One of the benefits of being an impoverished freelancer is that I can say yes when a very close friend asks me to accompany her to the "Friends Fest" on a random midweek day in September. "Friends Fest?" You ask. "Absolutely!" I reply, "a celebration of that American sitcom which has managed to enter every single British person's brain by a process of osmosis brought about by being played on an almost constant loop on British television."
I'll confess to loving a bit of Friends. I think if you did a bit of digging, most people would say the same thing. Nathan and I watched the entire box set, beginning to end, about ten years ago. I think we all wish we were part of a mutually exclusive group of six perfectly beautiful, deeply witty mates who live in an impossibly cool set of flats on Bleecker Street. Fortunately Friends never made it into the 2010s, or else we'd have had "the one where Monica gets chucked out of her rent-controlled West Village flat to make way for a Hotel Chocolat."
So, we arrived at Hylands House just after lunch and immediately found ourselves in a world which resembled a tatty summer festival. I think I was expecting everything to take place inside the house itself, but instead we were ushered to patch of scrubby grass in a far corner of the estate, where a series of marquees had been erected. It looked a bit pathetic. The Friends theme tune played on a loop. It must have been almost mind-numbing for the event's staff, most of whom seemed to be Welsh. A smattering of carts were selling Friends-themed food. One marquee had been set up to look like "Central Perk", the cafe which features so prominently in the show, but you couldn't buy anything to eat or drink there. What you could do was queue for twenty minutes to look at it, and then queue for another ten minutes to have your picture taken on something resembling the famous orange sofa and then stand on a little platform by the window holding a guitar whilst pretending to be Phoebe playing Smelly Cat. On an hourly basis, a staff member, would grab the guitar and do a mini concert of Phoebe's greatest hits.
You could queue to put on a ghastly prom dress to look like Rachel, or queue to have your picture taken in a Vegas wedding chapel to look like... actually I don't know. Elsewhere, there was a queue to be photographed in a New York-style yellow cab. People seemed content to queue.
A giant screen in the middle played episodes of the show on a loop, whilst people sat watching on deckchairs. An abnormally high number of the people there were fat. Many wore T-shirts which said things like "Joey doesn't share his food" and "Regina Phalange."
Llio and I queued up to have our photo taken on the opening credits set, with the fountain, the random Tiffany lamp and the sofa. I can't remember the fountain being made of polystyrene in the show, or any of the cast dancing on badly-fitted pieces of AstroTurf, but, as we reached the front of the queue, we were duly handed a couple of ghastly branded umbrellas and a member of staff grabbed Llio's iPhone telling us we could do two poses. Generous. The staff member proceeded to take about a million shots of us without once saying "ready?" or "smile." It actually made me feel rather anxious. There's definitely an etiquette to the art of taking a good photograph which most people don't seem to understand. Photographing by stealth never gets the most brilliant results! I watched a bloke later on taking photos of his wife holding Phoebe's guitar on the Central Perk set, and he kept pressing the button even as the poor woman was stepping down from the stage. I was standing behind him so could see what he was photographing. The final picture was a close-up of the poor woman's rather well-proportioned midriff, which will no doubt wreck her day!
The big draw of the fest was a "tour of the Friends' set" which you had to individually book for. Our allotted slot was 6.10 so there was slight panic in Llio's voice as she looked around the somewhat tawdry selection of attractions and said, "we'll have to look at every blade of grass."
After drinking some hot chocolate in the cafe tent next to Central Perk, and watching people shuffling around in semi comas, we realised it was going to be preferable to go away and come back for our set tour. We decided to go into Chelmsford, which threatened to take us from the proverbial frying pan into a pile of dung... As we left Friends Fest we asked the man on the door if we'd be able to come back. He looked confused before acquiescing, rushing to his table and grabbing a Sharpie. He then proceeded to draw a rather detailed little star shape on my hand which instantly looked like a blob as the blue ink sank into my pours like a badly done tattoo. It's still there now. Of course it is. It was drawn with a Sharpie!
We parked up in Chelmsford's Chelmer car park, which, for the record, is as badly signposted as it is impossible to pay for. Llio and I spent some time searching for payment stations and then minutes more trying to work out where to scan our ticket as we left the building. I tweeted Chelmsford Council to tell them how difficult we'd found the experience. It's difficult to know how they could have given less of a shite!
After drifting around the indoor market, which, according to publicity photographs on the outside, is full of smiling elderly people holding hands and buying cheese, we went to Queenie's, a highly charming little cafe, where Llio ate gluten free toast and I had poached eggs, because we know how to live.
We took ourselves for a post prandial walk around the city. Llio made the somewhat bizarre, yet accurate, observation that all the buildings in the centre looked a tiny bit smaller than you might expect them to look elsewhere. I don't know why this should be. Perhaps we've just got used to London where everything is maybe a little bigger?
Top of the list of things to do, in a city not blessed with a great list of things to do, is a visit to the suitably compact and bijou cathedral, which is a very calming place to be. Both of us were rather impressed by the pulpit. Is that what you call the place where old people mumble readings at carol services? Whatever it's called, it's a rather beautifully sculptured object made from organic ripples of leather-lined brass in the arts and crafts style.
We were lucky enough to be accompanied on our visit by an organist who played a wonderful Bach fugue which seemed to start when we entered the space and end as we walked out. The organist was highly skilled and played with great panache. It was a real treat. After the shallow impermanence of Friends Fest, it felt like a proper ascension from the ridiculous to the sublime, but, as Llio sagely pointed out, how lucky we are to know the difference.
We went back to the mayhem of the Friends event for our set tour, which, in fairness, was a huge improvement on everything else that was being served up, all of which had seemed somewhat shonky. We entered a marquee and immediately found ourselves greeted by glass cabinets filled with costumes worn by the central characters in the show, and various key props which had featured prominently, including Joey's huge cream dog. It was fascinating stuff but I got a bit irritated by the member of staff who showed us around, "have you had a good time so far?" She shrieked, to deafening silence which suggested everyone had had a rather similar experience to us. "Well I do hope you fans enjoy this part." And I realised at that point how much of an issue I have with the word "fan." It's a deeply dehumanising term which somehow turns a person into cattle. Fans behave in a weird way. They go to extremes. They make nuisances of themselves. Maybe you desire not to be a fan is the product of twenty years work in the entertainment industry!
From the room filled with props and things, we were ushered into the big draw of the fest, in the shape of a full-scale replica of the two main apartments featured in the show. I have to confess to being impressed. There are so many iconic aspects including that big sloping glass window in Monica's house and the little frame around the peephole in the door. Llio was in her element and it was a true pleasure to see her excitement and take her photograph in every corner. "I want to live in that world" she said, like a little child, as we left, "everyone's nice to each other and money never seems to be a problem."
And as we pulled out of the Estate's grounds, a sparrow hawk landed on the grass next to the road. It was no more than three meters away from us. What a lovely end to a brilliant day out.