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We laugh, we cry, we cringe: reality TV turns 20

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12/07/2017 Tim Dowling
Left to right: Ben Fogel, Joey Essex, Bake Off finalists, Maureen Rees and Katie Hopkins: All-consuming genre… reality stars (left to right) Ben Fogel, Joey Essex, Bake Off finalists, Maureen Rees and Katie Hopkins © PA/BBC/Love Productions/REX All-consuming genre… reality stars (left to right) Ben Fogel, Joey Essex, Bake Off finalists, Maureen Rees and Katie Hopkins

Really, we owe it all to one brave woman who steadfastly refused to accept that she couldn’t drive. Maureen Rees from Driving School first appeared on our screens 20 years ago – back in June 1997 – making her Britain’s first reality TV star.

Yes there were forerunners and antecedents to modern reality TV stretching back to the 1960s – including Seven Up and The Family – while even the fly-on-the-wall documentary series The Airport brought us Jeremy Spake a year before Maureen pitched up (no doubt without indicating). But Driving School possessed several elements now indelibly associated with the genre: the reliance on real people and the way it was edited in a way to extract maximum drama from ordinary situations. 

It all worked out for Maureen who not only passed her driving test on the seventh attempt but became an instant celebrity – by the time the BBC’s prototype reality series Castaway (which made a star of Ben Fogle) aired in 2000, Maureen had already been on This Is Your Life.

But her success has arguably saddled us with the most damaging and perverse TV genre ever devised, one for which audiences have a seemingly insatiable appetite. What Driving School started led inexorably to Big Brother, Wife Swap, Geordie Shore, Naked Attraction and Love Island.

It was so long ago now that it’s hard to remember how the general public were once treated by television. While they were occasionally invited on to the airwaves, their participation – in programmes such as Antiques Roadshow, or the old incarnation of Masterchef – was kept to a minimum because they were, by and large, no good on TV. Ground Force was a pretty typical example of pre-reality factual programming. The actual folk appeared at the beginning and the end; for the bulk of the programme they were banished, while the presenters got on with things.

What changed? Some blame the advent of digital editing, which made it possible to quickly extract 30 minutes of ordinary people being interesting from hundreds of hours of footage of them being insanely boring. It was also not lost on producers and programmers that reality TV could be made very cheaply. And there can be no doubt that it offers audiences a direct connection to people like them: we laugh, we cry, we cringe. Reality TV engages us, and asks almost nothing in return.

The first series of Big Brother – a Dutch import – aired before Castaway finished. From there reality TV didn’t just take off, it metastasised. New formats quickly spread across the globe. We were presented with What Not to Wear, Snog Marry Avoid and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. There were shows that just followed real people as they did their jobs, such as Airport and Ice Road Truckers. There emerged a whole sub-genre in which hapless idiots agree to be shouted at by a judge in a pretend court, and another dedicated solely to people on benefits. MTV became so enamoured of reality programming it stopped showing music videos.

More recently we’ve been gifted the dubious innovation of “scripted reality” or “structured reality” – the likes of Made in Chelsea – which are really just soap operas performed by people who can’t act. Over two decades this all-consuming genre has all but ruined telly and, to a large extent, civilisation. How? Let us count the ways:

1. We’ve lost any meaningful definition of celebrity

Before the turn of the century, celebrities were ranked according to something called the Ulmer scale, as either A-list, B-list or C-list. Officially this system had something to do with their actual financial and cultural clout, but most of us used the terms casually to encompass the entire pantheon of fame. The term D-list was occasionally bandied about, generally to denote the mildly recognisable: relatives of celebs, grown-up child stars, or actors who’d appeared in cultish TV adverts. Obviously this scale is of little use when you’re trying to categorise someone like Joey Essex, but it was clear from the way things were headed that the bulk of the remaining alphabet wouldn’t be fit for purpose. We skipped straight to Z; we had to. Even “Z-lister” isn’t a terribly useful distinction, unless you need someone to switch on the Christmas lights in Chorley. These days we’ve created a whole new class of fame – the celebrity you’ve never heard of. And once we’ve spawned them, we have no way to cull them, although The Jump isn’t a bad effort.

2. It’s turned us into terrible people

At first we were charmed by the sight of people like us on the telly, but soon enough we began to take notice of the extent to which they were not like us, and we hated them for it. We sneered at their decor, their grammar, their make-up and their inability to host a dinner party. We doubted their motives and their authenticity, and we ignored their obvious vulnerabilities. Reality TV participants became a sub-class it was OK to hate, and when we got tired of hating, we turned to torture. It’s true that reality TV can occasionally appeal to our higher selves, but for every Bake-Off contestant or Educating Yorkshire sixth-former we’ve taken to our hearts, there are at least three fragile has-beens we’ve driven to the brink of madness by voting for them to eat more bugs. And we laughed as we did it.

3. We’ve begun to confuse reality TV with reality

Almost all of us will know someone who once participated in a reality television show. At some point watching TV became like Skyping distant relatives – just some blurry, poorly lit faces yammering on about how dehydrated they are, or how hard it is to kill a cayman with a Biro. We started to wonder why our boring lives weren’t being filmed and broadcast, and so we started doing it ourselves, posting pictures of our arms online, like the Kardashians do.

4. We’ve lost all sense of where the bottom of the barrel might lie

Like me, you’ve probably imagined that you’ve heard that telltale scraping sound many times. Maybe when you first saw Tool Academy, or when you realised there wasn’t just one reality show about people having their stuff repossessed, but several. We’ve sunk as low as we can go you thought. But then along came Storage Wars, exposing a whole new sedimentary layer of terrible.

5. Reality TV confers undue influence on the unworthy

Treating people who’ve been through the reality TV experience as if it were some kind of educational qualification is like handing out seats in parliament to lottery winners, yet it’s what we do. People from Geordie Shore give out advice on fitness and fashion. Joey Essex has written a book – that’s one more than he’s read – and Katie Hopkins became an actual columnist for an actual newspaper. And across the Atlantic, the presidency of Donald Trump off the Apprentice has turned a whole nation into a kind of reality show. And not the good kind – it’s more like that one where they tried to find Flavor Flav a wife. Thanks a bunch, Maureen!

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