Reality TV: Paddington Green and Popstars

February 2001

In the past, television had two major strengths: its honesty, and its dishonesty. With our compliance, programme after programme pulled the wool over our eyes, convincing us that day was night and a studio in Shepperton was a beach in Borneo. Between the soaps and the drama, television afforded an unparalleled opportunity to glimpse over the garden fence and see real, honest to goodness people living real, honest to goodness lives.

Honest and dishonest television used to be reassuringly separate entities. You were either watching reality or make believe and you knew which was which. Then 'reality' television came along and suddenly, it's not that simple.

In 1998, I came within a gnat's wing of starring in fly on the wall, reality TV. The producers of BBC's Paddington Green were snooping around the neighbourhood in search of characters and the owner of a local boutique put my name forward as a possible candidate. I like to think of myself as living in Little Venice, not Maida Vale, and certainly not Paddington, but the producers of reality television don't let a rogue postcode stand in their way. One quick interview, and I was in. By appointment, a camera crew started to follow me around. They'd shadow me in rehearsals, probing me on the 'human' angle of a ballerina's life: 'What's it like, watching younger dancers taking over your roles?' My in-built instinct to keep failure quiet joined forces with a burgeoning inner politician to produce circumspect answers. 'Oh, you have to make room for the next generation'. A few weeks later, the crew accompanied me backstage at the Coliseum, where I was dancing Swan Lake in The Royal Ballet's summer season. They filmed me making up and selecting pointe shoes and then, half an hour before curtain up, I started to get twitchy and sent them away. During the intervals, they were back. How was it going? Did anything go wrong? Was I disappointed? I got twitchier. Surely they could do this another night, a night when I didn't actually have a show? No one would ever know it wasn't real.

It wasn't long before the producer stopped calling. I'd missed the point, and, at the same time, the boat: my own chat show, perhaps a record deal, celebrity appearances at supermarkets throughout the land. I hadn't understood that I was supposed to break down in front of the camera, wailing that I'd fluffed the fouettes or decked it during the diagonal. I come from the theatre, you see. When things go wrong, I keep smiling and hope that no one out front noticed. It's all an illusion and you, the audience, don't want to know what goes on to make it happen. You want to think I'm flying: you don't want to see the wires.

Or apparently you do. The ITV series Popstars confused the reality issue even further by showing real people in the real process of creating something entirely unreal. It exposed, quite blatantly, the charade of manufacturing a pop band. We've seen the wires, and every potential record buyer in the country knows that the group was born not out of spark and individuality, as great bands generally are, but processed according to a tried and tested recipe. Mass culture aimed at mass market success: there's little to chew on and certainly no troublesome bones. The ingredients of popular culture - something off the wall, something idiosyncratic, something that the artist believes in, despite what the audience might think – are conspicuously absent. But the bookies have the group at 6/1 to hit the number one spot by Christmas. They're clearly anticipating that the 10 million viewers who followed Popstars, who are under no illusions, who have seen the fraud for what it is, will, nevertheless, spend their hard earned on the album. Reality television? This band will only become reality if you and I fall for it. The betting is that we will.