So I was chatting to a friend the other day in the pub, prattling on about all manner of minutiae – from heatwave hysteria to house music. Conversation soon turned to the subject of TV and the stupidity of this year's candidates on The Apprentice. Any takers for Neil's DIY estate agency? No, didn't think so.
"How could they pick HIM?" I asked. "These fools are supposed to be some of Britain's brightest young businesspeople." My friend choked on his beer, wiped the froth away and chuckled at my naivety. I had been duped. That's because it makes no sense to have a group of straight-laced and infallible high achievers on a show when the juiciest moments revolve around personality clashes, said moments of stupidity and dressings down in the boardroom. This is not documentary, no matter what the BBC tells you on the iPlayer (where The Apprentice is filed under "factual). The acid test is this: what makes great TV? And candidate selection is like casting, lest me forget the controversy and injustices of past X-Factors that have left a nation in mourning year after year.
I shouldn't be surprised by this thinly veiled deception on screen. The Apprentice has been with us since 2005 and its formula, although one based on competition as much as entertainment, is one that's best described as structured or staged reality – a buzz phrase that pierced the public consciousness in 2011 and heralded a new wave of obsessive viewing after Big Brother. To that category you can add the likes of TOWIE (The Only Way is Essex), I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, Geordie Shore and, of course, the infamous Made in Chelsea, which documents the trivial dilemmas and entangled sex lives of a bunch of two-faced twenty-something socialites.
The success of these TV shows, both in terms of viewing figures and social media buzz, has revived a long-running debate about the celebrity-obsessed culture of young Britain, with many claiming that these shows are dumbing down – possibly even corrupting – the nation. Not so, says BAFTA. Following TOWIE's YouTube Audience Award in 2011 (voted for by the British public), our hallowed institution of the arts created a new category to acknowledge a TV phenomenon – "Reality and Structured Factual". Speaking after the announcement, BAFTA Television committee chairman Andrew Newman said: "Over the past decade reality and constructed factual programming has captured the public imagination and been hugely influential, while innovating both in content and form." He went on to state that TV production and audiences were changing, and that BAFTA should change with it.
The Young Apprentice triumphed in 2012, followed by a shock win for Made in Chelsea, which prompted this dig from bemused host Graham Norton: "They were insufferable before – what are they going to be like now?" This followed a fuller outburst earlier in the week: "Made in Chelsea really is unwatchable. If you were in a restaurant, you would move tables so, why would you invite them into your home?" he sniped. Lord Sugar was similarly unimpressed. Earlier that night, I'm a Celebrity hosts Ant & Dec insisted that losing out to The Apprentice would be "more respectable".
Insufferable and disreputable they may be, but the cast are certainly going places. Next stop is the US, the land that spawned structured reality prototypes such as Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Jersey Shore. There Made in Chelsea is shown on the Style Network, a cunning ploy from TV bosses to capitalise on the 'Kate Middleton' effect apparently (that is, a renewed interest in the young and fashionable upper echelons of British society).
I wanted to take a closer look at TV phenomenon and to ask what keeps 'em coming back. Not everyone can stomach shows like Made in Chelsea, even within the industry. They divide opinion. A producer and a seasoned actor can have completely different takes depending on where their respective priorities lie – viewing figures or artistic merit. But the public is also torn. Here are several brain farts courtesy of Twitter and the Daily Mail comments section:
And one more, a damning verdict… "I have watched one episode of The Only Way Is Essex and it made me really sad; sad for the state of television, sad for the state of the country and sad that my wife was enjoying it too. But what makes me the saddest of all is the fact that (a) people actually WANT to be on programmes like this and (b) that they are seen as having 'aspirational' lifestyles. I suppose you could argue that it's all harmless enough, but who really aspires to be an orange-skinned, cosmetically-altered f***wit who's followed round by a TV crew all day?" – Unknown
There is a conceit at play, so obvious to some that the shows' creators are often not given enough credit. Speaking to the Independent a few years ago, Daran Little, who acted as story producer on the first series of The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, put it best: "At the heart of this was always a desire to put in the audience's mind: 'Is it real? Are they acting? Is it scripted? Is it not?' and to leave that as an open question for them." He goes on to outline the delicate process of staging. "If there's a boy and a girl in a scene, you'll pull them over individually and you'll say: 'Right, in this scene I want you to ask her what she did last night.' Because I know what she did last night, but he doesn't. Then we start the scene and they just talk it through and if it gets a bit dry, we'll stop and pull them to one side and we'll say: 'How do you feel about him asking you that? Because I think you feel more emotional about it. I think you're pulling something back. Do you think it's fair that he's asking you this?'"
Many characters in these shows provoke pure revulsion, not least Mr Spencer Matthews, resident love rat and baker boy of Chelsea.
A few howlers:
"I wouldn’t sleep with anyone other than my girlfriend ... at the moment."
"I’m so honest with everyone. Maybe it’s a downfall."
"It's kind of hard to respect you when you let me cheat on you.'
"Until the books closed, its open."
As Digital Spy have noted, "The debate really lies in just how 'structured' this 'structured reality television series' really is. Taken at face value, Spencer is a terrible human being and quite possibly the worst man on television. But if Made in Chelsea is as phoney as some critics have claimed, then we're all for Spencer's backstabbing, lies and cheating - it's simply great TV." And that's the point. It's the Marmite effect of the dastardly but lovable rogue and his on-off chums that keeps the majority of the public tuned in. Producers of these types of shows are experts at playing on the line, dreaming up awkward scenarios crowned with irresistible "I can't believe he/she said that" quotes. Creating that world for others to pick at, second guess and gossip about. And Twitter is the instant feedback loop, firing at up to 10,000 comments per minute, that allows them to fine-tune each episode, giving us more of the cringe and hilarity that we love from our favourite characters.
These shows are obviously more popular with the 16-30 age group, who are looking for light relief and something to chat about on a school night. But I am a few years beyond that mark and I still love Made in Chelsea, despite my inclination towards sombre art house films, introspective writers and obscure music. Series six can't start soon enough this autumn. So what's the attraction? Good old-fashioned escapism and silliness, I suppose. To that end, The Call Centre has also been hitting the spot although that's partly down to nostalgia I feel for my halcyon days, when I sold everything from electricity to accidental death insurance.
Whether they come from Chelsea or the Toon, these characters are not aspirational to me … no matter how much fun they have or fame they garner for no apparent reason. But there is a place for everything in our gargantuan schedule: the thought-provoking (Question Time, Dispatches, 24 Hours in A&E); the heart-racing (Luther, Richard II, live sports such as F1); the side-splitting (Alan Carr: Chatty Mann, Twenty Twelve, Britain's Got Talent); and the stomach-rumbling (The Great British Bake Off, Rick Stein's India).
To that list you can certainly add the aforementioned genre – for as long as the creators of Made in Chelsea continue to be inventive with their storylines. The Apprentice? I have time to that. TOWIE? Not so much.
Structured reality proves that the most compelling drama is often real life. Well … with a twist. And if you don't like it, as Bee-bee from Yorkshire says, don't watch.