Yes, yes, I watched The Only Way Is Essex. I’ve seen every episode, even the cringingly awful 2012 live Christmas special. Go ahead and judge me if you like then bugger off back to watching Celebrity Dancing on Ice.
For the uninitiated Essexites among you, The Only Way Is Essex (or TOWIE) is a reality TV show set in Essex which claims to show real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way. This basically means the producers get a bunch of people who aren’t actors and engineer situations between them while filming the result.
The only way is controversy
When it was first broadcast in 2010, it caused something of a hoo-ha. People in Essex complained it showed the county’s residents in a negative and stereotypical light while everyone else was abjectly horrified at the rich, thick and orange. When it was first broadcast, I rather high-mindedly refused to watch it. In fact, I couldn’t watch it and when I once stumbled across it while channel-hopping without realising what it was, I thought my brain would actually bleed. The groups of people in it have changed over the years but they’re fairly typical of a certain circle in west Essex. They’re young, they’re beautiful, they come from families with money and they want to spend it. Preferably as showily as possible.It’s tempting to dismiss them as not too intelligent, but many of them have their own businesses so they can’t all be quite as hopelessly incompetent as they sometimes come across.
Once I’d got over myself, I started watching it.
I live in one of the filming locations for TOWIE, and I can absolutely attest that it’s had a dramatic impact on the local area. When Lauren Goodger opened her beauty salon in Buckhurst Hill, people came from as far afield as Dublin and Hull just to have their nails done. There are even tours which people can book to visit the various filming locations and when you’ve seen a Liverpudlian hen party walk into a salon and ask for 12 vajazzles, you know they’re on a TOWIE tour. Brentwood, Loughton and Chigwell became a kind of axis of hedonism. ‘Gahn Faces tonight’ is both a question and a statement of intent (Faces being a local nighclub). There’s even a company calling itself (God help them) Reem Lets. Joey Essex shops in my local supermarket where people whisper and giggle and take photos as he picks out his veg.
Anyway, up until the last two seasons, it was kind of amusing to watch. It’s not every day you see two women arranging their shivery, saucer-eyed chihuahuas’ limbs for dog yoga, or a man in a onesie attempting to walk on water. I enjoyed Lauren pushing the manipulative Mark into a swimming pool at his own party just as much as the next person. I shouted at the TV as Lucy fell back into the arms of the philandering Mario. I cringed as Arg’s puppy-like devotion to Mark Wright led him to abandon the long-suffering Lydia in a bar on her birthday so he could ‘be there for his mate’ who was promoting a party somewhere else. In Essex, every cocky, good-looking guy under 30 is a ‘club promoter’ which I think basically means they go around encouraging people to go to whatever club is paying them in free champagne.
It’s changed, man
At some point over the last couple of years, the silly innocence went out of it. The men are rapacious, nasty and desperately immature as they snigger and boast about sleeping with various women. The women are two-faced, dishonest and desperately immature as they gossip and shit-stir. The women and the men both cheat on each other but the women refuse to admit it then go into BAFTA-worthy acts of outrage and injury while the men blame the women for their cheating. Some of the newer characters are just unutterably awful while some of the older ones have turned into parodies of themselves. At the end of every episode of the 10th series, I decided I’d basically thrown away an hour of my life watching people I now actively disliked picking apart their relationships and each other. It wasn’t like anything even really happened any more, just strained conversations in gyms, bars and coffee shops. It’s like watching a couple who once had a torrid affair and fizzed with excitement regard each other with boredom and something close to hatred as they try to inject that sparkle back into their relationship. The Essex glamour has faded. And I fell out of love with TOWIE.
The 11th series starts tonight. I won’t be watching it. Not even a little bit. Life’s just too damn short.