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The new reality

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Will Gompertz | 08:47 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

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.

Dog in a Salon


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 promotional poster


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.


  • Comment number 1.

    What you are describing is brain dead TV for the terminally brain dead - so no change there then. Reality TV is not a gendre is is lazy thinking by the creative people. They can't be arsed to do anything like drama so why not just film 'paint drying' - that would arguably be more culturally interesting!

    Reality TV is the triumph of the most expensive technology over story telling. The technology consumes most of the production cost whilst the script writing, set dressing, costume design are free. The balance is all wrong. I have always believed that people like to be told stories that have a begging, middle and end. That is a structure. Structure is artificially achieved in reality TV mainly by the excess use of technology - what is needed is more scripted drama NOT more reality TV. Bring back scriptwriters, sets and set designers, costumes and costume designers and put the technology back into the cupboard where it belongs!

  • Comment number 2.

    So everyones forgotten The bbcs Paddington Green, then.

  • Comment number 3.

    The problem with genuine "reality" TV is that these days everyone is rather knowing, they are aware they are on TV and therefore behave with that fact in mind. Having said that such programmes as "The Family" came close to reflecting genuine lives, though even then there was a degree of "playing to the cameras".
    I must admit I have never watched "Big Brother" or it's various spin-offs, but I fail to see why talent shows have mysteriously become "reality" shows, either of Cowell's efforts or the various dancing/singing programmes are just 'Opportunity Knocks' and 'New Faces' with a glossy cover and a bigger budget.
    I agree with John from Hendon, more proper dramas, I'd rather watch a drama I don't like than the mindless dross of amateur night and the 'Dog & Dock' transported to a big stage.

  • Comment number 4.


    (That was the sound coming from the bottom of the barrel)

  • Comment number 5.

    That sounds mind numbingly awful, in addition to just being cheap TV, where the programme makers won't even pay the "stars".....looks like I'll be spending more money on dvd's

  • Comment number 6.

    I think they should document the movements of the commenters on here. Personally I'd be fascinated to watch the lives of these astonishing oracles who have already made their minds up before even viewing a second of the programme.

    Its so much easier to have an a priori opinion than to have to judge everything on its own merits, isn't it?

  • Comment number 7.

    This is not an new idea but it's quite an interesting one. As wales_wails says - Paddington Green was a similar experiment and some years ago what I recall as a nightly programme on BBC2 after Newsnight following a similar cast of eccentrics around Soho at night. Does anyone else remember that? It was gripping!

  • Comment number 8.

    A real life version of Private Eye cartoon It's Grim Up North London. Can't wait. Tune in next time to see which improbably expensive, achingly hip and convoluted coffee Tarquin buys for his breakfast. Come on BBC enough lazy crowd pleasing, let's have Strictly Sacked from the Fall or a year in the life of Mark E Smith. Challenging-uh.

  • Comment number 9.


    I'd rather see an insightful documentary into the motivations of sanctimonious concern trolls.

  • Comment number 10.

    More cheap TV.
    Though this does seem to concur with the definition of "reality". Most "reality" TV shows are far removed from that (at least I hope they are).
    But reality can be boring.
    So - cheap, and boring.

  • Comment number 11.

    So the producers managed to get ALL THE WAY TO NOTTING HILL? Well done!

    Chris, Leeds.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hairdresser John is a legend. I will never forget a comment he made to me about his non-meat eating friend who had just left the shop. 'He calls himself a vegetarian,vegetable more like." Miaow. Onion has to be the grumpiest dog in the universe. So Stephen Lambert wants to paint a picture, do a big jigsaw, whatever, in his dotage. I think the approach is a natural progression but I wish he'd picked a new community rather than an artificial rich media infested ghetto. Still suppose it appeals to the ageing media literate Channel 4 demographic blah blah.

  • Comment number 13.

    Will it last longer than the BBC Scotland legally stopped recent effort The Scheme, set in a housing estate in Kilmarnock.

    I'll be honest, I bet the 2 episodes of the Scheme are far better than anything this Channel 4 effort turns out.

  • Comment number 14.

    For post# 7 vitruvius55

    I do remember that show Soho Nights although I think it was late night on ITV. I think there was a wannabe actress, a coffe shop owner, a journalist and a few others. This new show sounds almost exactly the same. However I didn't find the original show 'gripping' nor did many others I assume given its timeslot and peoples lack of awareness.

  • Comment number 15.

    As with previous posters, I would very much question the use of the word "reality". This reminds me of the US programme "The Hills" which is in some ways a work of genious, but surely you have to be a 13 year old girl (or boy!) to think for a moment that is in any way real, surely?

    It is well known scientific tenet, that in simply making an observation that which is obvserved is affected. But at least with Big Brother (loathsome as it was) it could be accepted that being in a house with a dozen or so strangers, with every act sctrutinised by cameras, was a new "reality" for the contestants. It was not, of course, "real life".

    But in order to succeed, the new Channel 4 reality show needs to demonstrate that what it is showing is "real-life", which I predict it fail to do miserably. I think it will flop badly. It goes without saying that I have absolutley no interest in the series whatsoever.

  • Comment number 16.

    As with previous posters, I would very much question the use of the word "reality". This reminds me of the US programme "The Hills" which is in some ways a work of genious, but surely you have to be a 13 year old girl (or boy!) to think for a moment that is in any way real, surely?

    It is well known scientific tenet, that in simply making an observation that which is obvserved is affected. But at least with Big Brother (loathsome as it was) it could be accepted that being in a house with a dozen or so strangers, with every act sctrutinised by cameras, was a new "reality" for the contestants. It was not, of course, "real life".

