‘Essex’ shows the way

Show ushers in 'structured reality' genre

LONDON — A cult TV show inspired by MTV’s “The Hills” took on some of the giants of mainstream TV at last month’s BAFTA TV awards — and won.

“The Only Way Is Essex” stole the audience prize by a record number of votes, beating the NBC-bankrolled U.K. period drama “Downton Abbey,” as well as BBC hit trio “Sherlock,” post-feminist sitcom “Miranda” and critics’ favorite “The Killing,” the last a Danish crime saga.

Traditionalists were appalled, citing the victory as another example of the dumbing down of British pop culture.

The ITV skein, know as “Towie” to its fans, follows the apparently glamorous lives of a group of real-life suburban twentysomethings, all fake tans, f-words and fierce cleavages, as they obsess about their next date or sexual encounter.

ITV claims “Towie,” made by Lime Pictures, part of the All3Media group, is cutting-edge TV, a pioneer in an emerging genre known, somewhat bizarrely, as “structured reality.”

Unlike first generation reality shows such as “Big Brother,” “Towie” contains scenes deliberately staged by the producers.

As the opening credits declare, “The tans may be fake, but the people are real, although some of what they do has been set up for your entertainment.”

Lime Pictures’ creative director Tony Wood admits, “We’ll steer the characters to certain places. Before the cameras roll, we’ll say, ‘Remember to ask what happened last night.’ In the edit, I’ll cut words out of sentences to make it more ‘writerly’ and give it that soap opera quality.

“But we don’t make anything happen that the cast doesn’t want to happen. The emotional narrative is real.”

A lot of the storytelling techniques of “Towie” hail from sudsers like “Coronation Street,” which Lime CEO Carolyn Reynolds produced. “It helped that we were soap/drama makers,” she says. “We were looking for character. There have been a lot of factual entertainment producers and reality commissioners spending hours trying to copy this.”

Casting for “Towie” took around six months, according to Wood, whose team of researchers placed ads on Facebook and in publications across the country.

“This was not a particularly difficult group of people to find,” he says. “They were all linked in some way to one of the two nightclubs featured in the series. When you’re looking for a group, you tend to meet one, and the others then all fall into place.”

The essential qualities were people who were a little bit larger than life who had energy, gusto and were attractive, but not just sexually attractive, according to Woods, who adds: “They also had to be able to laugh at themselves. They had to be funny, as it was always meant to be a funny show.”

In an age of austerity, when broadcasters can rarely afford to make big-budget drama without co-funding, structured reality shows offer a big temptation — they’re cheap. They might mimic soap opera, but there are no expensive actors’ fees to pay.

Indeed, Wood says that Lime doesn’t pay the cast anything, apart from expenses, contrary to reports in the local press.

“We believe the relationship with the group should always be one of eavesdropping on their lives,” Wood explains. “If they are paid to perform, the relationship changes to a degree. We wanted ordinary people, not actors.”

“Towie” bowed on ITV2 in October, to 886,000 viewers. By its second season, the audience had risen, per episode, to more than 1 million. It’s estimated some 500,000 people tune in online following the main broadcast.

In common with a lot of TV aimed at under-35s, much of “Towie’s” popularity is driven by social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. When the show is airing, live daily story updates are put online in real time.

What is undeniable about “Towie” and similar shows — such as the U.K. take on MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” “Geordie Shore,” which bowed May 24 — is that even detractors concede they are addictive.

” ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ is easy to watch because there is no complexity in the storylines, and everything is so glamorous, which is dishonest,” says the Times of London TV critic Andrew Billen, who was brought up in the Essex town of Brentwood, where some of “Towie’s” scenes are filmed. “It’s as glossy as ‘Neighbours’ or ‘Home and Away,” he says, describing the Australian soaps that have run for years in Blighty. “In terms of its not-much-happening narrative, the show is more like a 1950s British radio soap.

“One reason these shows have become popular is because audiences were bored with things like ‘Big Brother,’?” Billen continues. “But ‘Big Brother’ was an honest deception, whereas these so-called structured reality shows cheat the viewer because they are neither observational documentaries nor drama. It is another little breach of trust between TV and the audience. On the other hand, if Mike Leigh had made ‘The Only Way Is Essex,’ people would regard it as a work of genius, although, unlike Leigh’s films, the characters’ preoccupations are trivial and tawdry.”

Lime is exploring the possibility of selling the rights for local adaptations of “Towie” in Australia, France and Germany — maybe even to the U.S., despite antecedents like “The Hills” and “Jersey Shore.” Wood says he has lined up at least one meeting with a potential U.S. backer.

Says All3Media international production topper Wayne Garvie: “Reconstructed reality is a whole new genre ripe for primetime exploitation. ‘Essex’ is about fantastic casting, and American TV excels at that.”

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