Wife Swap...The Best Of Series 1 & 2 Review
I'm not proud of it but I once lived in Harlow. Before moving there, it was introduced as having a nightclub, Heights 2000, where, if you didn't score in the first ten minutes, you got in a fight. And what with it being in Essex, that was not a particularly Herculean task as it was entirely possible to enter the club, get a drink, meet someone, find out all that you'd really ever want to know about them and be together in a taxi outside the club all within the requisite time.
It's the home of far, far, far-right group Combat 18 and if you're ever in a mood to see some of society's more dysfunctional members, visit the Harvey Centre on a weekday afternoon. When a major employer in Basildon announced a relocation to Harlow, its employees begged it not to. If nothing else were to convince you, imagine how bad a place must be for people Basildon to beg not to go there. And if it were a television show, Harlow would be Wife Swap. As in Heights 2000, the threat of conflict or, more simply, of outright violence, is never very far away. There's an air of a class divide about it, as in the population of Old Harlow stressing that they live apart from those who occupy the New Town and, speaking as a viewer, one gets a feeling of outright superiority when watching the show that I can only describe as similar to that I used to get whilst driving down Mandela Avenue.
Despite each show having a feeling of respectability about each show, the principal feeling in both families appears to be the desire to avoid looking stupid, bigoted, embarrassing or just plain ugly in a casual outfit of leggings, CozyToes and an oversized T-shirt. Each episode gives the participants the opportunity to look their best, standing on the doorstep of their home with a nervous, unsure look about them, very much like the volunteers at magic shows. As the cameras blend into the background of another family's home furnishings, though, and the relationships with another woman's family begins to break down, so honesty becomes the only, if not the best, policy. And it is then that the makers of Wife Swap, seeing how brittle the situation has become, surely begin to congratulate themselves on how well the couples have been set up.
The makers of Wife Swap appear, through watching the episodes on this DVD, to hold dearest to the notions of class within society, often pairing a defiantly middle-class family with one of a slightly lower class. Such distinctions would fair make Class War or Socialist Worker proud as the middle class family, notionally happy in their semi- or fully-detached house in the suburbs are revealed to be overbearingly strict parents. The poorer, working class family, boxed-up two-to-a-room in a terraced house on the other hand, are first shown to be slobs whose only exercise is balancing an ashtray on their bellies are then revealed as the parents of happy children whose only faults are an excess intake of saturated fats and refined sugars.
Of course, class is but the simplest way of creating conflict and Wife Swap does occasionally experiment with other means of causing disagreements between the families, such as the gruff, ex-miner Nigel scoffing at the New Age, digiridoo-playing Darren. As such, Wife Swap flirts with the more varied means of provoking hostilities that was employed more successfully on BBC's Living With The Enemy but where that series featured such fiery meetings as Class War member David Douglas living with Lord Rowallen or homophobes Mick and Wayne spending a week with gay couple Mark and Paul, Wife Swap feels as though it dearly wants an argument but, when it arrives, it is often only over the minutiae and irrelevancies of life. Living With The Enemy fought over big ideas - class, faith healing, legalisation of cannabis, etc. - whereas the participants of Wife Swap feel compelled to come to blows over who cleans the fridge and whether the dogs go outside. Much of this results from the involvement of the children in disagreements between the adults, who often look to the youngest in the house as a reason to start an argument, leading to fights more often than not end with slammed doors and shouting. That is there is little that is articulated about the bad feelings that exists in these shows is not surprising given that the reasons for these conflicts are not beliefs that are actually worth fighting about but are no more than habits that the couples have drifted into over time. When the arguments take place, it is only from the participants being challenged over how comfortable and routine their lives have become and rather than admit that there is scope for improvement or change, they first become defensive and then aggressive.
Unlike Living With The Enemy, which showed how uncomfortable the participants could become, there is often an entirely satisfying moment in Wife Swap when small changes begin to occur, the defensiveness from early in the episode starts to fade away and those involved in the show begin to relax and make the most of the scenario. Examples of this are when Dave, in the first show, gives Sonia a thoroughly warm welcome into his family despite his wife Dee worrying that he won't be happy. It's unlikely that Dave is a racist, more that he lives in a community in which there are no black people and despite Dee's fears, Dave spends the last night that he has with Sonia in a soul club, looking genuinely happy. Similarly, Roy, with help with Belinda, learns to relax in front of his stepchildren and to play with them, such that his stepson calls him 'dad' for the very first time. But the best ending is saved until last when, having had the househusbands swap places, everyone comes around a table before parting as friends. Contrary to the popular view of Wife Swap, in which the likes of the abrasive, stroppy Lizzie are held out as being the best examples, it is these nice little moments that stand out but, unfortunately, are not the ones that, through their edited highlights at the beginning of each episode, the makers of this show would like us to remember.
This two-disc set contains six full episodes from Wife Swap, as follows:
Dee And Sonia (s1e1, 48m49s): When Sonia and Dee swap places, Dee's husband Dave surprises himself by offering Sonia a warm welcome into his come but his eldest daughter, Mary, is itching for a fight. Dee, however, has a hard time getting herself out of the armchair for long enough to clean the house the way Lance wants it. Things get worse, though, when she calls him Hitler and he tells her that she's fat.
