Reality TV will eat itself

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Jeffrey Archer - the truth

Sunday, BBC1, 9pm

The Great Reality TV Swindle

Tuesday, Channel 4, 10.35pm

THE biggest problem with The Great Reality TV Swindle - a documentary in which 30 desperate wannabes take part in a show that never was - is that each contestant is so repellently camera-aware that you’re forced to wonder if the programme itself is the hoax. Perhaps it’s a swindle within a swindle, a tragic end-of-term project for a bunch of media students, a spoof designed to catch out unwary television critics. Dear God, I hope so.

Here’s the plot, so you can decide for yourselves. An ad in the Evening Standard offers a year on a Reality TV show, a life-changing challenge and a prize of 100,000, so various hopefuls turn up at a London hotel to meet the producer, a Byronic-looking young man called Nikita Russian. He tells them they must return within the hour clutching a freshly baked cake, and here’s the fabulously wacky bit... they must beg, borrow or steal the ingredients.

Debbie, who has done a couple of auditions for Big Brother and so knows a bit about this sort of thing, is sufficiently convinced by Nik’s charisma ("he had a clipboard") to hare off in search of self-raising flour, and the rest of the auditionees happily follow suit. Meanwhile, Nik records pieces to camera in such a hair-flicking, eye-bugging manner that the casual viewer realises he is insane.

No matter - everyone is accepted onto the show and duly give up jobs, flats, boyfriends and girlfriends and throw lavish leaving parties. They meet in a grotty London park where they introduce themselves to the cameramen (unpaid students) and hear their challenge. With absolutely no help from Nik Russian and his imaginary production company, they are to spend the following year trying to make 1 million. Once they have achieved millionaire status, they will win 100,000. It is surprising how long it takes them to work out that they will be earning their own prize.

What’s more surprising (horrifying, even) is the fact that it takes them another five days to give up on their dream of being reality TV stars, spending the time holed up in the cameraman’s flat filming each other as they phone local news shows to complain about what has happened to them. This, of course, is the point at which Channel 4 steps in (with proper cameramen), seizes their video diaries and watches what happens to our plucky morons as their dreams shatter around them. It’s a modern-day fairy tale, folks, because, you see, they did get on the telly after all.

Like Nikita Russian, Jeffrey Archer has always relied on the stupidity of strangers, but writer Guy Jenkins has done the unthinkable and believed every single one of Archer’s self-made myths. Thus, in tonight’s Jeffery Archer - The Truth, he is responsible for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, invents disco-dancing and the mobile phone, foils the siege at the Iranian Embassy and conducts a passionate affair with Margaret Thatcher. It’s undeniably imaginative, energetic and often hilarious, but in the end it’s a pretty self-serving and goes on a bit. Archer, I’m sure, will love it.

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