The Only Thing You Should Be Watching

ALASDAIR PAL enjoys the vajazzle, vodka, and voluminous breasts – but, in reality, the scripted dialogue of The Only Way Is Essex leaves much to be desired.

Big Brother Essex Hertfordshire Kirk Nuts Reality TV Seven Days vajazzle Zoo


Reality TV used to be simple. Round up a few ordinary boys and girls. Stick ‘em in a house. Play with the dynamics a bit – an alcohol ban here, a rogue alarm there. Watch the media go wild, and the viewers the same. Winner.

Big Brother, at least initially, was a phenomenal feat of programming. But then things got a little tricky.  Shows fell into two camps: keep the format, and pepper the contestants with transsexuals, albinos and the mentally ill; or transfer to a beach, or a farm – or a space ship plonked on a Suffolk air base.

The axing of Big Brother will probably mean the end of the geographically fixed, time constrained reality show. So what next?

Enter The Only Way is Essex, ITV2’s new flagship project. For the uninitiated, a recap: TOWIE follows a gaggle of club owners and glamour models, as they drink, wax and spray-tan their way around the county.

There’s Mark, a magnet to anything with hair extensions, and by all accounts, a bit of a shit. He’s been with Lauren on and off for nine years, except he now has his eyes on Sam, because she’s been in Nuts and everything. Nanny Pat, Mark’s grandma and psychotherapist, is on hand with bread pudding and a stack of ironing. Meanwhile, Kirk is set on Jordan look-a-like Amy, and gets the tattoo to prove it. Body art is a pretty strong theme in TOWIE, as you’re about to find out.

Filmed in the style of The Hills – following the lives of real people, but with scripted dialogue – the producers inject a bit of comedy. Kirk wants to take Amy to the zoo for their first date, but the old girl ain’t so sure.

“What’s wrong with a drink?”, she says. Poor Kirk: he was only trying to be creative.

“If you’re not careful ah’ll feed ya to the lions.”

“Yeah, well if you’re not careful ah’ll feed ya to the elephants!”, fires back Amy, clearly unaware of nature’s pecking order.

And then there’s the beauty treatments. Amy and Sam get dead skin sluiced off by mini-carp in a jacuzzi, their buoyancy aids bobbing on the surface. It’s a strangely arresting sight, like watching a family of Moomins being savaged by piranhas. Last week, the vajazzle made its UK TV debut. Lauren was going to get one done, but she’s already got a twattoo – sorry, tattoo – of Mark’s name down there. Tasteful, as the girls describe it.

The show has been met with predictable outrage from Essex folk, but that isn’t really the point. In the past, participants would at least wait a few weeks before getting their kit off for cash. For the stars of TOWIE, however, nudity is a pre-requisite for the promotions team, and so in launch week, Sam posed for The Sun, with Mark only getting a golden retriever for cover in Heat. (They’d presumably had a fire in the props department.)

All of this disguises one important thing: people are boring. Just tally up what you’ve done today. Fancy a documentary? Didn’t think so. Nobody thought Big Brother was actually real, and that the housemates actually lived in a prefab studio in Hertfordshire. But the four walls did give a sense of drama, something which nu-reality sadly lacks – as anyone who has caught some of the awful Seven Days will testify. Throwaway lines are great, but when you’re encouraged to let the characters know what you think of them on Twitter, you’re going to get a feedback loop of some people telling other people what to do, and having a scriptwriter insert a few jokes when things don’t go right.

Reality TV is slowly cannibalising itself, and soon only Nanny Pat’s bread and butter pudding, and a couple of pairs of implants will remain.