Until recently, I found myself inadvertently living in the midst of a reality television series called The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE). The series is so phenomenally successful that it has just embarked upon its twenty fourth series. Many of the scenes were filmed just yards from our front door and it was not uncommon for us to have to pick our way through television cameras and half a dozen preening Z-list celebrities. They spent much of their days hanging about as they prepared to shoot the latest scenes of what appeared to me to be a bafflingly vacuous and poorly scripted take on a ‘reality’. It was a take on reality which was fake, anodyne and unwittingly miserable. Of course, you do not need me to tell you that there was nothing remotely authentic about the scenarios that these young men and women were forced to play out at the director’s behest. Everything was illusory – right down to the shellac nails, false eyelashes and lip fillers. Yet the success of a few participants in such shows has inspired many young people to cling to the hope that they too can commodify themselves and achieve enduring appeal by becoming a Twitter sensation or Instagram star. Millions of followers, columns in magazines, modelling contracts, appearances at nightclubs have all served to make a very few reality television stars extraordinarily rich, but the vast majority fade into obscurity.
The recent suicides of Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon have prompted a good deal of reflection upon the negative and exploitative underbelly of reality television. There are inevitable and incessant pressures placed upon those who are encouraged to promote a seemingly glamorous and carefree lifestyle. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for some, the superficial culture that envelopes participants on such shows becomes stifling and destructive. There was a time in the not too distant past when Joey Essex enjoyed a level of celebrity usually reserved for royalty. He still has 3.37 million Twitter followers and there is no doubt that this complex young man is a good deal more interesting than the version of himself that he feels compelled to promote so relentlessly. Joey has launched a range of urban clothing, interviewed political heavyweights such as Gordon Brown and Vince Cable and has even released his own brand of aftershave which is, we are led to believe, well ‘reem’. Despite being a proud Essex man, even I struggle to understand the enduring appeal of Joey Essex Presents Essex Anthems – a disc of club classics which I am most unlikely to acquire, less still appreciate.
Built upon the shifting sands of public opinion, such celebrity does not endure. It focuses on the transitory and materialistic aspects of life. It exalts physical beauty/aesthetic perfection and serves to create a sense of real inadequacy and anxiety in impressionable young minds. All of these shows present a distorted version of reality. The ultimate hollowness of it all makes one think of Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. The absurdity of it all was foreshadowed by the 1998 film The Truman Show. The ultimate plaything of the greedy media corporation, Unknowingly, Truman Brubank is raised on a simulated television show broadcast live around the clock and across the globe.
By way of contrast, the magisterial sweeping expanse of the Up documentary series is certainly worth watching. Its ambitiously epic timeframe makes it Wagnerian in scope and yet the narrative is both mundane and unexpected. Produced by Granada Television for ITV, the series follows the lives of fourteen British children since 1964 when they were just seven years old. Michael Apted, the series director, started from the premise that an adult is essentially knowable from their seven year old self. Returning to his subjects at seven yearly intervals, he has recorded births, deaths, marriages, professional successes and personal failures. In the most recent installment, 63 Up, which was broadcast last week, he invited participants to reflect upon their lives and probed their attitudes towards retirement and potential infirmity. The resultant film is profoundly moving and utterly captivating. That is because we see ourselves in the lives of these fourteen individuals. We recognise their hopes and dreams as ours. We understand their foibles and sympathise with their struggles and abiding sense of frustration. Above all else, 63 Up is an elegiac anthem to life itself – stripped bare of the posturing pretence and deceptive swagger of more modern shows that purport to represent reality. The series participants have deliberately shied away from publicity and yet are prepared to reflect upon their lives with rare candor. I think it unlikely that Michael Apted will catch up with his subjects in their seventieth year – not least because he will be in his mid-eighties by that stage. Without doubt, the ambitious scope of his project allows us to emotionally and intellectually engage with the most exciting journey imaginable – that of life itself. No other television series has presented such an enduring glimpse of reality. 63 Up can be watched at https://www.itv.com/hub/7-63-up-uk/2a1866a0001
What I would hope the Up series might teach young people is that life passes by with a speed which is unfathomable when you are still a child. Furthermore, it demonstrates that there is great joy to be achieved in simply living a decent life. At the age of 63, most of the participants had achieved a degree of serenity despite not necessarily fulfilling the dreams of their youth. Life is unpredictable but despite the vicissitudes and heartache experienced by some of these participants, they definitely exude a stronger sense of ‘self’ at 63 than they did at 21. One of my favourite participants was the Liberal Democrat Councillor, Neil Hughes, whose longstanding commitment to public service was predicated upon a past which included dropping out of university and living a nomadic and rootless existence in the Scottish Highlands. Despite years of wandering in the wilderness he has now found his promised land. For Neil that means serving as a lay preacher in the Church of England and representing Shap ward on Eden District Council.
Speaking of which, I am delighted that our current team of monitors have decided to commit themselves to contributing to so many different areas of school life. From teaching Latin to assisting in the Learning Development Department or coaching hockey, all of our monitors have undertaken to make a meaningful and personal contribution to school life during their time in office. Already, they are impressing staff and pupils alike with their commitment and sense of service.