The secrets of Taking New York: putting the structure in structured reality

How was it cast? Is it scripted? Is it replacing Made in Chelsea? Educating Yorkshire producer David Clews reveals all...

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Structured reality is big in Britain. The Only Way is Essex, Geordie Shore and Made in Chelsea are watched with relish (and tweeted about) by swathes of teenagers and 20-somethings. Part soap, part reality, these glossy offerings have sprung from the 2006 US show The Hills, which followed the romantic trials and tribulations of a group of rich Californian teens.

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David Clews, who produced the 2013 ob-doc Educating Yorkshire, is now overseeing E4’s Taking New York, which follows a bunch of Brits having a brilliant (if drama-filled) time in the Big Apple. He took Radio Times behind the scenes of the structured reality world…

How did you cast Taking New York?

It’s a small community out there – most of the Brits gravitate towards each other so they’ll point you in the direction of different people. Everything from street casting to announcement was done on websites and social media groups and popular places where young Brits hang out and work in NY. We could work our way through the British community and meet everybody.

So they had already met before the series started?

Yes, some had. Jamie and Ben and Danny all live together – they’re models in NY. We didn’t realise when we were casting but the twins, Amy and Megan, had actually worked with the boys in Abercrombie and Fitch in London beforehand. There were some circles that knew each other and some that didn’t and that’s definitely part of the show – the relationships and friendships that are formed through the series.

Do you think you’ve found a good enough mix to make the show Made in Chelsea-style addictive?

I think they’re a great cast and that’s what you spend a long time doing in terms of casting for a series like this. You never know but people so far really like the cast  and I think there’s the right mix of humour and warmth and likeability as well as characters with egos. You need that mix.

Is this very sleek programming with its high production values the future of constructed reality?

That’s the $6 million question. We wanted to make a constructed series about young people living in a different city. And obviously NY is such an iconic city that people can either dream about going there or relate to that.

These aren’t people from a privileged background in the way they are from MIC. They’re normal people doing different things so I think that makes it more relatable. But where it goes beyond that, I’m not sure. This is my production company, TwoFour, dipping our toes into reality TV.

What was the appeal of this kind of programme after making the acclaimed Educating Yorkshire?

There’s an audience out there for it and they’re really well-loved shows and have such a huge fan base. It may not be as worthy but it is real people and real emotions.

Personally, it was interesting for us as a company to see if we can crack it as well. I don’t want to just be making fixed rigged series and I like the idea of doing something different.

How scripted is Taking New York?

Scenes are constructed but we take it all from their real lives. There definitely were certain members of the cast meeting each other for the first time at the start of the series and you could argue that they wouldn’t have met if they hadn’t been in the TV series – but at the same time they do all live in NY and they are all in the same circles.

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But in terms of their emotions and reactions, they are all genuine and we never want the cast in any way to be acting. It’s all based on their relationships and what’s actually happening in those circumstances.