"I'll do anything to get on telly"

Enough reality television ... get those flies off the wall, I say

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There used to be a little interlude in that much revered/reviled late-night young person's show,
The Word, entitled, "I'll do anything to get on telly". Seriously inebriated teenagers or those with what looked like severe personality disorders would go through a series of not so much Herculean, as emetic, tasks to demonstrate how much they were prepared to debase themselves for a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-me appearance on the small screen.

There used to be a little interlude in that much revered/reviled late-night young person's show, The Word, entitled, "I'll do anything to get on telly". Seriously inebriated teenagers or those with what looked like severe personality disorders would go through a series of not so much Herculean, as emetic, tasks to demonstrate how much they were prepared to debase themselves for a don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-me appearance on the small screen.

It would not be unusual to see a scantily clad young man sitting in a bath of phlegm, or licking an old lady's armpit or - the one I always hoped for and never saw - giving a seminar on the collected works of Andrea Dworkin. Those were the days when people who were desperate for the glow of a camera lens on their ego were limited to a few seconds. Now they positively fill our waking hours as the bandwagon that is reality TV starts to run out of control as it heads to the edge of the quarry labelled "viewer overload".

The most recent addition to this panoply of voyeurism, combined with a dollop of schadenfreude, is a Channel 4 exploit in which a family from over here, the Nestors, consisting of white mum, black dad and three kids, go and live in a community in Swaziland in remote rural isolation in - wait for it ladies and gentlemen - a mud hut until they can't bear it any longer because they haven't got clean pants, or all their hair falls out, whichever comes first.

The pre-publicity for the show points to such delights as Mrs Nestor not being able to show off her knees or not being able to have a bath when she fancies one. Lucky old Mr Nestor, on the other hand, in this seemingly macho paradise finds his gender smiled upon and generally gets far more of a chance to do the pipe, slippers and lording it over the ladies thing.

The kids, aged 13, eight and four "miss their Playstations". This leads me to pose the question whether children actually have such a thing as a personality anymore these days, as their lives seem to be a never-ending series of being torn away from their Playstations and having a sulk about it, which is indistinguishable from the way they interact socially anyway. If you told me they'd miss their books or their hamster I'd cheer up immensely.

Reality TV - or manipulated documentary - is at the height of its powers, having metamorphosed to become almost a replacement for gardening and cookery shows. There is no doubt it is entertaining, but this is because it is manipulated. This means you have to select a group of people who will rub each other up the wrong way, because if everyone got on famously and made each other cups of tea all the time, it would be too much like a party political broadcast.

I watched much of the Castaway and Big Brother extravaganzas too. Incidentally, I don't know if anyone else has noticed the appearance of entirely new characters in Castaway towards the end, who were named on screen, but then ignored for the rest of the programme, making one wonder whether they had been there all along or sneaked into the shot to see if continuity noticed. And if they had been there all along, were they just too tedious to draw attention to?

One of the fundamental challenges for reality TV programme-makers is that people can be tedious a lot of the time, particularly the bubbly ones. This means you have to film them for ages to get a few minutes of good telly and edit the result carefully to make each individual into the person you want them to be. Rows and romances are the fodder of reality TV, and if you can't have them spontaneously you make sure they happen one way or another.

To nip back to the Nestors, I suppose there is plenty of opportunity for dissent in parachuting this British family into such a different culture. But why not make some reality TV about people dropping into our culture and the delightful reception asylum-seekers get. I suspect there'd be a mite too much reality for our liking in that one.

The key to reality TV is the way in which everything which reaches our screens is mediated through a third party with the inevitable demands of channel ethos and controller personality. So, for example, in Big Brother if you want to create a hideous tart who cannot keep their hands off members of the opposite sex and appears to be continuously on heat, you collect all those shots together in which they are doing hideous tart, and you've got Craig. Only kidding, of course I mean Melanie, because I often forget that blokes groping women and talking ad nauseam about what they want to do to them sexually is a good laugh, but when woman do it they are shameless whores who must be publicly humiliated. Thank the Lord for the tabloids, eh Mel?

I am so happy I'm not Mr or Mrs Nestor, because I reckon they're in for a rough ride. It remains to be seen whether they are the sort of irritating, intolerant people who will create their own world of watchable disputes, or whether they will need to be pushed a bit because they're too nice. Whatever happens, TV exposure of this sort can never be the idyll one imagines. However much of a sophisticated version the latest reality TV is, it's still the "I'll do anything to get on telly" syndrome. The sight of the Nestors hand-in-hand with the members of the Mozambiquan community walking into the sunset to the sound of drumming is not what most people consider good telly. Being chucked into the jaws of a crocodile for breaking a spurious rule would be more like it.

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