10 years of TOWIE: Creator Ruth Wrigley on why Brentwood was almost swapped for Bournemouth and the origins of ITV’s hit

After 10 years of drama, romance and The Sugar Hut, we go back to the beginnings of TOWIE.

The Only Way is Essex

Can you believe it’s been 10 years since we first met Mark Wright, Lauren Goodger and Amy Childs? They would all later become household names in their own right, but back in 2010 the world was a very different place.

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The Only Way is Essex has been running, amazingly, for 10 years, but when you look back to the early days, it isn’t hard to see why. The show didn’t just reinvent the genre, it actually introduced a new sub category to UK screens.

It’s hard to think of a time without the likes of TOWIE and Made In Chelsea regularly appearing in the schedules but believe it or not, we did once live in an age without “scripted reality”.

The concept was that everything in The Only Way is Essex is real. The relationship ups and downs are genuine, they’re just prepositioned in front of a camera. The emotion cannot be faked.

But getting a show like this off the ground wasn’t the easiest of processes – because after all, how do you pitch something like TOWIE in a time before TOWIE?

One woman, Ruth Wrigley, made it her mission to get the show on screens, considering it her passion project and drawing on two major sources of inspiration – US reality series The Hills, and a need to reinvent the genre.

Recalling the beginnings of her big idea, Wrigley exclusively told RadioTimes.com: “I’ve got five kids and all the girls in the family were completely obsessed with The Hills. I sat down with them one day watching it with my producer head on saying, ‘Oh this is so set up’, and they said, ‘Oh shut up mum, we don’t care’.

“And that really made me think about how they were very hooked into the fact the people in The Hills were very real and even though the situations were slightly set up, the setting was real. It was those two things happening that made me hatch an idea of… what if you had a soap, but it contained real people and real lives?”

The Only Way Is Essex - series 21
The Only Way Is Essex – series 21 (LIME PICTURES/FT)

From there, Wrigley approached her boss, who paired her up with former Hollyoaks producer Tony Wood before they went to Channel 4 to discuss their idea for a show – a soap / reality show about an emerging surf scene in Bournemouth.

When Channel 4 didn’t grasp the idea, crestfallen-but-still-passionate Wrigley had lunch with an ITV2 exec the following day, who had one crucial note on the pitch.

“She got [the idea], but she said, ‘These surfing kids aren’t really our audience’, so she said, ‘What about something like Essex, you know what I mean by Essex?’. I got the entrepreneurial, working class spirit that was there – so it was ITV that decided they wanted it in Essex.”

And the rest, as they say is history. According to Wrigley, just getting the show off the ground was the hard part. Casting, creating, and building a fan-base was the easy bit.

(Getty)
Mark Wright was one of TOWIE’s earliest stars (GETTY)

Throw your mind back to season one. Our fresh-faced cast were making their names known but there was one figure who the drama tended to revolve around – Mark Wright. And interestingly, he was the first name on their list.

Wrigley explained: “I had a very good casting producer who went on to be the first casting producer of Made in Chelsea. Once we knew it was Essex, we went to a club called Faces. I casually said, ‘who’s the face of Faces?’.

“She went along and she is very good, and found Mark. Actually, Mark was the key to it. Finding the Mark Wright figure to any series of TOWIE is the hardest bit but once you’ve got them, the rest falls into place. Any other person come from him. With Mark, he was a very good-looking young man who had intrinsic drama in his life.

The key, Wrigley revealed, was not having anyone with a “celebrity profile” on their cast list – different to now, with former Love Island winner Olivia Atwood front and centre of the TOWIE drama at the moment. (It should be noted Wrigley supports this shift, citing how the reality audience has changed so it makes sense for the rules to as well.)

With the cast in place, the idea firmly cemented, a team of creatives raring to go, was Wrigley nervous about what the critics would say?

TOWIE creator Ruth Wrigley
TOWIE creator Ruth Wrigley winning a BAFTA (BBC)

“If I’m honest no. I didn’t worry about the critics but I worried about the audience,” she recalls. “When we got the BAFTA [Radio Times Audience Award in 2011], it was an audience vote and I remember there were a few snide comments and Mr [Benedict] Cumberbatch was pictured with a grim look on his face – but I understood he’s an actor and these weren’t actors, so it was all a bit of a blurred line – but that was all I needed to know, that people liked it. That’s all that matters.”

As The Only Way Is Essex celebrates its 10th birthday, fans can relive the drama on the ITV Hub now, with all the thrills, spills and unmissable drama all there for your pleasure. And looking back at the entire series, you can see for yourself why Wrigley thinks it’s been a runaway hit – it evolves.

“I had no idea it was going to go for 10 years but I think part of that is the authenticity – it keeps going and keeps evolving. That’s the problem when things get locked in, which is sort of what ended up happening to Big Brother – it didn’t really evolve with the rest of the world and it became a victim of its own success, but touch wood hopefully TOWIE is a bit more of a flexible machine.”

For TOWIE stalwarts Chloe Sims and Bobby Norris, the experience has been life-changing. Sims told us: “Joining TOWIE 10 years ago completely changed my life overnight. It was crazy, I went from just a normal single mum to being in newspapers and having paps chasing me. It was overnight. Since then it has been a whirlwind and still is.” Norris added: “For me being part of the family has been life changing. I think it has become such a cult show and so iconic, and for us to still be here 10 years later is testament to that. It has changed my life in so many ways. I’ve worked with some incredible people that I could have never dreamed of and I’ve been lucky to travel the world with it, with a group of my friends. I’ve been blessed.”

And while TOWIE goes from strength-to-strength, what’s next for the future of scripted reality and the show itself? Wrigley, who no longer works on the show, said, “I think the challenge for producers now is for the cast to be themselves. People coming into TOWIE now know how to be in TOWIE.

“My basic rule is there’s nothing stranger thank folk and if you can find the right folk… keep it real and they come out with some great stuff.”

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The Only Way Is Essex continues Wednesday 16th September at 9pm on ITVBe. The TOWIE Years is now airing on the ITV Hub. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.