The other day I had a very dispiriting conversation with a TV industry insider. It turns out that everything you see on reality TV is fake.
It’s the ‘everything’ part that really bothered me. Obviously, we all sort of know that most TV is faked: that close-ups on wildlife documentaries are sometimes filmed in zoos and that the meerkat they pretend is the same meerkat is actually three different meerkats; that the chance meetings with colourful characters and experts are all prearranged and that when they answer the door and act surprised it’s often the third or fourth take; that the glamorous parties and realistic, totally unstilted dialogue on Made in Chelsea wouldn’t happen if the cameras weren’t there; and so on. But some things I thought were sacred.
Storage Hunters, for example. It had simply never occurred to me that, when the man cuts the chain with the bolt cutter, the tarpaulin is pulled off, and the storage locker for which the successful bidders have paid just $300 contains a Riva speedboat, an original copy of the US constitution, Neil Armstrong’s space helmet and a jar of 1933 double eagle gold coins, there’s a possibility that at least one of these items might have been put there beforehand by the production crew.
Also dog training. For the past couple of years, I have been trying — without much success, it must be said — to teach our dog that I am its pack leader by always making sure to precede it through gates and doorways. Turns out, though, that this is just some complete rubbish that Cesar the alleged dog-training expert came up with on his now defunct series Dog Whisperer. Apparently — as subsequent research has shown — your dog doesn’t respect you in the slightest if you go through doorways before it does. This, certainly, tallies with my own experience.
Now we’re starting a new season of one of my favourite reality series, The Island With Bear Grylls (Sunday, Channel 4). In the past, this has got itself into trouble by helping out the struggling contestants with little cheats. One year, for example, the production crew brought on some pigs — tame domesticated ones: ergo, comfortable in a human’s presence — for the starving girls tearfully to slaughter. On another occasion, just when the group were on the verge of dying of thirst, they handily chanced upon a supply of fresh water from a rubber-lined pool such as is often found on remote, uninhabited islands.
But the danger is real enough. Last year, there was the most horrific scene where one of the contestants fell on to some rocks and could easily have broken his back. We also had several scorpion stings. This week, we’ve already had one ageing castaway nearly swept away and drowned by a perilous current while stubbornly trying to negotiate a stretch of treacherous tidal water. I’d love to know how their risk assessment and insurance works.
It helps, I suppose, that they’re filming off Panama — and not, say, somewhere equivalently tropical in Australia, where the wildlife is so much more dangerous. Bear Grylls loves to reassure us how deadly caimans are, but they’re nowhere near in the same league as salties. Also, in that swept-away-by-the-tide scene, the bloke would have been consumed by tigers or bulls long before the policewoman swam to his rescue. As for the taipans…
This year’s theme is youngsters v. oldies. Initially, it looked as though age and guile would win. By the end of the first day, the canny oldsters had prepared their shelters and made their fire. The under-30s, meanwhile, were so busy flirting and bickering and practising their yoga, and all the other stupid stuff that stupid young people do, that it was suddenly day three and they still hadn’t produced a flame to boil the water to render it drinkable, so were at risk of dying of thirst.
Then, inevitably, fortune’s wheel turned. What these series are, above all, is a triumph of editing, and however much you may loathe the fakery you cannot but admire the skill with which all that footage is shaped into satisfying drama: the annoying dork whom everyone hates — up until the point where he makes the fire and catches all the fish; the wise, capable one who loses it completely in the mud. You desperately want to stop watching because you’ve been here before and it’s all such a huge waste of life. But you can’t because this is televisual soma made by terrible, cynical, brilliant people who know exactly where your weaknesses lie.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.