Michelle And Carol (s1e2, 49m08s): Pete is one relaxed man and takes the presence of swapped wife Michelle into his home with the air of a man who is little troubled by the world. Barry, on the other hand, expects his wife to serve his every need and isn't afraid of telling Carol to hurry up with his breakfast so he can settle down in front of teletext and to begin a day of professional gambling. As Michelle can't believe how much time that she now has on her hands and how much like a family life that Pete has with his kids, theatre director and creative arts teacher Carol struggles with Barry, who proudly lets her know that, "My job is relaxation and enjoying myself. That is what I class as a full-time job!" Oh, to even have but a short stay in Barry's world.
Jane And Nicola (s2e1, 48m58s): Interior designer Nicola, although you wouldn't think it to look at her house, disagrees on almost everything with husband Jason as he locks himself away to play PlayStation whilst she does all the work and looks after the kids. All that they do agree on is that money is nice whereas Dave and Jane think that family life and laughter is more important. Nicola leaves her mansion in Wales, although at only five bedrooms, it stretches the definition of 'mansion' somewhat, for Jane's house but a surprise awaits them - Dave and Jason are brothers but they have not met in nine years, do not know each other's children and have never been to the other's house.
Lizzie And Emma (s2e2, 48m43s): In what is undoubtedly the most well-known episode of the series, Lizzie leaves Mark and their eight kids to live with Colin and his two, whilst his wife, Emma, is driven away from her detached house in Devon to Lizzie's terraced house in Rochdale. Proudly ambitious and aspirational and about to open her own restaurant with Colin, Emma is shocked at the thought of living on benefits with unemployed Mark, despite them having an annual income of £10,000 more than she and Colin, whilst Lizzie has the measure of Mark after their first meeting, describing him as, "All man and no balls!"
Belinda And Jude (s2e5, 49m08s): Civil servant Jude leaves her two children and husband Roy to swap places with Belinda, who leaves Geoff and two girls behind. Uptight Roy, stepfather to Jude's children, who runs this house like an army training camp is taught by Belinda to relax whilst Jude struggles to keep hold of her rules in an 'anything goes' house.
Nigel And Darren (s2e6, 49m06s): In a twist on the show, two househusbands swap places as their wives continue to work with Nigel, who does all of the housework in his house, moving to share a house with Alex, her son and two dogs in the kitchen whilst Darren leaves behind his one child to move into a house with seven. All that it takes for Nigel to put down his pinnie is a ride on a motorbike when one of Darren's friends call round, whilst Darren struggles to get Nigel's wife more involved with the children, not believing how lucky but unappreciative she is.
Presented anamorphically in 1.78:1 as it was originally shown on Channel 4, Wife Swap looks as well as it did on its original broadcast but, thankfully, without the adverts. The picture is a little soft and the colours somewhat harsh but this is exactly how the original viewers would have seen it.
The soundtrack is, again, in the 2.0 Stereo that it would have been broadcast with and is fine if tested by the screeching of the participants in the show.
Given that most television shows that are released on DVD are shipped without extras, it is surprising that Wife Swap has a good spread of special features.
Wife Swap Extra: Each episode has a five-minute featurette allowing the production crew to highlight the best behind-the-scenes moments, many of which are obvious choices. On the Lizzie and Emma show, for example, the production team highlight the tension of the final meeting whereas, in the Jane And Nicola episode, it is the smile on Jason's face after accompanying his son to karate for the first time.
There is, however, the occasional gem such as the time during the making of the show that Lizzie left the house for a hotel and threatened to call the police claiming that she had been kidnapped.
Each of the Wife Swap Extra featurettes are available as an extra after the corresponding episode or they are all included on Disc 2 in a single feature (31m47s), which includes a two-minute chapter on how successful Wife Swap has been in terms of ratings and awards.
Household Manuals: Each couple, before their show is made, has to complete a manual to give the incoming wife a summary of life in their new household and four of these are included on this release for the episodes with Jane And Nicola, Lizzie And Emma, Belinda And Jude and Nigel And Darren. As with Wife Swap Extra, these are available alongside each corresponding episode as well as being placed within a single feature on Disc 2.
Wife Swap Changed Our Marriage (49m09s): This is the perfect feature to go with the series and follows up a number of the episodes with a look back at how Wife Swap affected the participants. Dave and Dee consider how much stronger Dave became in the marriage and how their daughter calmed down, Lance and Sonia admit that they became closer after filming finished and Michelle is proudest of having seen Barry now make his own breakfast and the topless spread that she did with the Sunday Sport.
I think the function of Wife Swap is threefold - one, to allow the viewer to peep in at the lives of two other couples; two, to feel better about their own life by thinking, "Thank God I'm not as bad as that" and, three, to allow slight doubts about a marriage or relationship to surface and to take action before ending up like the participants here, who are often seeing their marriages failing without ever realising it.
That said, this DVD is a neat little package of all of the best episodes and moments from others but I'm still not sure that I like it. At times, it's uniquely terrible and it is easy to turn away from the awful, awful people that it features but there is the very occasional moment in which it works out, such as the ending of the Nigel and Darren episode in which you see some of the best of people. Whether that is enough to part with your cash is entirely up to you.