Reality check: Nine civil servants who branched out into TV

From Love Island to Big Brother and Wife Swap, CSW looks back on departmental staff who’ve made a mark on the small screen
Mario Marconi is evicted from the Big Brother House in 2008. Photo: Doug Peters/Alamy Stock Photo

By CSW staff

18 Aug 2022

As the civil service’s thoughts turn to a summertime break from reality, and a bit of beach time – whether it’s Southend, Spain or San Diego – CSW looks at departmental staff who chose an altogether more public path.

This summer marks an astonishing 22 years since Big Brother became a UK TV sensation, leaving swathes of the nation hooked and sleep deprived, and whole other swathes unable to understand what the fuss was all about.

In the wake of the show, which originated in Holland and is due to be revived in this country by ITV2 next year, came Wife Swap, Love Island, and BBC 3 classic Snog Marry Avoid? – the latter lauded by news grandee Michael Buerk as “cutting-edge tripe”. Months later, Buerk would be reminded of his comments when he signed up for the 2014 series of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. Another one bitten by the bug to bite bugs, you might say.

Two years earlier, current culture secretary Nadine Dorries temporarily lost the Conservative Party whip for jetting off to Australia to take part in the 2012 series of I’m A Celebrity… . Surely a carte-blanche for current DCMS staffers to take advantage of similar profile-boosting opportunities while Dorries remains in post.

But reality TV is about so much more than fun and frolics in the sun. And some of CSW’s stars have excelled in other, more practical areas like cookery and attempting to evade police pursuit. How many do you remember?

Zara McDermott, a smiling woman in a red swimming costume standing in an ankle-deep body of water with Thorpe Park in the backgroundZara McDermott, Love Island (2018)

Department for Education policy adviser Zara McDermott apparently told colleagues she was taking a “career break” to work on TV, but not that it would involve appearing on the hit ITV show Love Island. Her stint lasted for 10 days of the series’ 50-plus day run. But to be fair, she wasn’t present from the beginning. DfE press officers were keen not to discuss individual staff members and appearances they may or may not be making on high-profile television shows. However they were able to confirm at the time that staff on career breaks were still subject to the civil service code. At least Zara’s presence gave them a get-out-of-jail card for watching Love Island at work.

Photo: Zara McDermott attends the launch of Love Island Lates at Thorpe Park in Surrey. PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Mario Marconi, Big Brother (2008)

Warrington civil servant Shaun Astbury used the name “Mario Marconi” when he was a contestant on the ninth series of Big Brother. Shaun joined the show with girlfriend Lisa Appleton, who outlasted his 37-day stay on the show by well over a month – jeopardising the fitness fanatic couple’s mantra of “sex at least once every day”, and all for the sake of reality TV. Shaun has since done voluntary work for the Youth Offending Service and used his celebrity status to criticise NHS cuts.

Sharon Gaffka, a young woman with dark hair wearing glamorous smoky eye make up and a beige dressSharon Gaffka, Love Island (2021)

Department for Transport operations manager Sharon Gaffka took a leaf out of McDermott’s book when she quit her job to take part in Love Island last year. She also did not tell bosses what her next move would be, prompting one departmental source to comment that “plenty of eyebrows were raised”. Before her appearance, Gaffka said she tended to go for extremes in partners, and was “quite an intellectual” so needed someone who could match that. She started the show from day one, but was dumped on day 19. She focused on women’s-rights activism and podcasting since the her exit from Love Island, and has not returned to government work – according to her LinkedIn profile.

Photo: Sharon Gaffka at the annual Nordoff Robbins Legends of Rugby dinner at Grosvenor House in February. LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo

Dawn Woolard,  First Dates (2020)

Ipswich civil servant Dawn Woolard is one of several civil servants and former officials to have appeared on the Channel 4 show First Dates. As of December 2020, she told her local paper she had been on more than 120 first dates – one of them was an episode of the fairy godmother of reality dating shows Blind Date. Sadly, Dawn’s Paternoster Chop House dinner with “gentleman” groundsman Paul did not progress to a second rendezvous.

Jude and Roy Sullivan, Wife Swap (2003)

Leyland civil servants Jude and Roy Sullivan appeared in an episode of Channel 4’s Wife Swap  after being cajoled into the move by colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. The show went on to rack up an impressive 6.5 million viewers. But Jude was less than impressed with the way it was edited. A burned Mrs Sullivan subsequently told a local paper: “I can be bossy but the programme didn't show the other side of my character.” She also said hubby Roy was not the control-freak he was portrayed as. Welcome to the world of reality TV, folks.

Luke Thompson, Great British Bake Off (2018)

Sheffield-based Department for Education staffer Luke Thompson came bottom of the class in the 2018 series of Great British Bake Off, the second series since the programme’s flight to Channel 4. Luke described his two weeks on GBBO as “amazing” but judges were less awestruck. They concluded his cakes were the poorest of the 11 contestants in the show across three challenges. One, a white-chocolate and raspberry cake, melted in the heat of the kitchen and the sponge was judged too tough. Ouch.

Photo: Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions/Channel 4

Dipa Jakhu Britain’s Best Home Cook (2018)

Wolverhampton-based civil servant Dipa Jakhu fared much better in Britain’s Best Home Cook, created by the BBC to fill the void left when the corporation lost Bake Off. Dipa was runner-up in the show, presented by Claudia Winkleman and featuring Mary Berry as queen of the judges. Her recipes from the competition can still be found on the BBC Good Food website. It may be no bad thing that she did not triumph overall in the competition. “I would just turn to jelly,” she told a local paper reporter who asked what she would do if she won. Hardly a just dessert.

Shoba Sehda, Hunted (2022)

Essex-based civil servant Shoba Sehda appeared on the BBC show Hunted with her dentist son Amarinder earlier this year. While a newfound lust for adventure on the cusp of one’s 60th birthday is a common experience, choosing to be pursued by trained police detectives while being filmed by a reality TV crew is not. “It's about time I do something for myself, so I'm going to go for it,” the administrative officer explained. The pair evaded capture for 12 days following the start of their adventure on the Isle of Wight. Better than any £100,000 prize, they at least got to see the historic Black Country town of Tipton before they were apprehended.

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