To TOWIE or not to TOWIE: Structured reality vs. documentary

While the debate about structured reality negatively impacting documentary may be as old as the hills (or, more specifically, The Hills) in the U.S., with the increasing popularity of programs such as The Only Way is Essex (pictured) in the UK, it's fertile ground for discussion there. Carol Nahra looks at last week's BAFTA debate which tackled the subject.
April 25, 2012

At first glance it might be hard to understand how a genre which has yet to make its terrestrial debut in the UK can pose a threat to the long and healthy tradition of British documentary. But the popularity of ‘structured reality’ series such as The Only Way is Essex (ITV2), Made in Chelsea (E4) and Geordie Shore (MTV) has come to the surprise – and sometimes dismay – of veteran UK program makers.

Bowing to the rapidly changing reality landscape, BAFTA recently introduced a new “reality and constructed documentary” award category for 2012. It will bring together for the first time a wide array of constructed reality programs, of which ‘structured’ reality is the latest and most controversial upstart.

In the run-up to the upcoming awards ceremony BAFTA hosted a debate last week, asking a panel of factual filmmakers: “Is Structured Reality Corrupting Documentary?” All four panellists boasted strong doc credentials, including two BAFTA-award winning doc-makers Molly Dineen, and Brian Hill (Century Films). They were joined by constructed reality pioneers Claire Faragher (series producer and executive producer for The Only Way is Essex series 1 and 2), and veteran factual producer Richard McKerrow (Love Productions), creator of The Baby Borrowers.

Much of the debate was tied up in an extensive discussion as to whether structured reality series can ever be considered part of the documentary family. Several attendees insisted that it was closer to the improvised dramas of director Mike Leigh than to traditional British documentaries.

Hill argued that while his own creative films such as Feltham Sings – in which subjects sing and dance – are certainly documentaries, structured reality series are not, principally because of the artifice stamped by producers.

The most striking example of this artifice was Faragher’s admission that TOWIE‘s most famous scene – when two characters use a new intimate beauty treatment known as ‘vajazzle’ – was something she herself introduced to them. The treatment has come to define the character of the series, to the extent that the TOWIE DVD box set is known as the Vajazzle box set, provoking debate moderator Simon Dickson (formerly with C4, now with Dragonfly) to point out, “The very thing that embodies the entire series in marketing terms is not something that genuinely existed within their world at all until you brought it to them.”

Both Faragher and McKerrow readily admit to such manipulation (and indeed the TOWIE series has an upfront voiceover saying some scenes are made up). They argued, however, that the characters’ emotional honesty places the genre firmly in the world of documentary. McKerrow insisted that the doc genre had to change with the times, and that structured reality represented its natural evolution. “I think it is documentary because documentary is changing. That’s what is exciting about it – documentary can keep reinventing itself and changing.”

For Dineen, the critical issue was whether broadcasters considered the genre to be documentaries. “If they’re calling this documentary then it’s a real problem for actual documentary because they are going to take up slots and budgets,” she maintained, adding that broadcasters might hold back on allowing doc-makers “to discover what is happening here or there or put themselves in a humble way in somebody’s life which is messy, expensive and a long process.”

The lightweight subject matter of structured reality posed another irritant to Dineen and Hill. “I don’t have anything against innovation in documentary or playing with the form,” said Hill. “I just wish that shows like Essex and Chelsea were more purposeful – I can find nothing of interest.”

McKerrow argued that imposing an entertainment framework doesn’t render a subject superficial, and that there was a spectrum of content within constructed reality, just as there is with drama.

“There is this snobbishness and there is this criticism in the press, often a knee jerk, ‘Oh, it’s a reality show,’” he said. “What they can’t understand is the fusion of an entertainment frame to a purposeful subject.”

For Hill, the evolution of reality has cemented the demand by broadcasters to know what it is they are buying. “Increasingly what I hear from commissioning editors when I’m pitching ideas is, ‘What’s going to happen? What will he say, what will he do?’” he said. “And I say, ‘I don’t know that because it’s a documentary.’ And if you want documentaries like that to survive then broadcasters have to give people like us the time and the space and the budget and have to have confidence that we’ll turn up with something.”

While changes in the world of factual will always render divisions in Britain’s doc-making community, there was one area in which all the panelists found common ground: the dangerous creep of celebrity culture.

“Bit by bit by bit, telly is being monopolized by people wanting to be famous,” said Dineen. “People are beginning to produce a kind of personality on telly.”

Faragher, who has watched the characters she cast go from being unknowns to major celebrities, concurred. “It’s a bit of a curse,” she admitted. “I have to watch out for contributors embarking on storyline to stay famous. I have had one have a tantrum on me once, saying, ‘I want more storylines! Give me more storylines!’”


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