I found myself among a group of young people the other day, and they were talking with much hilarity about The Only Way Is Essex (ITV2, Sunday and Wednesday). This is cult television, adored by the generation that watches it. The show is a strange hybrid: real people play themselves under their real names, but with much of the script and many of the plots written for them. So it’s a reality show that has more or less ditched reality.
The cast are young Essex people with money. They spend their time in expensive cars, in the gym, or making themselves beautiful in salons and nail bars. Nail bars! No female would expose her real fingernails in this series any more than she would wear pants that showed off her cellulite. If it hadn’t already been liposuctioned away. Their obsessions are their looks, their cash, and their personal relationships, which they handle badly. They all have the latest mobile phones, but find it very hard to communicate.
You know how occasionally some smartie-pants director decides to set Julius Caesar in a Chicago meat-packing plant, to remind us that Shakespeare’s vision is universal and eternal. In the same weird way Essex reminds me of Jane Austen. There is the same necessarily small social group, gripped by the need to maintain prestige through money and looks, the same nagging anxiety experienced by the women — they want a man ‘who will really look after me’, which means spend money on them. Relations with the opposite sex are made almost impossible by misunderstanding — ‘does he really want me at his birthday party now that we’re not together, even though we were going out since we were at school?’ — for example.
The cast are really only at ease with their own sex. Men present to women both a promise and a threat. The men themselves are frightened of losing their freedom in marriage: ‘I go out drinking with my mates three times a week, I’ve got it made,’ says one young man explaining his failure to commit.
I don’t suppose Mr Darcy would spend £80 on a haircut, or drive a flash car like a BMW (a Land Rover, I am sure) but otherwise he would feel right at home among these confused, status-conscious folk.
One word that Essex has brought across the Atlantic for our delectation is ‘vajazzle’. The very mention of it caused the young persons I was with to collapse in mirth. Vajazzle consists of small crystals which are arranged in pleasing patterns over a woman’s shaved pubic hair. They are taken off a few days later, having served their purpose, but can be reused. The aim, presumably, is to make the vagina look more attractive to men than it already is, though I suspect that, since the vajazzle has to be applied by someone else, it is also designed to impress other women — as all beauty treatments are anyway. Including bust enlargement.
The 19th-century critic John Ruskin is alleged to have been made impotent on his honeymoon by the sight of his wife’s pubic hair, since his study of classical art had left him unaware that women also grew the stuff. If Effie on her wedding night had had the nous to shave then apply a little vajazzle — the stones of Venice, you might say — she might have saved years of heartache.
Naturally a lot — maybe most — of the people who watch Essex with such delight are scoffing at the characters. Mockery, open or implied, is a growing feature of the most popular shows. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which was a huge surprise hit for Channel 4, invited us to gawp, indeed jeer, at travellers. The travellers are well aware of this and have expressed great resentment. Then there is Coach Trip in which we laugh at the socially inept, and Come Dine with Me which lets us laugh at the gastronomically incompetent, with a sarcastic voiceover, just in case we miss a single embarrassing moment.
By contrast, The Simpsons (Sky) are admirable folk, worthy of our respect, or at least the women are. George Bush Sr once said that he wished American families could be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. He missed the point. The Simpsons are a close, loving family, in some ways a role model for us all.
This week they had a special edition satirising awards shows. It was very funny. As always in the best American sitcoms, even cartoon ones, every single line has to earn its place. They had somehow persuaded several Brits to voice themselves, including Russell Brand, whose jokes are met with silence, and Ricky Gervais, as a vain, preening tightwad who steals the barman’s tips. At least they are jeering at themselves.