I scoured the nation for warring families - and there aren't enough to go round

BETTY LOWENTHAL is a journalist who has worked as a television researcher and associate producer on "human interest" current affairs shows and documentaries for C4, the BBC and London Weekend Television.

IT DOES not surprise me to read about the fake participants on Vanessa or that they have been taken from showbusiness agencies. Fifteen years ago we would never have been encouraged to travel down such a route in search of a "sexy" story. The person, problem, and conflict would have to be genuine.

I do find it difficult to believe that Vanessa and the producers are so "amazed" by their staff's admission to using showbiz agencies. I am deeply cynical about the methods used to get "televisual" participants. These range from goading and flattery to emotional manipulation. TV producers and presenters are usually complicit in this process.

One cannot simply blame the researchers. How do you genuinely find people for a five-day-a-week show? To get good guests on a weekly show would be hard enough, but on a daily level - impossible. In the 1980s on Family Affairs, the first programme to deal with warring family factions that had their conflicts "resolved" in the studio, we did only six shows in all - just over a week's worth of Vanessa or Trisha. We had a handful of great researchers and worked hard for six months; even then it was difficult.

We put out trails and ads in the paper. We rang up friends of friends. We pounced on anyone who was remotely interested, wining and schmoozing them like Hollywood producers. We became desperate after weeks of trawling all these initially fruitless avenues. One researcher, who enviably got four case studies in the first five weeks, was unceremoniously sacked after it was discovered that she had invented them.

Then there was always the fear our guests would bottle out. In the very first show of Family Affairs, a working-class girl was to talk about her fiance's snobbish sister who disapproved of the marriage. She was persuaded before the show to be naturally gritty and northern but she was assassinated on screen by the studio audience. At the first-night party you could see the researcher was ashamed of her manipulation, but she eventually became a top TV producer.

How do you find genuine people? Good research skills don't come overnight. You need to be compassionate, caring and in touch with people. The researcher - as the bridge to the often pretentious and patronising world of the director and producer - is vital.

TV trails, which we used, can produce people with genuine problems but just as often they turn up lonely, desperate, attention-seeking individuals hooked on the idea of their five minutes of fame. Some have tried and succeeded on other programmes, and up the shock content of their stories to get booked.

As the influence of American shows deepens, and the British public has become less self-conscious, TV companies are desperate to find "sexier" people and stories. These shows are a self-publicist's dream. Many such people are cynical and know how to get on, often resulting in a freak show. But part of the problem is that America is massive and can afford to have so many chat shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. In the pocket-sized UK, the medium is running out of juice.

We may have the same problems but they cannot be aired in the same way. American society feeds off itself in a cannibalistic way; it has taken the British years just to air our problems to the nation. To copy the US without the content or context simply does not work. Ratings aside, these shows are at saturation point.

If you create an artificial show with an artificial premise then you will not have real people. But those running television seem intent on pushing us towards having no autonomous culture of our own. It is like British directors trying to make a Hollywood-style blockbuster. It doesn't work. It just looks cheap, the sort of plagiarised trash which British television has been producing and getting away with for too long.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
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