DON’T WORRY; TO my knowledge the above programme isn’t being commissioned. But don’t hold your breath, because a reality show following the lives of a greengrocer and a hay farmer from Devon isn’t out of the question these days. However, I recently heard that a Made in Brixton is in the works. I shudder as I type these words, but in all honesty, it was inevitable. It’s strange to think – quaint, almost – that just ten years or so ago, television was just a landlord to a handful of reality shows – Big Brother and Castaway come to mind – with the general audience tuning in elsewhere. And my, how it’s all changed. This landlord has now become a weak and submissive next-door neighbour to the rave of reality TV shows going on next door. Everybody’s there – whether you want to watch people crumbling at the sight of an over-baked treacle tart (which I quite like watching, by the way) or an airhead from Rochdale convinced she’s the next Kate Moss, or a grandmother forgetting she’s neither Bonnie Tyler nor twenty-two years old, to dancing children, dancing celebrities, dancing dogs… there’s something for everybody. Yet even with this vast range of entertainment, there is another phenomenon that has so many people chomping at the bit to watch.
Imagine, for a moment, Essex. What do you see? Well, certain people – some of whom are unaware that Essex is actually a county – believe that it is a land of highlights and bikini waxes, where clubbing is a way of life and everybody speaks as though they’ve walked out of a Martina Cole novel. Credits go to The Only Way Is Essex. I have seen chunks of this BAFTA-winning programme, and when I did, my eyes and ears were instantly scorched. When I eventually got used to the accents and had begun writing down a mini dictionary of their vocabulary, something occurred to me: how on Earth does this programme, with its fake everything, make for compulsory viewing for hundreds of thousands of people across the country? Quickly I turned over, feeling like a married man watching hardcore pornography. I felt horribly wrong watching this programme – conformist, dirty, shameful. I remembered a conversation with a girl from Southend (you can pronounce it ‘Saaafend’ if you like) who assured me that this image isn’t all that accurate. That’s not to say the classic ‘Essex Girl’ image is a new trend, because my parents will tell you otherwise, but what’s happened to the nice Essex, with its countryside and coastline? Why don’t people think of that? Who knows. It’s still there, I believe, but obscured by a ‘reem’ mask of peroxide and fake tan. And if we head an hour so west, into the fringes of central London, something similar is taking place.
Over here it’s not quite as brash, you know, but, yah, it’s just, you know, similaaar? The people of Chelsea, who are apparently ‘Made’ here, seem to have the same problems as those in Basildon. They’re generally less orange and better-dressed, yes, but the essence of the programme is completely the same. I admit to having watched around eleven minutes of this show, where a couple were stood (perfectly positioned, coincidentally) on Victoria Embankment with the London Eye in the background, arguing about some girl he’d apparently been sleeping with. And guess what? As awful as I feel for saying this, I was quite intrigued to find out the truth. Fortunately for me, however, after much ‘yah-ing’ and tutting from the pair of them, this BAFTA-winning programme soon cut to break and I had the chance of an escape. It was a close one, and I nearly fell into the same snare as everyone else. But at that point I realised what made these shows so popular. It wasn’t like watching a soap opera or film, where everyone is acting, and it wasn’t like watching a fly-on-the-wall, either. It was different. It was as though I was there with them, invisible, but listening to and watching everything they did and for that reason, I understood this sort of ‘secret’ addiction to watching. I’m not going to lie and say I’m not even a little bit nosey, because I’m British – we all are – but this was so intensely and weirdly voyeuristic that it gave me a reason for feeling so dirty.
Myself aside, what I find astounding about these programmes is that the people who watch them are highly selective in their viewing. ‘Yeah, I watch TOWIE,’ one might say, ‘but I hate Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore.’ Correction: you cannot like one and hate the other. You dislike the characters, or their problems, or their houses, their pet pug or Porsche Boxster, but not the programme because they are so fundamentally identical. These programmes aren’t limited to just Essex and London, either. You can find their cousins in Newcastle, Wales and Liverpool, too. And on that note, you could have a bit of fun trying to make up (perhaps plausible) variations: Made in Cornwall, Aberdeen Shore…
Joking apart, credit where credit is due. Hats off to the creators of these shows who have clearly cottoned on to something hugely profitable, but once more we have to look to the States for the source of this epidemic of entertainment: The Hills and Jersey Shore – the grandmother and -father of the British grandchildren are to blame. Ironically with these programmes – and reality TV in general, I suppose – the trying-to-be-a-celebrity culture has eclipsed the celebrity culture itself and as such, the ‘actors(?)’ of these shows themselves are now stuck half-way between normality and some quasi-celebrity status. If watching these programmes really makes people happy, then good for them for getting such instant gratification. However, I am harder to please, particularly when regional identity is tarnished because of an exploited stereotype. Talking of which, another show like this is coming to my neck of the woods in Surrey – Surrey Hills – and although I could wax lyrical about how it will portray the county in a horrendously-exaggerated and narrow light, I will restrain myself from doing so for the sake of my health. And the reason for my blood boiling? Channels such as MTV and ITV2 churning out tripe like this on a continual basis, inspiring people to have the IQ of a young wasp and skin the colour of a Wotsit. Blurgh.
So The Only Way Is Made In Newton Abbot? Maybe, but I will stick to Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday night.