Rock star, messianic man-in-tights, comedy-moustache camp commandant, Freddie Mercury was also a great seer, able to predict the future. Consider these lyrics, which he warbled way back in 1975: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality ... ”
Was that not Freddie anticipating the dread dawn of reality television? Has there not been a landslide of “real people” turning up uninvited in our parlours, a tsunami of ordinary folk keen to display their navel fluff and more besides on primetime? And hasn’t it felt like there’s no escape, that the fly-on-the-wall phenomenon would move inexorably to its inevitable conclusion – a programme with hidden cameras following the progress of flies on a wall, each of them adopted by carefully selected members of the great unwashed – except there will be no conclusion, for reality TV won’t end, ever?
Well, it just might, you know. The big beasts of reality are ailing. Small-screen juggernauts once thought to be impregnable and untouchable are creaking. There’s been a chain reaction of misfortune and mild calamity, as if each has been feeling the other’s pain, as if they might all perish together in some bizarre suicide pact. It’s a nice thought, yes?
Strictly speaking, Strictly Come Dancing is celebrity-based, although you could have fooled the headline writer who with obvious exasperation asked the other day: “Is this the most obscure line-up ever?” The show returns next month and there’s a feeling it is overdoing diversity at the expense of glitter. Maybe good intentions have taken Strictly down this route. Or it could be arrogance. Berserk on power, the producers’ summoning a BBC3 documentary-maker, a video blogger and Lee from pop berks Blue – among others even less well-known – might be an act of willful perversity, bolstered by the belief the bovine masses will tune in regardless. We’ll see ...
The X Factor comes back on Saturday. You thought it died a long, long time ago, to quote David Bowie this time? Nope, the man who sold the world, Simon Cowell, is still flogging his karaoke klamjamphrie. The programme has finally caught up with its crazed and capricious emperor’s fashion sense, and is now as hopelessly out of date as those flared stonewashed jeans. It’s tried everything to stop the viewing figures falling off a cliff, apart from a Cliff Richard theme night, that is. It’s tried auditions with audiences and without, Cowell present and (more arrogance, this) not present, freakshow and theatre of cruelty. If new judge Robbie Williams can’t save The X Factor, surely Cowell will proffer the downward-pointing thumb to the whole sad affair.
Later this year I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! will attempt to carry on without its chief ant. Here’s a presenter – Ant McPartlin – who because of his well-publicised personal problems really needs a break from the show. Well, don’t we all? But the reality behemoth most vulnerable right now is Big Brother. At the Edinburgh TV Festival the other day, Channel 5 director of programmes Ben Frow admitted the end was nigh for the programme. “I plan for a year without Big Brother,” he said. “A lot of our very successful shows have started to decline, which is life.”
Life. That’s what BB was supposed to be: ordinary life in extraordinary surroundings, ordinary people in a ground-breaking social experiment, and for a while we fell for that tagline and were hooked. The early years were weirdly hypnotic. Who knew watching folk doing next to nothing could be so much fun? Maybe we were fed up with scripted, and often overwrought, dramas on TV – and actresses who claimed to still be 29 plugging them remorselessly on daytime chat-shows. Reality TV seemed to be democratising the goggle-box. Well, it just goes to show: not all democracy is good.
Very soon the contestants became aware of the cameras and what they could do for their ordinary lives. If they felt like laboratory beagles, required to undergo smoking tests, then they quickly turned the tables on the producers and lit up fat cigars for themselves. Fame could be theirs! It changed the nature of the show completely, and Big Brother changed telly completely.
Suddenly, everyone was on TV, or everyone could be. Every profession, every office, could be the setting for a six-part series and many were. Big Brother was brought to our screens by Peter Bazalgette, a telly impresario whose great-great-grandfather laid London’s sewage network. Inevitably some latterday drainage workers got their own docusoap. What was it called again? Sludge? C**p? Plumbing the Depths? Real dramas were cancelled, actors found themselves out of work.
These shows were all the children, or bastard offspring, of Big Brother and it will take some time before they’re all sluiced away because reality still dominates the schedules. We will all have our pet hates. Mine is the property porn of Location, Location, Location and especially the moment when the dull would-be homebuyers are in the local wine bar with presenter Phil Spencer and waiting to find out if their bid has been successful. Is it wrong to view them as acquisitive morons when they probably just want somewhere nice to live? Maybe, but that’s what reality television does to me.
All those shows about offices have given us The Office but reality has also begat Katie Hopkins and helped in the creation of this narcissistic age where children, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, reply: “Famous.”
Still, the end could be in sight. We may be nearing peak jungle creepy-crawly, peak pasodoble and peak emoting-with-painted-on-eyebrows.