“Reality” broadcasting of one kind or another has been around in the UK since before the Second World War, although the label itself is a more recent development, as is the emergence of a loose consensus regarding what constitutes a “reality” show. Programmes such as the British version of Candid Camera, which was first screened in 1960, introduced the principle of depicting ordinary people in unscripted (though often arranged) situations but it is with subsequent generations of shows – arguably beginning with the advent of Big Brother in 2000 – that the genre has become prominent to the point of ubiquity. Finding a television channel that completely shuns reality output is not easy.
There is no sign of the phenomenon losing momentum. In all of its varieties, reality television seems (despite the scathing attention some shows have attracted from critics) to be as popular as ever with the public. From the contrived situations of Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity… to the competitive formats of MasterChef and Strictly Come Dancing, viewers are addicted to shows that perform a peculiar inversion: a bit of conceptual sleight-of-hand whereby ordinary people are turned into instant celebrities, while the rich and famous find themselves precipitated into situations where wealth and status count for nothing.
Despite the astonishing popularity of the programmes themselves, the fame achieved by participants seems usually to be relatively short lived. With the exception of some winners from the talent show sub-genre, very few reality stars seem to persist.
Warhol’s famous comment about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame seems to have been prophetic.
One of the more recent additions to the reality stable is The Only Way is Essex (popularly abbreviated to TOWIE, or “Towie” when spoken). TOWIE is in the vein variously known as “contrived but not scripted” or, more pejoratively, “scripted reality”. The cast are filmed as they ostensibly go about their daily lives. Despite their many layers of cosmetic adornment and enhancement, the show’s opening caption claims that “the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.” The degree of scripting and contrivance has been the subject of lively debate.
So far, few of TOWIE’s cast have gone on to wider fame. Former participant Mark Wright has made a few subsequent television appearances but his own show, Mark Wright’s Hollywood Nights, vanished after one series due to low viewing figures. To date, the only TOWIE star who has enjoyed significant success outside of activities directly tied to the show is Amy Childs.
Amy appeared in the first two seasons of The Only Way is Essex, and immediately became a focal point and one of the most popular characters. There was a certain, endearing starry-eyed enthusiasm about her that appealed to viewers.
Her aspirations seemed plausible and she did appear to have some sense of direction and ambition. She chose to leave after the second series.
In August 2011 The Guardian ran an article questioning TOWIE’s ability to survive Amy’s departure. Despite the article’s satirical tone, there is universal acknowledgement that the loss of Amy was a real blow to the programme.
Although the media often highlights the dubious reality of TOWIE, there is no denying that Amy’s activity since leaving the show has proved that her energy and determination are genuine. Indeed, Amy’s success at school had already shown that she knew how to knuckle down and work. She was head girl at the Raphael Independent School in Essex, and she received qualifications as a beauty specialist from Brentwood Academy.