This is the end for reality TV like Jeremy Kyle and Love Island – Aidan Smith

As Baftas hails ‘golden age of television’, Aidan Smith says we’ve surely had enough of Love Island and the rest.

Cameron Stout, pictured in his native Orkney, won Big Brother in 2003, when it seemed everyone watched, attracting an extraordinary 1.9 million votes (Picture: Robert Perry)
Cameron Stout, pictured in his native Orkney, won Big Brother in 2003, when it seemed everyone watched, attracting an extraordinary 1.9 million votes (Picture: Robert Perry)

The other day I came across an old Kodak snap of me and my siblings. Four kids in a doorway, bunched up close awkwardly, not smiling, almost cowering. Do any of us look like we might turn into a top QC (that’s not me, by the way) or a professor of nursing with an OBE (that’s not me either)? No, we don’t. In fact we look plain scared of the camera.

Contrast that image with any number on my smartphone of my youngest daughter. You never need to ask her to smile. Every photo is an audition, a performance, a big, all-singing, all-dancing Greatest Showman finale. How so? Different personalities, I suppose, but a different time. A time when everyone is a star, every ordinary person. Reality TV has created this ghastliness and it’s got to stop.

I’ll deal with my eight-year-old, show her the error of her ways, get her off YouTube and those clips of frighteningly self-possessed munchkins narrating the story of their nail-bar preferences and their lives and I’ll get her back to reading books (good luck with that, I hear all parents chorus). But do we not think that reality TV, the procession of Hit Parade wannabes, split-level kitchen aspirants, ideal match dreamers, group-jeopardy show-offs and sword-swallowing berks, has gone too far?

Big Brother had already been dumped before The Jeremy Kyle Show, following a thoroughly good kicking, was scrapped last week. That’s two monsters of the genre gone, and perhaps more will follow, but for TV producers, reality shows are still an attractive, addictive, proposition. They encourage the industry to think they’re connecting to the masses, by putting so many spotty representatives on our screens. They enable the industry to feel smug about “inclusivity”. And the programmes are dirt cheap to make. No temperamental actors have to be hired. No elaborate sets need built. And no scripts need written, although as we know, some of the participants are coached in what to say or do (“Pout in his direction” ... “Shriek with avaricious lust when the property show host in the wine bar tells you you’ve got the house” ... “Why don’t you wear this grey tracksuit?”).

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Worse than me and my siblings confronted with the family Instamatic, people used to run a mile from TV cameras. At one point the only person who seemed to run towards them was the old dear in the That’s Life! shopping arcade voxpops who always stopped to speak to Esther Rantzen and was probably Britain’s first reality celebrity. But many seemed deeply suspicious of the lenses jabbed in their faces, as if fearing they would robbed of their souls.

It’s good that people are no longer scared of TV cameras but hellish that they’re so intent on parading in front of them: warbling and warring, squawking and stripping back to the wood, revealing their innermost secrets and flaunting their outermost body parts.

I don’t really want to sound like Jacob Rees-Mogg who’s just written a very bad book on Victorians and their values of reserve and restraint, and instead would rather quote Martin Amis who once told me: “Andy Warhol didn’t get it quite right. He said that in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. I think it’s more that they’ll be world-famous for ever, but only inside their own heads.” Amis is always good for a word you’ve heard before. That day it was “pudeur”, from the French and meaning “a sense of shame or embarrassment, especially with regard to matters of a personal nature”, except that Britain no longer had any.

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What has reality TV given us? Everyone watched Big Brother when it began. It was new, different, sexy, weird and gripping. And, apparently, real. For a time dramas fell out of fashion and actors with their contrived emoting were seen as far less real, almost frauds. But before long the “social experiment” aspect of BB was compromised by, first, the human guinea pigs remembering there were cameras everywhere and playing to them. Then it was further compromised by the contestants’ cruelty, accusations of fakery and finally by the sheer bloody boredom of the viewers who had to beat themselves up for having wasted so many summer nights on the show, which very nearly confirmed them as no less thick than the housemate who thought there was a place called “East Angular”.

Big Brother fascinated for a while but I never watched The Jeremy Kyle Show, which had to end after the tragic death of Steven Dymond. If you loved that programme, now is definitely not the moment to lament its passing, although there has been some clunky snobbery decrying Kyle and other exploitative series but hoping for Love Island to be spared from any further reality culling.

Seriously? Love Island, which seeks to have attractive millennials coupling up amid blazing sunshine, will return on 3 June under a black cloud. Two months ago Mike Thalassitis appeared to take his own life, this a year after the death of fellow contestant Sophie Gradon which was widely reported as suicide. The show faces heavy scrutiny to prove it has a duty of care towards its participants, otherwise it too risks the plug being pulled.

If reality TV isn’t quite finished yet then it surely won’t be long now. At the Baftas last week, there was much trumpeting from the stage about this being a “golden age of television”, which I took to be a reference to drama’s big comeback and all the terrific shows – contemporary and costume, based on actual events and total fantasy – which we’re enjoying right now.

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My daughter, by the way, when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, does not reply “famous” or “on TV” but is threatening to open a cafe selling buttered rolls, the only thing she eats. I’m relaxed about that.