I stopped writing for Made In Chelsea on series 4. It was all consuming, I was dreaming about Hugo and that’s when you know you’ve done too much. I still watch, along with millions of others, but why do we care what happens to some workshy poshos, whose biggest decision of the day is where to have lunch? The magic ingredient is ‘reality.’ It’s obvious when it is set up and clear when it isn’t, the eyes don’t lie.
When Spencer poured his heart out to Caggie it was real. Only the best actors can give you a performance that compelling. You’re watching a rich kid who has everything in the world apart from the one thing that will really make him happy – the girl he loves. For a moment status, money and accents go out the window, because we see that we’re all the same, until it’s back to the Kings Road for gratuitous shots of Ferraris. It’s gripping because of that reality. The drama and comedy has real life stakes.
Scripted Reality has been around for almost ten years. Before it docusoaps gave us stories of kids hooking up, getting too drunk, running out of money. It was raw and real and we loved it. The stories were compelling, but how could ‘we’ the television producers make it new? Because TV always wants new. In September 2004 MTV US had the answer, Laguna Beach.
The US economy was booming, audiences wanted aspiration and Laguna Beach gave them exactly that, a documentary that looked like a glamorous drama. It was a hit and a host of spin offs followed.
In 2006 I was trying to make a British version and consulted with the Americans to learn the secrets to their dark art. It was fascinating, if slightly evil genius. We piloted rich kids from London, but ironically test audiences found their accents too annoying. In Chester we found wealthy kids with northern charm and MTV’s Living On The Edge was born.
It was a mild success, but it wasn’t until 2010 that TOWIE struck gold with the right mix of dramatic storylines, good looking and comical characters, finally opening the door for the rahs of Chelsea to large audiences.
The Americans can be credited with inventing the process of how these shows are made and that is where the true evil genius lies – the getting and controlling of information in the casts lives. E.G If Mark wants to break up with Lauren, he has to tell the producers first and then they’ll decide when he does it. The trick is to fashion the most dramatic story out of the emotional dynamics of your cast and then persuade them to tell that story on camera.
It’s by no means easy. These are real lives you’re meddling in and it’s like herding cats with massive egos. However, the contributors want screen time and the producers want drama and that’s the bargaining tool. It’s a really complex web of trust, lies, secrets and persuasion and making it can be both awful and totally exhilarating.
Everyone always asks is it real? The truth is, it is and it isn’t. Cameras aren’t strapped to the casts’ heads, it looks amazing, because scenes are lit and styled. Characters don’t just bump into each other and I think most people know that. However the emotions and dynamics are real. It can’t be faked, largely because most of them can’t act. The love, tears, jealousy, slaps and laughs are all genuine and that’s what makes it so good.
Writing Scripted Reality is most similar to writing an improvised drama or comedy because there’s no dialogue, scenes are only plotted. However because it’s real anything you do write could change at any moment. The cast have truly shocking private lives and there’s even more that goes on behind the scenes. It’s the producers job to tell as much of the story as possible, but keeping up with them is like following the financial markets.
Most series start with a juicy love triangle. The formula for making a good show is to work out how to drip feed the story over the episode and save enough action for a dramatic tease in the next show. You have to have a great cast, with interesting lives and the shows are only as good as the cast and producers.
The future of scripted reality is all about telling these real life stories in new ways. How can we make it more dramatic, funnier, look even sexier? Who will be the people whose lives are so different and fascinating we have to watch? A fisherman in a love triangle with a camera strapped to his head? You heard it here first!
Alex Worrall is a television writer whose credits include Made In Chelsea E4, 10 O’Clock Live C4 and Off Their Rockers ITV1.