    But in order to succeed, the new Channel 4 reality show needs to demonstrate that what it is showing is "real-life", which I predict it fail to do miserably. I think it will flop badly. It goes without saying that I have absolutley no interest in the series whatsoever.

  • Comment number 17.

    What was it that John Grierson said, that the documentary at its best offered a "window onto the world"? What seems to have happened in the last ten years is the rise of a rather limited sub-genre, which offers a window onto nothing more than your neighbour's window...

  • Comment number 18.

    Hmmm yes, I see how this programme would appeal to me, being from the North and now living in Nottingham.

  • Comment number 19.

    The future of reality tv is with the BBC. Once the cast's seemingly endless legal battles are over, The Scheme will define the decade.

  • Comment number 20.

    This could potentially be interesting but only if it is genuine people who happen to be interesting as in the previously mentioned Paddington Green series. (Is that wig shop still going?) If it is just a load of Notting Hill fashionistas, it will be dire. I should know, I live there.

  • Comment number 21.

    oh dear, someone has read 21st Century Blues and claimed their idea as original.

    Steve Walkers amazing comedy series and even funnier book introduced us to the Everyone Channel, a television channel (or perhaps 100 million channels) that covered the lives of everyone, 24 hours a day. The joke was that in reality all that you watched was everyone else watching the channel too.

    This book was published in 1994 and predicted reality TV - you see, all ideas are old ideas.

  • Comment number 22.

    Yet more TV for those dead from the neck up.
    Dress it up & call it a social experiment all you want, but its pointless.
    Its as bad as the discovery & history channels. We get it, Hitler was bad, now move on please!!!!!

  • Comment number 23.

    In what POSSIBLE sense could the pathetic freak show Big Brother be called decade defining?

    Only, I think, in terms of the depths which senond rate TV was prepared to stoop to in order to fill up the airwaves when quality shows were expensive to get.

  • Comment number 24.

    one "featured personality" the landlady has had her pub shut down cos she made such a din and had complaint from the LOCALS she wasn't a LOCAL. the others well dear god ask anyone round here who is odd and yes you will see them on the list. They are not interesting they are not insightful they are just people who think a lot of themselves, Please dont take it as a true picture of W11, like the film it bears no relation to real life and as someone has said the producers must have spent all of erm 10 minutes leafing through friends numbers to find their barber, grocer etc. We true locals wish they would all just go away and leave W11 alone!

  • Comment number 25.

    Sounds incredibly boring

  • Comment number 26.

    23. At 5:08pm on 22 Sep 2010, Zinedine Zidane - that's how I'd like to retire from my work too! wrote:
    In what POSSIBLE sense could the pathetic freak show Big Brother be called decade defining?
    Whatever was on the box during your formative years will as you get older be remembered as defining your generation. Big Brother did this for a narrow section of our current big (brother) society.

    It may just define a TV decade for a blinkered few of a certain age.

    Gompertz is far too old to be part of this generation (as am I!).

  • Comment number 27.

    Roll up , Roll Up

    For what will probably be the latest load of multicultural propaganda rubbish from Channel 4.

    Why bother making decent programmes when you can make C**P.

  • Comment number 28.

    yaaaawwwnnnn! (documentary my a**e) there's no wonder people are turning off in droves. The TV is becoming redundant, why would I want to sit in front of the box and watch this unimaginative drivel when I can step outside of my front door and get it for real (and it would be interactive!) I guess its for lazy people who have agrophobia and can't set foot outside the house to see it for real.
    Channel 4 is the new channel 5 everybody!

  • Comment number 29.

    Decade defining? I think not.
    Original? Hardly.
    Real? Put a camera on someone, see how they behave, even if they are not continually conscious of the fact.
    Objective? Oh come on, poor quality producers have been manipulating 'reality' to their own ends for decades.
    Engaging? I'm sure viewers attracted to these programmes will smell this rotting corpse a mile off. And if they don't, well new paints dry faster than ever.
    Another nail in the coffin of telly? OK, that was the last decade when BB and it's ilk proved that talented creators had moved onto to other mediums.

    Yawn, yawn...

  • Comment number 30.

    For now we just have a chunder of 'reality' shows. Maybe one day these can all be rounded up and dumped into a 'Reality Channel' we can all conveniently delete from our channel list.

  • Comment number 31.

    I just watched it. Really strange considering there were 25 normal people and not one fart recorded in a week. My wife did about 23 farts just during the programme, including one that sounded like a strangled burt of machine gun fire. should get the cameras round for some real reality TV.

  • Comment number 32.

    Agh! please no more....for the love of (a being that might exist and then again might not, to cover all bases) no more junk like this.

    If you would like to watch this kind of stuff become a prison officer or a CCTV (were watching you do everything) operator, and don't give it to everyone like swine flu.
    This type of ahem "Entertainment" is on a par with them stupid dancing in minefield on ice strictly gowe dancing strictest parents get me out of here.. RUBBISH!

    Now this stuff is cheap tat that not even pound shops would CONSIDER to sell to you.
    Yet we take this from TV? Why? I whole heartedly agree with TheTurk @30 a whole "reality tat channel" (tm) we can delete from EPG oh lovely

    No wonder people eat lots, drink lots, get stoned lots, and other things that i cant remember how it goes now but i believe it involves a missionary? Just to escape from reality, then to watch some subverted version on TV...
    If you want reality, watch the news (such as it is)
    This reality stinks, and ANY version that doesn't involve spaceships kung foo and/or magical powers, flying monks and lucky eyebrows ghost cars or Fred Dibnah are not worth watching.

    No wonder i listen to radio

  • Comment number 33.

    Good comments - I agree with every one. I can't understand why Will Gompertz has spent this much effort and so many words promoting this sort of telly here? Is he after a column in one of the red tops?


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