London is hippest, says MTV show

Cole Moreton talks to two Britons who star in a trendy fly-on- the-wall series

CHANNEL 4's rebellious youth show The Word may have been pronounced officially dead last week, but British youth culture was still voted the hippest in Europe by MTV.

The satellite channel - a barometer of youth style across the world - chose London as the location for a European version of its scrupulously trendy American series The Real World.

MTV has achieved some of its best US ratings with the programme, a cross between documentary and teenage soap opera. It throws groups of glamorous young people together in designer flats in cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and films them, fly-on-wall style, 24 hours a day.

For the past six months the format has been repeated in secrecy at a flat at Notting Hill Gate, the cosmopolitan West London area that is not only the stamping ground of older celebrities such as Martin Amis and John Cleese, but also home to members of the new rock music aristocracy such as Damon Albarn of Blur and Justine Frischmann of Elastica.

The flat was shared by seven carefully auditioned young people aged between 18 and 24, from England, Germany, the US and Australia. In typical MTV style, they included a model, a racing-car driver, students, a playwright and a singer.

They lived in an old warehouse decorated by MTV set designers, with hidden cameras and microphones in every room and two camera crews recording every row, confession and courtship. Only the bathroom was out of bounds to the production crew, who worked in a room hidden from the "cast".

The seven participants could do whatever they wanted but had absolutely no control over what was filmed or edited out of the series, which distills more than 3,600 hours of footage into 12 half-hour editions.

"It was a huge invasion of privacy," said Neil Forrester, an Oxford University student who plays in a rock band. "There's no way you can prepare yourself for that. The first few weeks I was almost insane with paranoia. You feel everything you do is imbued with significance because there is a camera crew there pointing a lens in your face."

Mr Forrester returned to studying for a PhD in experimental psychology when the flat was dismantled.

The other English participant was Sharon Gitau, a 20-year-old professional singer from Collier Row in Essex, who had to cope with an operation on her vocal cords during the filming. She also broke the rules by keeping secret a month-long affair with someone outside the flat.

"You could not have conducted a relationship under those conditions, with a crew standing there waving a lens under your face," she said. "They would have stood there for five hours if that was what it took to get a kiss on film."

She has now gone home to live with her mother again and misses the flat, which has been gutted and the contents given to charity. Like Mr Forrester she says she did it as "a social experiment" rather than for the publicity or the money, which was nominal.

"We were kept completely in the dark and only became aware of how little control we had over the programme as it went on," she said. "We get the tapes of the show the week before it goes out. That's all the warning we have. I have seen things that were not as I remembered them at all."

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