Will Chelsea be the new Essex?

Is Britain ready for a series looking at the lives of the young and privileged?
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Wedding wasn’t just aUKtourism advert combined with a national anti-depressant, it also marked a high point for thewealthy Chelsea set who packed the pews at Westminster Abbey.

For just as in the 1980s when William’s parents married, Sloanes are back in the spotlight. Stories of the young royals, their double-barrelled friends, suitors and hijinks on the King’s Road are once again, the regular stuff of magazines and newspaper gossip columns.

What’s more, the area is getting its own TV programme. Tonight sees the first episode of Made in Chelsea, E4’s effort to follow the lives, loves andparties ofagroup of twentysomethings in the upmarket London suburb. In the pipeline for more than a year, the show is the latest in what is being called reality or docu-drama, the format made popular in the United States with hits such as The Hills, The City and Jersey Shore.

While it is script-free it can’t properly be described as reality TV, as the cast are routinely put together at venues and events while the cameras roll. They are also asked to have conversations or recreate events that have happened.

And although it is yet to air, the cast members have already found themselves the target of paparazzi outside nightclubs. The programme also already has a nickname, The Sloaney Way is Chelsea, in a nod to The Only Way is Essex, which now enjoys an audience of more than a million and is ITV2’s most successful show. And inwhat looks to be a bumper month for the concept, MTV is launching Geordie Shore,which follows the lives of a group of beefy boys and permatanned party-loving girls from Newcastle, on 24 May.

“People are wise to the format now,” says Francesca Hull, one of the stars of Made in Chelsea. “Ours is different, done in the style more like the programme Gossip Girl. But while it’s glossy and aspirational, it shows that peoplehave the same highs and lows that most twentysomethings experience in any postcode in any place in world.”

But Hull, an events organiser and blogger, admits she considered the offer very seriously before signing up, wary that such shows can have a negative impact.

“I thought very carefully about it; anyone would be mad not to,” she says. “In TV, things can be cut and edited in certain ways and it’s always a risk, but ultimately it’s an opportunity I didn’t want to regret not doing.”

Ollie Locke is another member of the cast. His long hair and penchant for make-up and eyelash curlers make him a standout character in the show, which he believes reflects a side to the young affluent set in Chelsea not seen before.

“Shows like Young, Posh and Loaded are the only ones that have been made about Chelseaandthe young people in that world, and it’s an awful stereotype,” he says. “So I think it’s great they’ve turned it this way and made it seem quite cool.” Others in the show include “heartbreaker” Caggie Dunlop, fashion designer Amber Atherton and old Etonian broker Spencer Matthews.

Then there’s dancer Funda Onal and long-haired model-cum-music student Fredrik Ferrier, and a girl called Binky.

Two of the male cast members look well-equipped to deal with the potential fame that comes with the show. In 2008 the diamond mining heir Francis Boulle found himself romantically linked to the actress Emma Watson, while the nightclub promoter Hugo Taylor has appeared in newspapers several times, linked with the young royals.

Some of those featured don’t have toworry about silly distractions like work, surviving off the largesse of their parents. Others, meanwhile, have busy, full-time jobs. But all could be described as “privileged”.

While not all the cast knew each other before filming started, many were friends and everyone knew at least one other person, usually the Goldsmith’s University student Rosie Fortesque.

Almost invariably with such shows, there is a mix of the sweet-natured “nice” characters and the arrogant “villains”, the comics and the startlingly slow-witted.

Unlike The Only Way is Essex,however, the makers of Made in Chelsea (who include Sarah Dillistone, a producer on both shows) have made an effort to give the programme a glossy, exclusive look with shoots in expensive bars, restaurants and flats.

Speaking to club owners in the area, it seems that while some are happy for the show to be filmed there, others are worried about the potential negative impact. One said: “We just didn’t think it would do us any favours.” Of course, if it proves to be a success, that may well change.

Charlie Gilkes, an entrepreneur who owns the speakeasy bar Barts and the nightclub Maggie’s in Chelsea, admits that the area can suffer from a dullness. “The pattern with bars, clubs and restaurants in the area is to imitate not innovate, which means it can be rather staid and predictable,” he says.

“Chelsea is London’s most affluent borough so the opportunities are huge, although the people can be fickle so you have to work hard to keep them interested and loyal.”

The producers will be hoping that the broader viewing public will be won over by the how-the-richer-halflive approach.

For many, the prospect of watching a group of young, privileged inhabitants of SW3 party and pull their way through eight episodes will be just too much to bear, especially when much of the country finds itself in straitened economic times.

Cast member Gabriella Ellis, a singer who reached number one on the Greek pop charts last year, says the cast are both prepared for and thick-skinned about potential criticism.

“I’m sure we’ll get some negative press, and I’m sure there’ll be people who hate us, but at the same time I’m sure there’ll be a lot of people who love us, and people who say, ‘Oh! They’re really not as bad as we thought that they would be!’ I am prepared for it, as long as we take it with a pinch of salt, then it’s fine.”

Made in Chelsea starts tonight on E4 at 10.15pm