The Only Way Is Essex: TV’s guiltiest pleasure

Stephen Brook explains why ITV2's show could be the future of reality TV

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Have you been watching The Only Way Is Essex? Or even heard about it? You need to have.

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For while the ITV2 show, dubbed a “living soap opera”, is shameless trash (it’s even sponsored by Cymex cold sore cream), it is without a doubt TV’s guiltiest pleasure. And it might even be the future of television.

The programme follows the lives and loves of a group of sexy young Essex socialites who spend their time launching pop groups, hosting Essex Fashion Week, establishing PR careers, going on dates, getting fake tans and getting their backs waxed – and that’s just the men.

Whereas Channel 4’s grandiose Seven Days (following the lives and loves of people in Notting Hill) bombed, Essex is compelling and I can’t fathom why. I have been swept up in the affairs of beautiful but dim Amy “where’s north London?”, her queeny blond cousin Harry (catchphrase: “Shut up!”) and best friend and glamour model Sam.

As the caption says at the start: “The boobs and the tans may be fake, but the people are real, but some situations have been created purely for your entertainment.”

“They’re real people,” narrator and Essex girl Denise Van Outen keeps telling us. But many of the situations have been set up. It is no coincidence that The Only Way Is Essex is made by Lime Pictures, which produces teen soap Hollyoaks, and a key executive on the programme is Daran Little, who used to work on the scripts for Coronation Street and Hollyoaks.

One striking feature is that so many of the people in it have the patina of soap stars. Thus Essex playboy Mark recalls EastEnders’s Simon Wicks, while Essex Nanny Pat has more than a passing resemblance to that soap’s much-missed Ethel.

I don’t know what it is – part soap, part observational documentary, part reality TV – but I do know that it is addictive.

And here is where the future of TV bit comes in. Last week I attended the Sheffield Doc/Fest, sheffddocfest.com, one of the largest gatherings of documentary-makers in the world.

There young Brazilian film-maker Anna Azevedo was screening her movie Geral, about football supporters at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium. The film was praised by festival organisers for its unique narrative structure.

But while it looked like Geral told the story of a single football match, Azevedo freely admits she filmed five matches to get the footage she required. She said she was a documentary-maker telling a story – not journalism.

What is the connection between Azevedo’s football supporters and Essex Fashion Week? Both deliberate break rules of journalism and are perfectly relaxed about doing so. Some will argue that it was ever thus, but as audiences require more and more excitement from their documentaries, we will see more and more of these constructed programmes.

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BTW, a second series of Essex has been ordered, and local reality star Jacky Tweedy, he who was married to Jade Goody, has let it be known that he wants in…