The new reality
Last Friday afternoon, mid-way down Portobello Road in London, a thin middle-aged man with a rockabilly quiff was standing on the outer edge of the busy pavement, animatedly waving his arms at a young girl holding a lead, attached to which was a small jaunty dog.
The street was lit by an early autumn sunshine that added a luminosity to the girl's 50s-style frock. Her hair looked nice. The thin man shouted, the young girl moved, the small dog trotted on.
A bulky bloke with a large television camera placed on his shoulder like a chronically overweight budgie ducked and dived and recorded the action as it took place.
It was a scene that would have turned heads in most parts of the country, but on this street in Notting Hill, next to the ultra hip Electric Cinema, it was unremarkable.
The thin man is a hairdresser, who leases a shop on Portobello Road for his salon. He has been there for some time, accompanied by the small dog that became a fixture after he had volunteered to look after it for a weekend as a favour for a stallholder across the street twelve years ago.
The young girl is a friend of the hairdresser's who had offered to model for him in a fashion show he was planning for this week. The cameraman is there at the behest of Channel 4.
The hairdresser's name is John. Into his slight frame is packed an ebullient character that commands the space around him with constant camp chatter delivered as a stream-of-consciousness monologue. He appears delighted to have the prying eye of the camera for company.
Which is good, because he has signed-up to become a 'contributor' to Channel 4's latest documentary-cum-soap-cum-reality TV show. For the next eight weeks, along with about 25 other participants, John will be a member of the cast of Seven Days, an hour-long weekly programme that will be broadcast at primetime on Wednesday nights.
Seven Days will launch less than a month after the broadcaster's final fling with Big Brother and is being presented as part of their renewed creative approach. The press release for the show is not circumspect.
It proclaims "a new kind of documentary series" on "TV's biggest reality set" where "the old rules of reality TV are being broken."
It goes on to say that the show will combine the best of documentary film-making with the speed of reality TV editing, and will allow the public to interact with the show's characters online.
The show is devised by TV producer Stephen Lambert the man behind Faking It, Wife Swap and the infamous 'Queengate' BBC programme trailer.
Over the last 18 months, Lambert and his team have been stalking the streets of Notting Hill, seeking potential candidates to take part in the show: ordinary(ish) people who are willing to have a camera follow them around day and night, documenting their lives and recording their conversations.
To date they have signed-up about 25 people, who the TV executives describe as contributors. The contributors are not paid (actually they are paid £1 to effect a contract). The intention has been to include a range of people from different backgrounds who, between them, give a reasonably accurate representation of the inhabitants of Notting Hill.
The promotional material for the show does indeed present a range of individuals, albeit seemingly more caricatures than characters, at least one of which had applied to be a contestant on Big Brother.
Each weekly one-hour documentary is the result of the previous seven days of filming, creating a social document the producers hope will also serve partially as a current affairs show; the national news and incidents of the week filtered through the brains and mouths of the Seven Days cast.
The producers insist the show isn't about giving a bunch of wannabes their chance of C-list stardom, but an attempt at a new kind of documentary film-making, that includes encouraging the public to interact with the cast via a specially designed website.
They say that, unlike many reality shows, there is not the inherent jeopardy in Seven Days where the public votes off contestants each week. Indeed, the jeopardy they have introduced to this show is much greater.
There are six cameras available to follow the lives of at least 25 people. To make a coherent programme means concentrating on three or four stories each week, meaning many of the cast will be left out. Assuming the participants have signed up because they want to be on TV, it seems likely they will be disappointed not to be featured.
The answer would be to make their lives more interesting to a television audience thereby attracting the cameras like moths to a light. Easy enough to do; spice up your life with a crisis or two, become increasingly gobby or morph into a grotesque version of your former self.
The producers say if they think contributors stop being 'true to themselves' they will drop them from the show. This is not a vehicle for fame-seekers.
And it is true John the hairdresser gave an impassioned speech about his motivations for signing up to Seven Days. He wants to show the real Notting Hill to the public, not the sanitised version portrayed in the Richard Curtis film. And he wants to use any newly found public recognition as a way of promoting and saving his salon, which isn't going terribly well. The council want him to hand his lease back.
But what if the show made him a star and LA beckoned, would he be off?
"Oh yes," he replied without missing a beat, "wouldn't you."
The true motivation of the contestants and the producers will become apparent over time. Like Big Brother, this programme is setting out with the high-minded purpose of creating a social document within an experimental new format.
Although Big Brother ended up descending into what some have called a freak show; it did ultimately succeed in achieving its original aim: it was a decade-defining show.
It is possible Seven Days could play a similar role for this decade, or fizzle out after eight weeks having been a ratings failure. It is an intriguing prospect.