Noel Coward once said that “television is for appearing on, not watching”, but I’m not convinced. Since the turn of the century, I’ve turned down a vast array of reality shows, starting with Celebrity Detox and ending with Celebrity Big Brother — for which I forewent half a million smackers. Writers by their nature are not naturals for television, and after watching Liz Jones soliloquising about suicide and Germaine Greer vomiting on a carousel with a colander on her head, both on CBB, I’m glad I stuck to my decision.
That doesn’t mean I don’t adore reality TV. I’ve loved it in all its forms; the talent shows (The X Factor), the boss shows (The Apprentice), the scripted soap shows (TOWIE) and even the awful squalid ones about hoarding which seem to be the mainstay of Channel 5. I’ve never had a sex dream about an actor or pop star, but at the height of his Kitchen Nightmares I had one about Gordon Ramsay which lasted three consecutive nights. I’m hazy on the details, but it was immensely enjoyable and there was a lot of swearing.
But Britain’s talent shows ran out of talent a while ago: Simon Cowell cancelled The X Factor last year, after 17 seasons; The X Factor: Celebrity (2019) attracted fewer than 3 million viewers during its first live show — its lowest ratings ever. Compare that with the Will Young/Gareth Gates Pop Idol final, which was watched 20 years ago this month by 15 million people; I remember voting ten times for Gates before my husband hid the phone from me.
It’s never hurt that the sort of people I loathe — pretentious, pompous, right-on Lady Mucks — hate reality TV. See Annie Lennox, sneering that The X Factor is “a factory, owned and stitched up by puppet masters”. Lord forbid that people should want to watch something which amuses rather than lectures them.
Though the stories about My Gran Dying And I’m Doing This For Her got a bit much in the end, there were many beautiful moments backstage at the talent shows when a contestant’s working-class family could be seen embracing and praying, giving lie to all the snideness that the masses generally provoke from commentators.
The kids were refreshingly down-to-earth, too; 20 years ago, reality TV was just a gap year for fit proletarian youngsters. As Saskia Howard-Clarke, from season six of Big Brother in 2005, told me while I was making a documentary called Reality TV Is Good For You: “I knew when I came out of the house there wouldn’t be a limo waiting to whisk me off to Hollywood. I got some nice clothes, a couple of nice holidays. I’ve already got a nice boyfriend out of it. And soon I’m going to get back to work.”
But with the rise of social media, things have changed. Love Island is a springboard for smart, sexy young women (and men to a lesser degree) to monetise their youth and beauty the way a sportsman utilises his skill for that mayfly moment before wear and tear takes over. The suicides of Michael Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon were a field day for loathers of reality TV, but the idea that it was the uniquely empty and narcissistic milieu which caused these young people to take their lives doesn’t explain why, say, farmers — as far from reality stars as one can imagine — have such a high rate of suicide.
There was a great deal of self-righteous crowing when, in 2018, it was claimed that there were more applicants for Love Island — around 150,000 — than there were for Oxford and Cambridge combined. “What is happening to us?” wailed BBC Breakfast’s Dan Walker from his cushy billet. But in an age where social mobility is moving backwards, and in a country where the dull spawn of the famous pick up the few enjoyable and well-paid jobs once open to bright working-class kids — actor, pop star, model, journalist — should we be surprised? There’s also hypocrisy to all the shrieking: it’s fun and easy to be paid to be yourself — that’s what we columnists do.
So when the academic Danielle J. Lindeman, in her new book True Story, damns reality TV with faint praise as “a pop-cultural touchstone that… can help us to make sense of complex social forces”, you can’t help but feel her point is decades out-of-date. Today, reality TV has informed all parts of our culture and democratised it, adding greatly to the confusion and gaiety of nations.
We live in a world where Margot Robbie obsesses over Love Island; where Kim Kardashian retires from her show to become a lawyer and hold meetings with The Apprentice’s President Donald Trump. Then there’s Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who have become their very own reality TV spectacle: they are of interest only because they have us on the edge of our seats wondering who the heck they’re going to turn on next. The same is true of Boris Johnson — policy has become less important than whether Carrie Made Him Do It and his ongoing feud with Dominic Cummings.
Faced with these fantasies, both the Left and Right join in condemnation of reality TV’s hold over the youth of the nation, who should be stuck away in their bedrooms studying for Oxbridge rather than having a laugh in swimwear. But as in so many issues, politics has been left behind and the Great and Good can no more hold back the tide of populism than a Love Islander can walk past a beauty salon offering 50% off spray tans.
A recent survey found that those aged 18 to 24 are more likely (42%) than their elders (9%) to believe that “income level is the greatest indicator of someone’s class” and that a major decider of whether one is “upper class” is “going on luxury hotel holidays” and “multiple overseas holidays per year”. The mass exodus of Love Island alumni to Dubai during the first Covid lockdown so they could carry on their “work” as “influencers” personified this dream of being posh.
And in a way, it’s not as foolish as Victoria Beckham being called ‘Posh’ — chasing the sun is what the idle rich specialised in before they had to make it look like they were working. Faced with this new reality TV class, it’s interesting to see how many of the privileged, privately educated youngsters of Made In Chelsea made a reverse journey, choosing to enter the world of commerce rather than cruise on their trust funds.
More striking, though, was how it was one of the best and brightest reality stars who brought the Dubai influences down to earth. Olivia Attwood — of Love Island, TOWIE and Olivia Meets Her Match fame — was scathing in her mockery:
“So basically being an influencer is actually really hard and I can’t create content for you guys here at home, so I am going to have to go on holiday…. People literally can’t feed their children, and are being given these sad little bags of food from the government… Your ‘hard day’ is creating content that might get nasty comments and someone else’s hard day is a 12-hour shift and zipping up body bags at the end of it.”
It proved that, at a time when real stars of screen and music increasingly scold from the same hymn sheet behind the high walls of their privately-policed gated enclosures — capitalism is evil; transwomen are women; Palestine is real — the reality stars, unschooled in hypocrisy, can still be a breath of fresh air.
Let other critics sneer at the dreams of ordinary people reflected in reality TV — I’ll take a talent show over a Quality Drama showing the working-class being happy with their place below stairs any day.