There’s a certain uneasy, shifting quality at the centre of Made in Chelsea that reminds one of the later work of Samuel Beckett.
For a show in which a character actually says “Charles Dickens wrote Winnie the Pooh. No, Pride and Prejudice,” you might be shocked at any comparison raised between Made in Chelsea and the world of literature. And yet, there is a sense of unease that haunts the famous Channel 4 show which documents the financially-flushed lives of trendy twenty-somethings partying and gossiping themselves around London. A sense of unease that is usually reserved for the realm of the literary text, specifically the postmodern literary text, which evades fixed meaning and narrative closure. That leaves us in some sort of existential crisis. And so what is this Beckettian quality that haunts the flashy world of ‘yahs’, of immaculate blow-dries and fancy cars? Is it the sheer vacuity, the absurdity, the meaningless and endlessly repetitive plot lines? The bizarre seduction of its pointlessness and dragged-out pacing, the lingering shot on a face of shaky acting that aims to convey some kind of deep significance, but instead trails us into nowhere?
There is something strangely seductive about Made in Chelsea. I thought maybe I’d struggle to write this article, given that I have only watched a handful of episodes from a show that has run for seven seasons. My mother watches it, my brother watches it. They don’t watch much else on telly, so there must be something in it that lures them in. That lures us all in. Indeed, maybe there are people out there who genuinely anticipate new episodes, as if there really was some plot development to look forward to. There must be some reason why Channel 4 bother advertising narrative ‘tensions’ in their new episode teasers. Yet I find it difficult to establish the significance of any story arc in Made in Chelsea: each episode rolls over with an intrigue that evaporates like the champagne sucked so readily from its characters’ glasses.
But wait, you may say: Made in Chelsea is not meant to be television drama, it is reality, albeit ‘structured reality’. We are, supposedly, watching a show about ‘real’ lives; these are ‘real’ people acting out things that have ‘really’ happened to them. Reality does not readily provide us with such arcs of climax and resolution that fictional scripts tend to yield up; reality is all about interweaving story-lines, little tensions that burst and dissipate under hushed storms of gossip – the sheer joy of calling someone an idiot behind their back. I suppose this is what Made in Chelsea really is: grownup children bitching and dissecting one another against the backdrop of glittering cocktail glasses and an effortlessly hip soundtrack.
Because of course, this is no ordinary ‘reality tv show’. The cast of Made in Chelsea are rarely seen smoking, vomiting, shagging. The ordinary things folk tend to do on reality tv shows; you know, Big Brother and the like. The world of Chelsea is one of perfected physicality: sculpted bodies, stylish clothes, the cool gaze of another blasé conversation, another stilted standoff between two characters. For this show is all surface, all talk. Not much changes, except for the setting: from beautiful London gardens with the perpetual tinkle of glasses to throbbing club scenes and the stunning backdrops of Venice and Versoix, from gleaming storefronts to pheasant shoots and country-club chic. We are invited to revel in the gorgeousness of panoramic camera shots, the afternoon light as it flickers from the sun between leaves to the glint of a wine glass. Perhaps we could watch this show on mute, with the characters becoming a kind of tableau vivant, and we may sate ourselves on the images of their flawless skin, their achingly white teeth. These are characters whose personalities shift with the wind of each new season, who perform themselves as they please.
And of course, there is the British obsession with class, particularly the surface forms which class may take. We have always loved observing the lives of the super-poor and hyper-rich, and from Dickens to Evelyn Waugh readers have been drawn in by artistic representations of both the struggling underclass and the excesses of the wealthy. Watching or reading about the extremes of poverty or richness makes us feel better: it allows us to reaffirm our own position, as somehow ‘normal’. We’re never that bad; we’re comfortably in-between. In a sense then, Made in Chelsea shares with shows like the BBC’s documentary-style show The Scheme its status as a form of class porn. Watching the ‘feckless’ lives of those in poverty makes people feel better; superior, even. Careful editing enhances the drama, adds turbulence to the characters’ lives and cuts out the ordinary hard work that may go on behind the scenes. Watching Made in Chelsea, I suggest, deflects the structural issues underpinning the status of the super-rich onto a series of mundane story-lines that focus almost exclusively around love interests. There is very little in the show to tell us how so-and-so got his or her fortune. And if the university degree, modelling career or entrepreneurship features at all, it is usually as a mere prologue to some form of romantic or consumerist intrigue. We are told to sit back and enjoy this form of lifestyle porn, without bearing a thought for the opportunities these people received to get where they are now.
Also, there is a certain pleasure in indulging in one’s prejudices. The cast of Made in Chelsea embody a certain form of gap yah privilege that many of us enjoy mocking in this day and age where the class divide is wider than ever. While watching shows about the ‘underclasses’ often makes uncomfortable viewing, documenting the frequently distressing scenes of life on the breadline, watching Made in Chelsea involves both succumbing to the passive pleasures of spectacle and an exercise in mockery at the dandified lives of its characters. We may poke fun at the absurdity of some of their dialogue: the accent, the ‘totes’, the ‘yeah boi’, the gestures that seem to separate these people from the rest of the human race. As the notorious Mark Francis quips, ‘I once knew someone who owned a sleeping bag’. Yes, quite: a sleeping bag; those cave animals from the world beyond, with their horribly proletariat existence. Indeed, these beautiful beings, the Chelsea Set, are not like the rest of human kind. Not like the rest of us watching, half allured and half bemused.
Onscreen we watch these glimmering cyborgs, as they fashion their real lives right before our eyes.
And yet, the Chelsea Set are not untouchable beings. They splash themselves over pop culture: doing photo shoots, exclusive interviews, making innocuous appearances as guest-star DJs in clubs. We are asked to see them in the flesh, as if we too can reach out – if only briefly – to touch their precious stash, the solid gold of their lifestyles. We may look them up on Wikipedia to find out more; these characters are hypertexts, whose ‘real’ lives are perhaps preceded in a Baudrillardian sense by the simulations they portray onscreen. They have built up their empires of personality which branch out from the TV series to magazines and online articles documenting details of their fabulously elaborate yet ultimately vacuous existence. As Jon Dovey puts it: ‘reality TV is the ultimate expression of the simulacrum in which the insistence upon realism is in direct proportion to the disappearance and irrelevance of any referential value’. Yes, the disappearance of any worthwhile meaning; that sounds familiar. Are these ‘real’ people, or mere masks – postmodern burlesques of the generation of ‘bright young things’ which once lit up the 1920s Jazz Age, but now dissipate into the no-place of mundane conversation? The sexiness of Made in Chelsea is perhaps undermined by the sheer obviousness of its facade.
Yet when we watch these individuals perform their ‘selves’, do we passively absorb their world as if it were merely a stage-set, or can we pierce this world, burst the bubble on their champagne-scented version of reality? If there is an almost erotic allure in the mere spectacle of the lives of the rich, then allowing ourselves to be sucked into the simulacrum of this show constitutes a new, if slightly sickly, opium for the masses (or at least, those who bother watching). So, perhaps, let us covet the aura of affluence, of shimmering lives and expensive spaces, while at the same time reminding ourselves of the poverty and inequality that must exist to support the glamorous boredom of the rich and famous. Or maybe we could turn off the telly, and go camping instead.
John Dovey (2000). Freakshow