C4 has been accused of editing their latest reality series Love Thy Neighbour to paint the locals like backward hill-billies. So have broadcasters decided that reality television is now only watchable if it’s mixed with fiction?
In these brave, post-Big Brother times, producers are working hard to keep reality TV’s cogs turning. No one watches reality TV to see some actual reality, which, for most people, is cups of tea and chats about the rain. They watch it to see a frail Yoga teacher on Come Dine With Me sob when the cat pukes in her cauliflower cheese, or the carnivorous country-type openly laughs at her vegetarian moussaka.
Producers turn some pretty dirty tricks to get the ‘performance’ they want out of their subjects. Most of the time, that means finding ways round the boring propensity of most people toward getting along fine by sticking in a large, sh**-stirring oar. Take personality clashing – the Coach Trip formula – get a lanky-haired druid couple in an enclosed space with two members of the Tory youth, and film them bitching about each other. Some shows, like ITV2’s awe-inspiring The Only Way Is Essex, even admit to scripting scenes for the ‘viewers entertainment’.
Not so damaging, but there are far more complex ways to cause a stir, and then edit it into a 45-minute package. Especially for the villagers of Grassington, the picture box Yorkshire village featured in Channel 4’s Love Thy Neighbour. Or should I say, townspeople, because it’s actually a decent sized rural connobation of nearly two thousand. Not that you’d know that from the Hovis-ad depiction in Love Thy Neighbour, a show that pits 12 families against each other in order to win a £300,000 house. The twist is, residents of the town vote for the family they want in. Seems innocent enough, until you factor in some stereotypical ‘rural prejudices’, and the whole thing starts looking like a badly judged episode of Last Of The Summer Wine, guest written by Jim Davidson.
The first episode saw a (whisper it) black family come to try and make their home in Grassington – all too predictably greeted with statements like “I was 18 before I saw a black person,” and the old “I’m not racist, but…” Only, it didn’t seem that plausible. Because, when greying women sat behind spinning wheels (I’m not joking) weren’t making archaic remarks, the family were visibly well recieved. As an aspiring Tory politician, Phillip, the father, was a smash hit in the town, a Conservative-stronghold. They roundly trounced the opposition (a white middle-class family) in the vote-off and sailed into the final.
Channel 4’s trailing of the show however, was laden with the racist remarks. The next week a lesbian couple competed against a single mother, and the exercise was repeated – a wealth of offensive comments from largely the same residents, with the lesbian couple subsequently winning the vote. Almost as if the producers were trying to ramp up the ratings by rehashing some old and, largely, untrue stereotypes. Managing to present the town entirely devoid of its Bangladeshi curry restaurant, and, ofcourse, its non-white residents, they also fail to mention its proximity to Bradford, one of the most multicultural places in the UK.
At least The Only Way Is Essex puts its cards on the table, declaring itself a fakery from the outset. Maybe telly’s bigwigs have mined as much as they can from real people. Maybe reality, with its balanced views and chats about the rain, is just too boring for TV after all.