I’ve stood on the sets of some classic sitcoms – The Young Ones, Blackadder and Absolutely Fabulous at BBC Television Centre, even Friends at Warner Bros in Burbank. Nothing quite beats lying in the Mediterranean sun by the pool of the Solana hotel, scene of so many tantrums, hysterics and heroic belly-flops in ITV’s hit show, Benidorm.
Today to my left, sheltering from the midday heat, is the urbane Kenny Ireland, who plays Donald the tubby swinger. We are wearing almost matching shirts.
Beside him, engaged in surprisingly polite conversation, is Sheila Reid – a world away from Madge, her foul-mouthed Benidorm alter ego.
Across the way, snoozing in the shade, is an all-round comedy god – Steve Pemberton (ex of The League of Gentlemen) who’s played work-shy Mick Garvey for nearly seven years.
As if to complete my fantasy sitcom tableau, Siobhan Finneran strides past my sunbed, all dolled up in an orange, butterfly-patterned maxi-dress. She of course plays Janice Garvey, Mick’s don’t-mess-with-me missus.
A few feet away, someone flabby and fully clothed is shoved into the pool…
I pinch myself. No, I haven’t dozed off and woken up for real in an episode of Benidorm. What’s disorientating is that everyone is dressed as their famous characters but it is actually lunchtime on set. Food is being served for the cast and crew under a canopy on an adjoining tennis court. After a quick bite, they’re grabbing half an hour’s downtime by the pool before going back to work.
The familiar lagoon-like pool, with its unimpressive Neptune fountain and sunken bar (where Mateo serves “all-inclusive” cocktails, if he feels like it), actually belongs to the Sol Pelícanos hotel. Behind a cordon, dozens of fans stand and gawp. Beyond that a sun-lounging area is packed with British holiday-makers eager to glimpse the stars off the telly. Sometimes it can take the actors half an hour to walk a few yards through the enthusiastic crowd.
It’s easy to forget how popular Benidorm has become since its 2007 debut, regularly pulling in an audience of seven million-plus. The show’s creator, Derren Litten, planned to call it a day two years ago, but the fans and ITV were having none of it. RT is on set for the sixth series (starting Thursday 2 January) and ITV has already commissioned a seventh. Benidorm goes from strength to strength. Stars clamour for roles – Joan Collins, a big fan of the show, jetted in to shoot an episode a few weeks before my visit.
It’s not all glamour, though. Far from it. It’s been a long day for the cast with a 5am make-up call. They’re filming across the road at Morgan Tavern, which doubles for Neptune’s, the Solana hotel’s karaoke bar we always see in the series.
The Solana, of course, doesn’t actually exist – or at least it’s realised via several different locations. The pool is half a mile from the hotel reception (left) and Blow and Go salon, which are a purpose-built set and part of a low-rise block with the show’s production offices on the upper floor.
Today, filming takes place entirely inside Morgan’s (aka Neptune’s). Along with a few other press hounds, I’ve been invited to watch some scenes involving a brawl and a disturbing revelation from Madge, which will appear in episode five. It’s supposed to be night-time, so Morgan’s has been wreathed in blackout cloths to block the sunlight.
We’ve been invited to interview the actors between takes in a “marquee” outside the tavern. The marquee turns out to be a green tent no bigger than a standard living room, erected to screen the actors from the horde of fans gathered on the street two feet away.
It is sweltering. The space is jammed with metal chairs and tables, and there’s one solitary cooling unit. This is where the actors “relax”.
Kenny Ireland plays backgammon with younger cast members. Sherrie Hewson is tweeting on her iPad. Guest star Matthew Kelly keeps a low profile behind a hardback novel (he doesn’t talk to the press).
As soon as we arrive, a stagehand passes us some anti-mosquito spray – “Hundreds buzzing around up there!”
As I said, little glamour. But I am more than happy. I’m going to be hanging out with my comedy heroes…