. He was incredible – and incredibly nice – and I guess he worked that hard every day.
But for us, once was enough. It was a strain having to edit what you were thinking before you said it out loud. Her Outdoors did brilliantly, producing amazing soundbites from nowhere (and I’m supposed to be the writer), but afterwards she said: ‘Never again’. I had to agree – even though we were about to leave the country for rural France.
We didn’t want cameras in our faces when we were screwing up, exposing our total ignorance, shouting, crying, bleeding and everything else we expected to experience as we went from suburban family to yurt-dwelling smallholders. We wanted to enjoy it all privately.
OK, I’ve blogged the whole thing. But Her Outdoors has always said these posts lack emotional content. Having re-read them as background to a book I’m writing, I see what she means.
I’ve always tried to make light of what we’ve been through in “Dordogneshire”. But for far too long, it was hell. We lost a load of money, were ripped off, lied to, misled, exploited and punished for being English – and we discovered this is normal. I read recently that 18 out of 20 ex-pats who move here return to England, broke and broken by the experience. It sounds a lot, but it’s possible. Most of the people we know live in some kind of survival and they all have horror stories to tell.
It would make great telly. But that’s not what Little England is about.
Little England is about the sunny side of the Dordogne, which is one of the reasons we said yes to doing the show (not just because the producers are so nice – or for the free publicity). It’s gentle, feel-good TV with beautiful scenery. As a viewer, I think some shows have worked better than others. As a participant, I hope Geoffrey Palmer goes easy on us. But as someone who’s made the move, I want to warn people who might be tempted to follow the thousands of people who have made this part of France their home.
Yes, it’s a beautiful place (we didn’t know quite how beautiful until after we moved here). Yes, you can buy a large property for a relatively small amount of money (still well over-priced, as French and English alike attempt to take advantage of newcomers’ ignorance). Yes, the sun shines a lot (which is why we chose this part of the country to live under canvas). But as the occasional comment in Little England reveals, making a living here is unimaginably hard.
We haven’t done it yet. Last year’s money from the yurts went back into the infrastructure, buying the solar shower, gravel filter, new canvas and more. We’ve only survived at all thanks to the overwhelming generosity of what I call the English mafia, our friends and family, and the eventual backing of our mayor.
From next year, depending on the economy, we will move from survival to thrival (Her’s Outdoors’ expression – see what I mean about sound bites?). It feels like we’ve gained many lifetimes of experience over the last four and a half years. It’s been a genuine emotional rollercoaster, with elation, horror, fear, love, pain and joy – and our world’s been turned upside down many times.
I don’t know what exposing ourselves to an audience of several million people will do (we’re due to appear on November 14th and December 5th on ITV1, at 8pm), but it felt right to say yes. Whatever happens, we’re determined to enjoy the ride.