Fake breasts, fake tan, fake storylines?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Only Way is Essex was a ratings winner – and now it's won a Bafta. As the latest 'structured reality' show, Geordie Shore, hits our screens, Adam Sherwin explores the genre that's taking over TV

Distinguished Bafta veterans stared in horror as a whooping parade of fake tan and cleavage tottered across the stage.

The victory for The Only Way Is Essex at the television industry's annual awards marked a breakthrough for the latest "reality" genre which has viewers hooked and executives casting around for the next quick hit.

The Only Way Is Essex, or Towie as it is known to addicts of the ITV2 series, has made "structured reality" the buzzword at every channel controller's meeting. Watched by a cult late evening audience of 1.5 million, and another 500,000 catching up online, Towie, with its cast of young, shouty Essex folk fighting a daily battle against good taste, will be remembered as the show that brought the world "vajazzling".

The perfect mid-point between Big Brother and Coronation Street, Towie's collision of documentary, soap opera, and "structured" storylines acted out by real people, has made the Sugar Hut in Brentwood as familiar to viewers as Albert Square's Queen Vic.

The local population are quick to point out that the beauty salon-based subculture exposed inside Essex's golden triangle of Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell and Loughton, does not accurately reflect life in the county.

But the viewing public voted in record numbers for the tight-knit Essex mob who opened their every private conversation to the cameras.

Central character Lauren Goodger, who has launched her own range of tanning products, certainly believes she's as worthy of a Bafta as Sir David Attenborough. She said: "We've made such a great TV show and people have voted for us.

"I think we do deserve it. It's not easy. It's not 'do a bit of filming and that's it'. We put a lot of hard work into it. It's our life."

Towie has already produced a "posh" challenger in E4's Made In Chelsea and tonight MTV unveils Geordie Shore, Newcastle's take on Jersey Shore, the music channel's reality series which was set among a group of Italian-American men.

The genre created to fill airtime on America's youth-based cable networks is now taking over British screens.

"The genesis of Towie was a phone-call five years ago from MTV," said Tony Wood, creative director of Lime Pictures, the Liverpool-based company which produces the Bafta audience award winner. "They wanted to make a British version of their show Laguna Beach and set it on the Cheshire coast."

Laguna Beach, which chronicled the life, loves and social hierarchies of a group of "senior year" students in Orange County, California, spawned a 2006 spin-off series, The Hills.

With its narrative of whirlwind romances and unwise cosmetic surgery, The Hills followed fashion student Lauren Conrad as she moved from her parent's home in Orange County to live in a suspiciously high-end apartment in Los Angeles with three friends.

The characters' model looks hinted to the audience that The Hills was a heightened, version of an aspirational LA, high-fashion lifestyle that most couldn't hope to emulate.

Audiences for The Hills gradually fell off, with the show being cancelled after six seasons, but Conrad and her cohorts have gone on to achieve real-life success in the fashion world.

That didn't prevent accusations that the characters were actors all along. The (unwritten) rule for structured reality is that whilst the locations and scenarios are often instigated by producers, the interaction between the characters is real.

Daran Little, the "story producer" on Towie and Made In Chelsea, is also a regular writer for EastEnders and Coronation Street.

Towie cheerfully acknowledges that scenes are set up, with locations often moved for the benefit of the cameras. So are these shows simply as fake as Lauren Goodger's tan?

"We'll steer the characters to certain places. Before the cameras roll we'll say 'remember to ask what happened last night'," said Mr Wood. "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 they don't want to happen. The emotional narrative is real."

Structured reality has one major advantage for broadcasters in an era of cost-cutting. Once producers have thoroughly researched the social group under the microscope, it's relatively cheap to point cameras at the participants. And the stars of Towie don't have agents demanding huge appearance fees – yet.

Towie's stars weren't paid for the first series and negotiated a modest appearance fee for the second run – a situation which may change now they are Bafta winners.

