Are the latest crop of reality TV shows, such as Geordie Shore and The Only Way is Essex, celebrating cultural diversity or mocking their participants?
Julia Raeside ? writer and broadcaster
The current crop of "scripted" reality shows are all tagged on their location: Essex, Chelsea, Newcastle ? and now there are two new shows set in Liverpool, Mersey Shore and Desperate Scousewives. A case of nail the cute geographical pun and then cast your net for the fame-hungry. A quick look at the websites where the production companies advertise for contestants gives a strong hint as to what they're after. The makers of Desperate Scousewives seek "cunning Liverpool ladies" who want to marry a footballer or snag themselves a "moneybags husband". Not exactly a balanced view of young Liverpudlian women, is it? I sympathise with Liverpool MP Steve Rotheram who last week said these shows will further confirm the negative image of scousers. Of course they will. Producers aren't looking to cast a broad spectrum of "types". They want animated tabloid stories to increase the accompanying column inches when they unleash their new "stars" on the British press. What The Only Way is Essex has done for that rather beautiful county, these new Merseyside shows will do for a city that has already had to endure some of the worst press of anywhere in the UK. Liverpool has had a hard enough time with shows such as Bread and Brookside depicting locals as lazy, stupid and dishonest. These new programmes do nothing to dislodge age-old stereotypes.
Paul Flynn ? contributing editor, Attitude magazine
You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they'd make deathly dull TV and wouldn't want to be on it, anyway. Good luck in watching them. Oh, and enjoy those beautifully wordless pastoral landscapes of the rolling Essex countryside while you're at it. The cast of Geordie Shore ? my personal TV highlight of the year ? are exhilarating viewing. Nobody is saying that these good-time, tough, resourceful kids, marked by their twin generational obsessions with extreme vanity and extreme hedonism, reflect a complete image of Newcastle, just as Desperate Scousewives could hope to represent a full picture of Liverpool. But they do reflect one aspect of it; precisely the aspect casting directors are looking for. For anyone that has fallen out of a nightclub on the Bigg Market at 2am after a night of howling laughter, tears, recriminations, falling out, making up, copping off and dancing to Rihanna, the tenderness and camaraderie behind Geordie Shore is an eloquent, if exploitative reading of one strain of Newcastle youth. On the Brookside point: really? Those episodes that Jimmy McGovern, one of the greatest TV scriptwriters ever to work in British telly, wrote in the late 80s set a new template for working-class TV. They brought discussions of rape, racism, Aids, mass unemployment and union politics into northern homes weekly, exquisitely. Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life. I am one (Mancunian).
JR: It's got nothing to do with snobbery. I don't want "regional types" barred from television, I'm one too (from Essex via the Midlands). I love a lot of reality TV and have been devoted to Big Brother since it began. The incredible mix of cultures, classes and ages that come together every year make it utterly compelling to me. I'm not pushing for a schedule full of programmes about middle-class dinner parties, although Come Dine with Me is pretty popular. The context you see people in on television is everything. Straight documentaries stand back and observe, they don't have storyline producers. These "structured reality" shows are made by soap producers and writers. They round up scantily clad women and sex-obsessed lads desperate to take the shortcut to fame and egg them on to play up the worst elements of their characters for the camera. It utterly exploits their naivety about television editing and the impact it could have on them. The episodes of Geordie Shore I saw were bursting with insecure teenagers, masking their lack of confidence with nonstop boasting about their sexual prowess and grooming regimes. It depressed the life out of me. If I didn't already love Newcastle, it would seriously put me off going.
PF: Nice snip on CDWM, taken. Otherwise, to coin another bit of regionally stereotypical vernacular: absolute pish. The reason Big Brother came to its end on Channel 4 was because the "reality" of the reality TV experience expired. Viewers wanted to see drinking, arguing and sex. Engineering that on a nightly basis became an impossible task for the producers to maintain. The second wave of reality TV ? constructed, scripted or bespoke ? concentrated on these basic human mechanisms to propel quick turnaround stories. It's just another way of telling stories. I can't believe I'm still having this argument in 2011, but that's the reason maestro storytellers Russell T Davies, Chris Lilley, Julia Davis and Richard Curtis all acknowledge their lovingly watchful eye cast over the reality genre. Geordie Shore's insecure teenagers? Or indeed the ones who just like showing off? Don't hate them for it; you become just as nasty towards them as the imaginary TV producer you have in mind, cashing his pay cheque at these kids' expense. Also, "straight documentaries stand back and observe"? This doesn't mean they don't editorialise, often wildly. If we can get back to the original point, about regional stereotyping, I would suggest that the BBC's current joylessly shot and sombrely voice-overed documentary on a Kilmarnock council estate (The Scheme) is far more guilty of perpetrating them for their own ends than Geordie Shore, TOWIE or Made in Chelsea ever were. The scripted reality shows just identified them.
JR: Now you're being naive. There is nothing passive or reactive about scripted reality TV. It doesn't "identify" naturally occurring resources and tap into them. They are cast, story-boarded and carefully lit in a way that Big Brother never was. Based on this new method of storytelling, Geordies are sexually incontinent, Essex girls are thick and west Londoners are shallower than a crepe pan. It's reductive and damaging.
PF: No, but it identifies natural demographics. My wider point is this. We all watch TV with a truckload of personal preconceptions. I came to TOWIE knowing nothing about Essex and thinking I'd hate it. In the event, I thought the cast looked fantastic, had a neat line in sharp local dialect, were super-fun, impeccably groomed, and fancied about half the cast. I approached Made in Chelsea with prejudices even closer to the surface. Posh west Londoners? Vile. I ended the first season gripped by them. In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people. I think Steve Rotheram need not worry unnecessarily about his constituents. If anyone knows how to look after themselves, it's scousers.
JR: There you go again, reducing the population of a city down to their collective handiness in a fight. You're using the Jeremy Kyle defence, implying I hate the shows because I hate the people. I don't. I hate the fact that they are presented as a snapshot of their region when they are far from the norm. People are just people. But half an hour in make-up, a session with a stylist, a pep talk with a storyliner and a couple of takes to get the technical aspects right and what you end up with is far, far away from reality.
PF: If the only way is ethics for you when it comes to TV, I'd suggest reality probably isn't your genre, babes.