Why E4’s Stage School is all your fault

A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School
A thumbscrew, the rack, an iron maiden, Stage School. Which is the odd one out? (Answer: None. It was a trick question. They are all forms of torture.)

Stage School has got the acting community up in arms. But if you’re one of these people who watches so-called “structured reality” TV shows, you are partly responsible for this travesty.

Ho hum, barely finished the Edinburgh Fringe and what do I find? There’s a new “reality” TV series on E4 called Stage School. You might have noticed my use of quotation marks around a certain word; I will be expanding on this shortly. Anyway, I haven’t seen this as such, but it’s been impossible to not hear about this following an uproar throughout the theatre world. It’s been slammed as fake, misrepresenting and blatantly scripted, and there’s already a petition to have the programme canned.

Now, the easiest thing to do would be for add another blog post on to the pile of pieces castigating the show. However, I have sufficient integrity to not pan a programme I haven’t seen, and since I would rather stick my knob in a blender than watch another reality TV programme, that’s not going to happen. I’ll instead point you to this blogger’s comment which seem to be representative of all the scorn I’ve come across on-line and off-line. I’ve tried reading supportive pieces just to get some balance, but weighing things up, it really does look like a pile of unmitigated shite. In the unlikely event someone from the acting community would like to defend the programme’s accuracy, I will give you a fair hearing, but in the meantime I am writing this on the assumption that Stage School is as fucking awful as I think it is.

But here’s the depressing bit. Whilst most of the acting world have been horrified that such a misleading show could be made, I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Ever since Big Brother hit our screens back in 2000, we have normalised a culture where outright bullshit on television is accepted. It’s happened in stages, and I have to say that we the television-viewing public bear a large share of responsibility for this travesty.

The very early series of Big Brother had a reasonable claim to be called reality TV. It was a new thing, and people were genuinely fascinated by seeing what ten housemates did when largely left to their own devices. After that, it went downhill pretty quickly. Perhaps with TV channels competing for viewers, and with the realisation that they couldn’t rely on enough Nasty Nicks creating moments of high drama for us, it fell to TV production teams to help this along. As the series went on, Channel 4 increasingly resorted arbitrary rule changes and contestant changes to engineer interesting moments. Then came Popstars, Pop Idol and later The X Factor, which (as I learnt first-hand the hard way) decided in advance what they wanted to happen in the show, and then cherry-picked a few dozen of the 20,000+ entrants to fill their pre-desired quota of weirdos, deluded no-hopers, sob stories, and allegedly talented singers to get the stories they needed.

There were, in retrospect, three things about this I found shocking. There was the extent to which these TV shows could mislead viewers without saying anything technically false, and there was the collusion within the entertainment media, such as failure to report the notorious “pre-auditions” that they must have known. But these shocks pale into significance against the public’s indifference when the scandals finally came to light. After the revelation that The X Factor has started auto-tuning auditions – surely nothing destroys the credibility of a singing talent show more than tampering with the singing talent? – I was convinced this would finish off the series. It didn’t. And the only reason I can see for this is that the viewing public knew this stuff was going on, but chose to go along with it anyway. In less than a decade, reality TV had normalised a situation where viewers will swallow any convenient fiction as long they hear what they want to hear. What irony: reality TV viewers caring little for reality.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before TV makers twigged you could dispense with reality completely. Big Brother and The X Factor can at least (usually) claim that what they show on screen actually happened. It might be egged on or selectively edited, but if a couple appeared to have a bust-up on Big Brother, they probably did. Not so with the oxymoron that is “structured reality” shows, in particular The Only Way is EssexMade in Chelsea and Geordie Shore, where the structure is that all the major plot points of the show are planned in advance, and the reality is, um, not there. If a bust-up happens on TOWIE it’ll be because the producers requested on this episode. It’s little different to a soap opera, except that the actors play jumped-up version of themselves and the scenes are more improvised.

But there is one crucial difference: godawful though most soap operas are, they do at least correctly class themselves as fiction. Not so with structured reality. Even though they’re just as fictitious, these programmes still try to present it as fact. People discuss the shows the following day as it it’s fact. Numerous celebrity magazines write about these episodes as if it’s fact. The depressing truth is that the second decade of reality TV has progressed from misleading footage to outright fabrications. As long as everyone in the shows signs up to this and TV viewers are content to go along with this fantasy, this is the new normal.

So it was only a matter of time before something Stage School would come. This vomit-inducing piece in the Radio Times shows that many in TV land have swallowed whole concept of structured reality together with the idea that it’s now okay to pass off any old garbage as the truth in the name of entertainment. This program is a little worse than what’s gone before because it stands to do a lot of harm to an entire profession, further entrenching some pretty unpleasant prejudices many people already have about “luvvies”. But nothing stopped TOWIE and Geordie Shore entrenching some equally unpleasant prejudices about those chavs in Essex or Tyneside respectively. Integrity, we discovered a long time ago, take a back seat to income. And that’s only made possible by people like you and me.

Which bring me to my point. If you’re someone who has nothing to do with so-called structured reality shows, well done. Complain about Stage School with your integrity intact. But if you’re someone who unwinds by watching structured reality TV, then I’m sorry, but you are part of the problem. And no, I don’t care if you’re watching it ironically, and I don’t care if you know it’s crap really. Because commissioning editors don’t care either. They look at viewing figures and advertising revenue and you are counting towards that. And if you buy magazines that discuss the fake antics of these reality TV stars, you are encouraging this further.

Ultimately, all Stage School is doing is applying crude caricatures to a new group of people. If you’ve been watching shows that do this to others, you don’t have a leg to stand on. You can’t start complaining with any credibility about the practice crude caricaturing when it’s suddenly done to a demographic you like. If you want to re-take the moral high ground now, the best thing you can do is turn over a new leaf. Stop watching these shows now, stop buying the magazines, find another way to wile away bored moments. The less popular shows like the are, the less likely shows like this will be make in the future.

As for the petition to pull Stage School from the airwaves, I cannot support it. I wouldn’t miss this show in the slightest if it got scrapped, but the moment to call for voices you don’t like to be silenced, you give legitimacy for other people to do the same to you. There are plenty of avenues for complaints against TV shows, but the best way to fight this sort of drivel is to say why it’s drivel. And what better way to fight an entertainment show with more entertainment? Who better to provide this than actors? And by actors, I mean real ones, not those Made in Chelsea-wannabes on E4. Come on, this is a gold mine of an opportunity. A show that eviscerates Stage School. Get in on stage, get it online, there’s a huge audience out there for you.

In fact, if you’re short of an idea for next year’s Edinburgh Fringe, you can have this one for free. I’ll even throw in free five-star review if you like. How about it?

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