David Cameron's London neighbourhood of Notting Hill is to be the setting for a long-running observational television series that Channel 4 hopes will fill the void left by the departure from its schedules of Big Brother.
The project, one of the most ambitious in the history of Channel 4, is intended to have the real-time drama of big reality shows such as Big Brother and ITV's I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! but will be shot in an open environment, with the key characters being filmed as they go about their normal lives.
Provisionally titled Notting Hill, the show will start in the autumn and be screened for an hour each week, detailing the experiences of the characters during the previous seven days. Unlike Big Brother, the people taking part will be able to gain access to what is being written about them online and in the newspapers.
Channel 4's head of programmes, Julian Bellamy, said the project involved "stepping into virgin territory" and the show would have an unlimited run, depending on audience response. "We are all stepping into the unknown because no one has actually done something on this scale in documentary in the way we are going to do it," he said.
Notting Hill is being made by Stephen Lambert, the man behind a succession of successful international Channel 4 formats such as Wife Swap and Faking It. Lambert is also known as the producer behind the documentary footage of the Queen being photographed by Annie Leibovitz, the presentation of which led to the resignation of the former BBC One controller Peter Fincham.
Lambert said he had been asked by Channel 4 to come up with a big idea for a show which had the same immediacy as Big Brother. "People use the term 'reality programme' in different ways. For me it was always something with that real-time quality, the fact that what you are seeing hasn't unfolded yet," he said. "I have been thinking about how one could introduce that into documentary. Reality shows up until now have existed in a closed universe – the people in Big Brother or I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! are in a sealed space where they don't know how they are being perceived on television. An open real-time programme is obviously hugely challenging."
He said that although the series would be a documentary, it would possess some of the qualities of a soap opera. "It wouldn't be unreasonable to compare it to the multi-character structure of an EastEnders or a Coronation Street," he said. "Like [those programmes], our thought is that we will have people who we are following, but over the course of the series some people may drop out of the show and others will come in."
There will be around 10 key characters in the programme, selected by the production company Studio Lambert. The show is not a competition and there will be no auditions. "We want a range of characters, although the majority will be in their twenties and early thirties, so they are likely to be very internet-savvy," said Lambert. "We will look for people who are going to enjoy the experience of having their lives followed in this way but who are still able to be authentic to who they are, rather than just using it as a fame vehicle."
Notting Hill was chosen as the location because of its international fame and cultural and economic diversity. Lambert said that associations with the Richard Curtis feature film of the same name were not an obstacle. Nor was the presence in the locality of Mr Cameron, George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, and other members of the Notting Hill set.
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"Notting Hill has so much to offer," he said. "The variety of people's life opportunities, the cultural mix and the fact that people have heard about it – partly because of the movie, partly because of what it is and partly because the people who may well be running the country by the time the series goes on air all live there."
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