Two UK documentary series come to a close this week, with Channel 4’s bombastically hyped Seven Days shuffling quietly off – presumably to the scrap heap – in its Tues 11pm slot whilst ITV2’s ‘true-life soap’ The Only Way is Essex is repeated all over its prime time schedule, chronicled on twitter and chattered about by Radio 1 DJs and my students alike. Both series chronicle ‘real life’ in different regions of South East England (following the UK docusoap tradition), both are arguably (whilst the former may deny it) influenced by MTV’s scripted-reality series The Hills and its glamorous transmedia presence. Both are filmed very close to transmission. Both aim to construct interactive relationships with their audience and their participants are reflexive about their status as documentary subjects (but rarely interact with the camera, if at all). But one is lighting up Heat magazine whilst the other is a flop at a time when Channel 4 is grasping for a reality hit in the reality of a post-Big Brother world.
There are multiple ways to come at the two shows, and I’m only touching on a few here. Both can be seen as key players in their respective channel’s brand. Seven Days – handsomely filmed, with its ‘innovative’ interactive Chatnav feature allowing viewers to interact with and ‘influence’ its cast and its representations of a diverse (to a degree) ‘slice of life’ of London Borough of Notting Hill – is tailor made for Channel 4’s status as purveyor of quality, innovative and edgy product. Whilst the young, shiny, fake tanned (nailed, haired, boobed), slightly dumb partiers and wannabe footballers wives of The Only Way is Essex seem to be precision engineered for ITV2 and its Katie Price and Fearne Cotton-inspired aspirational, yet attainable (and at times plastic) glamour.
Essex follows the ITV2 observational soap format seen in its celeb-docs Katie and Peter, What Katie Did Next and Peter Andre: The Next Chapter. After losing Price and her valuable brand to Living TV the programme’s success is obviously leading to sighs of relief from execs. Yet it also draws on the MTV scripted-reality approach; branded as ‘Essex’s answer to The Hills‘ the programme features a non-famous cast (though kickboxing club promoter Mark Wright is best-friend of tabloid staple and Jade Goody widower Jack Tweed) whose real lives are chronicled by cameras, yet whose scenes may be ‘created for entertainment purposes’.
This British TV disclaimer (following famous cases of ‘faked’ footage in late ’90s docs) that is familiar to viewers from airings of constructed-reality US imports The Simple Life and The Hills is foregrounded and celebrated at the start of Essex: “whilst the tans you see might be fake the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment”. The show almost revels in the stilted performances of the cast as they go about their daily lives and discuss in detail their romantic entanglements. Their limited ‘acting’ ability serves the edge of cheeky camp that informs the show’s glitz and glamour – off-set (or maybe compounded) by the instant-cult of Mark’s ‘salt-of-the-earth’ Nanny Pat and her sausage plait. Essex embraces inauthenticity and tackiness like its namesake county. It’s The Hills yet with the cast of Jersey Shore, as wannabe glamour girl/WAG Amy is much closer to Snooki than Lauren Conrad! The programme’s observational style, combined with its use of expositional conversation and constructed scenes to replace talking-head interviews or any address to camera, follows The Hills model. Yet compared to that show’s strenuous efforts to excise any acknowledgement of its stars’ lives as It girls and tabloid darlings, Essex‘s cast acknowledge they are being watched and refer to their status as docusoap subjects (and whether it’ll land them a footballer or a record deal – both Essex and Seven Days feature music groups looking for a break). This edge of transparency plays off the programme’s campness in a way that feeds into ITV2’s brand of down to earth glamour.
A friend noted that the programme was a touch dull watched alone and it was better watched with friends. ITV2 seeks to build discussion-based group viewing into the programme, reflecting the virtual watercooler of twitter used for live watch-alongs (Masterchef is much funnier with a Grace Dent and Sue Perkins commentary). Pop-ups during episodes constantly guide audiences to the website for chats and extra content. It even uses pop-up QR codes for viewers to scan with their smart phones (which I’ve only seen used in magazines before) to unlock extra content on the website, which also hosts the conventional virtual spaces of livechats, facebook and twitter.
Seven Days similarly sought to draw together the interactive virtual space and the televisual one. Shot in observational style, yet dominated by the careful composition and lighting common to The Hills it was positioned as Channel 4’s successor to Big Brother, commissioned as a short run, potentially to be extended all year round. Heavily hyped, it claimed to represent the class and racial diversity of London’s Notting Hill, with a cast ranging from leggy posh It-girls taking on modeling jobs to a hard-working and socially conscious Muslim student, the first of his working-class family to go to university. The programme’s ‘hook’ was its interactive element, drawing on an audience accustomed to exerting their influence (or the illusion of influence) in evicting Big Brother housemates, it was structured to draw on social media to bring together audience and subjects.
The Chatnav feature on Channel4’s website, along with twitter, allowed the audience to interact with the cast (and to see who was the most talked about by size of their picture). Each episode encouraged feedback and was shot the week before transmission to allow for audiences to see the effects of their interaction. Its opening and closing asked the audience ‘They want to know what you think about their lives. Go online now and tell them’. The cast discussed being participants on camera (though like Essex, never to camera), talking about the audience response, questions they had asked or suggestions audiences had made. It was a reality tv show, with people talking about being on a reality tv show and talking about people talking about them being on a reality tv show. It was proved a reality vortex and the programme promptly got sucked into the observational documentary paradox and became less about its subjects real lives and the ‘diversity’ of life in Notting Hill than its casts’ experience of being on a reality show. Cast members connected with each other through twitter and their interactions turned the mirrors of reality ever inwards instead of out into the wider society the programme claimed to reflect.
As the series progressed it also became less about the diversity of Notting Hill, as despite complaints over the poshness of the neighbourhood chosen and Channel 4’s protestations of diversity, middle and lower upper-class characters, like womanizer Ben, his long suffering mother and property developer Malcolm moved to centre stage alongside It-girls Samantha and Laura. Conscientious and politicised student Moktar was sidelined (though I like to think he realised his first year university studies were more important!) whilst the sole working class characters remaining were Javan and his friends, who were offered work by Malcolm at the suggestion of viewers. The presence of these lads made me realise how few representations of non-criminal, afro-caribbean young men talking to each other we have on British screens, outside of the news and token solo casting in teen dramas. However Moktar seems to have been replaced by obnoxious posh-boy Boris, his family and their palatial house, reducing diversity even further.
The appearance of Boris, together with new mum and ‘smug married’ Cassie’s tales of the abuse she received on twitter in response to a question she asked the audience, made me consider what the pleasures of Seven Days were for its ultimately small audience. Rather than a wide-ranging representation of the classes and races living cheek by jowl in the neighbourhood, what it ultimately became about was the British public’s pleasure in the laughing at of the troubles and idiocy of posh people. Class schadenfreude – it’s the British sport.
The failure of Seven Days in the face of the success of The Only Way is Essex has made me think about what we Brits really want from our docusoaps. We don’t really want to interact with them, we want to sit on twitter and in our living rooms, laughing and judging. The Only Way is Essex lets us sit back and constructs its drama, whilst offering a nudge and a wink at its own reality, as fake as its nails.
This post was inspired by Grace Dent’s TV OD. She is much funnier.