"I'm incredibly grateful to the cast but we can spread our net a bit wider if someone did leave. Essex is a big county and I've always said the star of the show is Essex," said Mr Wood.

After relying on Katie Price and Peter Andre for its reality "soap opera", ITV2 was nervous about the response to Towie, with its cast of complete unknowns.

Claire Zolkwer, ITV's commissioning editor for entertainment, said: "As a commissioner, the holy grail is a new genre – something that is channel-defining and ground-breaking; and on ITV2, it had to be brash too in order to punch through the terrestrial channels.

"We worked together with Lime to hatch a plan that would borrow from many genres and it eventually became a hybrid, as I see it, of drama, reality and comedy. The comedy/ warm angle was so important."

Television executives don't have to wait for the viewing figures to discover if their "structured reality" show is a hit. The Twitter explosion during the launch episode confirmed that the programme had instantly connected with its target audience.

"Twitter has already given us some pointers on which bits of drama the Made In Chelsea audience like," said David Williams, Channel 4's commissioning editor for entertainment.

E4, which screened The Hills, designed the new series, set amongst a group of wealthy Sloanes, as an "aspirational, glamorous" British response the MTV hit. But producers need to be social anthropologists to create a structured reality hit, Mr Williams argues.

"These shows work best when you have a tribe of people who are rooted in one geographical location and already know each other. It's the opposite of Big Brother where you threw together a group of strangers and hope that they form relationships."

So after gate-crashing the Baftas, will the genre now transfer from late night slots on digital "youth" channels to mainstream terrestrial television? "I think structured reality is here to stay," said Daran Little.

"It doesn't have to be highbrow, it's entertaining. If it's funny and it's good drama and people watch it, I think it's got a right to be (on television)."

ITV2 would fight hard to keep the third Towie series away from its terrestrial big brother, believes Mr Wood. But Lime Pictures now has a hit "brand" on its hands and is said to be seeking a regional spin-off, with Liverpool a prime candidate.

Structured reality: From Laguna Beach to the Tyne – via Beverly Hills

Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County

The original structured reality show came in 2004 as a reaction to the hugely popular US teen drama series The OC. Following the social lives of students at Laguna Beach High School, it exploited the voyeuristic tendencies of the teenage viewers of MTV, and their interest in the lives of the affluent residents of California. Notable storylines included the Lauren/ Stephen/Kristin love triangle and the rivalry between clique leaders Alex Murrel and Kristin Cavallari. The show received much criticism due to the manipulation of scenes, and staged interactions among the cast members, but helped create a new genre.

The Hills

Spin off from Laguna Beach follows Lauren Conrad as she moves from her parent's home in Orange County to study fashion in Los Angeles. Lauren lives with her best friend, Heidi Montag, but they soon part ways due to Lauren's dislike of Heidi's boyfriend Spencer Pratt. The show has a particular interest in the love lives of its cast, as Lauren's unsuccessful relationship with Jason and the professional sacrifices she made for him was the main storyline of Season 1. Heidi and Spencer's relationship became infamous through their manipulation of the media and Heidi's highly publicised plastic surgeries. The show was cancelled in 2010 after six series.

The Only Way is Essex

Described as "Britain's answer to The Hills", The Only Way is Essex portrays the lives of twentysomethings as they live and party in Essex. Narrated by Denise Van Outen, the show has gained a cult following, winning the YouTube Audience Award at the Baftas on Sunday.

Jersey Shore

Follows the lives of eight housemates as they spend their summer in the Jersey Shore area of New Jersey. The show focuses on the so-called "Guido" lifestyle of working-class Italian Americans, and again tends to focus on the sexual exploits of the cast members. The show has garnered record viewing figures for MTV.

Made in Chelsea

Documents the affairs of 12 young socialites in West London. The central character, Caggie, is a part of another love triangle storyline involving Etonian Spencer Matthews. The show recently received criticism in the same vein as The Hills, as the first episode appears to have been staged.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there