Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shilpa Shetty: Reality Bites Back

Ten years ago I wrote this article about fly on the wall documentary film makers. The most celebrated of these was Paul Watson. The article was inspired by his film The Dinner Party. The eight diners were, of course, utterly humiliated, all in the name of Watson's declared mission to be 'subversive'. In fact, Watson was being dishonest. What we saw was a second dinner party, the first had been judged too incoherent and Watson decided to reshoot the whole thing. In other words, what we were seeing was not reality, but a deliberate construct by a left wing film maker determined to portray his victims as fascists. Now the 'reality' TV show Big Brother has run into trouble over racist remarks about the Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. Channel 4's first response was to dismiss the remarks as 'girly rivalry', which sounds pretty damned sexist to me, a clear case of a press office making matters worse. The matter is to be raised in Parliament and 4 has had to change its tune - 'Big Brother does not tolerate bullying or racist abuse in any form....' Blah blah blah. This I find very funny. Both cases expose these 'reality' shows for what they really are - cynical manipulations and the most artificial and unreal forms of TV ever devised. This exposure happens in both cases because a tiny sliver of real reality intruded on this process - the first, chaotic dinner party or the mildly racist remarks. This dangerous intruder from the real world must at once be crushed. The viewers must not, under any circumstances, be woken from their complacent slumber. They might discover they were only dreaming.


  1. There is one element of the whole, sorry thing that rings true: when you bring together a mixed group of the congenitally moronic and the crushingly boring the result is unadulterated drivel, only of interest to ...who? I'm not quite sure about the last bit, although they must be numerous.

  2. I agree. Put stupid people on TV and they will say stupid things. Pull the show I say!

    Of course the show was dying on its arse with about as many viewers as the Chelsea flower show until this happened...

  3. Agreed Brian.

    Strange to think we congratulate ourselves on banning cock-fighting and bear baiting.

    And here is a "left-wing" channel deliberately orchestrating fights between uneducated people.

    For profit.

  4. Of course, 'Big Brother' is made by a company owned by a scion of the Victorian dynasty that constructed London's mainring sewers.

  5. We all know that the glut of bossy, nannying reality shows (You Are What You Eat, What Not to Wear, Celebrity Fit Club etc) purport to be about improving our lifestyles but are really just excuses for audiences to guffaw at the depths of obese stupidity to which obese, stupid people can sink.

    A particularly pernicious offshoot of this is the exploitation of children in reality TV shows for our ‘entertainment’. There was a Radio 4 programme recently about how an episode of Wife Swap had condemned the children therein to such levels of school bullying that they were virtually suicidal.

    Ian Wright’s recent TV show was even more nauseating – basically, fat kids failing to retain any dignity while lumping haplessly round a gymnasium.

    I have somewhat less sympathy for Celebrity Big Brother contestants. They can’t really complain about exploitation by the producers since they’re surely going in with their eyes open (if they haven’t seen it before, their agents will have).

    Essentially, appearing on Celebrity Big Brother is a game of Russian roulette for hasbeens.

    Depending on how you come across, it can either (briefly) resurrect a dead-end career (Pete Burns, Claire Sweeney); utterly destroy your credibility and dignity (Leo Sayer, George Galloway) or, sometimes, both (John McCrirrick; Vanessa Feltz). All the contestants know the risks.

  6. I have never ever seen a 'reality' TV programme. I know of the animal. It lurks somewhere near prime time TV land I believe.

  7. I'm afraid to tell you James, you've been starring in one for the last two years now.

    Although Big Brother is simply awful, this whole racism thing has got slightly out of hand hasn't it? From what I've seen on the news clips the differences seem more cultural and personal, (as well as a disturbing amount of ignorance) than racist. And now effigy burning? I mean really?! Well Channel 4 will be pleased with all this attention.

  8. Big Brother is basically a type of interactive pantomine: stupid, ignorant, and irritating people are built up as the 'baddies', through their own words and actions, the public get the cathartic experience of voting the baddies out, and then the 'goodies' win. The basic message of Big Brother voting is that decent people still outnumber stupid and ignorant people. Its Shilpa v Jade in the vote this week, but this should be one occasion on which the Goody won't win.

  9. MTV recorded one season of Real World here in Philadelphia. A bus route was diverted away from the building where the real-people-and-not-at-all-aspiring-actors lived. Two public phones, among the only two functioning ones in the neighborhood, were ripped out from in front of the building. All this in the name of recording reality, albeit a carefully manipulated version.

    And Philadelphia officials, desperate for attention and desperate to be regarded as representing a great city, welcomed this.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  10. "Reality TV" was never real. It was always edited to create drama, even where there was none. After all, TV drama needs to have narrative, conflict, and drama, or it won't get good ratings. One of the original US reality shows, "Cops," was obviously edited. Then again, I know a little about film-making and narrative writing, so maybe the seams wouldn't show to average beer-swilling proletariat viewer. (Not being elitist here, just pointing out that maybe the target market for these shows is not the generally smart people who post on your blog, Bryan.)

    So, "reality TV" is and always was about as big an oxymoron as "military intelligence" or "jumbo shrimp."

    I could care less if Paul Watson was trying to be subversive or left wing: polemic from a hidden agenda is a problem no matter where one falls on the political spectrum. The same problem is true for the so-called documentaries that come out of the Christian fundamentalists: they have an unspoken agenda, too.

    By contrast, when you know up front what the filmmaker's position and agenda is, as you do with Michael Moore's or Kevin Smith's documentaries, they can be quite fun. Even if you disagree with them, you know where everyone stands.

    I would liked to see the original dinner party, though. Boring and chaotic as it was, that would more closely havae represented real life, and might have been very interesting in a Zen-like way. Real life is far more surreal, far more weird, far more synchronistic, and far more absurd, than any of these so-called "reality" dramas.

  11. I loathe reality shows; my teenage children love them. What is the premise of "Big Brother"? I don't recollect walking through the living room and seeing this show. Is one forced to take on a stranger as a sibling? Or is it something related to Orwell's "1984"?

    Many people are boors and louts; I suppose reality TV delights in exploiting their natural tendencies for the amusement of people able to restrain their boorish, loutish tendencies (at least, before cameras). Perhaps my kids like these shows because they're closer to that kind of childish behavior.

    After all, didn't "Borat" just make a mint thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen's ability to make real people reveal their idiocy/racism/ignorance to his camera crew? Now *that* was a reality show.

    Our era of culture makes a drainage ditch look like high ground.

  12. Gordon McCabe makes an insightful point above, which is often overlooked: the whole Big Brother experience is deeply moralistic.

    The public always punishes bad behaviour and rewards the nice guys, no matter what the relative entertainment values.

  13. Anonymous, I have rejected your comment which appears to put words into the mouth of Shilpa Shetty. It is highly defamatory.