Wednesday, 13 May 2009

"Real' London? The London of reality television

Reality TV has a lot to answer for. Besides the obvious promotion of talentless nobodies who grace our screens for 10 minutes then spend the next 12 months falling drunk out of clubs in the misguided belief they're worth photographing, this genre of television creates icons of places as well as people. One of the first series which defined today's reality television show format was "Survivor" - a group of people are stranded in a wilderness and by completing various challenges gradually vote off fellow contestants to crown a lone "Sole Survivor". The wilderness was a beautiful (although presumably less so by the time a caravan of cameramen and sound operators had destroyed it) paradise of sea, tropical forest and sand. Who wouldn't want to live/holiday somewhere like that? Then came "Castaway" (which did wonders for creating a somewhat surprising tourist industry on the remote Outer Hebridean island of Taransay), and the student favourite "Shipwrecked" - battling tribes of gorgeous twenty-somethings building communities on opposing picturesque Fijian islands. Islands and tropical forests aside however, plenty of cities have received the reality TV glamour make-over and London is no exception.

Currently gracing our screens is the fifth series of UK version of "The Apprentice", following fifteen hopeful candidates embark upon a twelve week job interview, for the oft-quoted six figure salary and a position within Sir Alan Sugar's business empire. Sir Alan is far less suave and enigmatic than Donald Trump (The US version's counterpart tycoon). He is common and gruff, far less polished yet distinctly British, and very London. (He also has all his own hair, so much he even valiantly attempts a little badgery beard, unlike Mr. Trump.) The barrow-boy-done-good story of Alan Sugar is common, now almost tediously repeated, knowledge; how he clawed his way into business and Bentleys and made his millions with his company Amstrad. Each season of The Apprentice he picks a range of lawyers, marketing consultants, salespersons and generally arrogant individuals and pits them against each other in what is assuredly gripping televisual drama. Cat-fights, back-stabbing and bitching whittle down the hopefuls as they create advertising campaigns, brand new products and run events, all against a backdrop as exciting as the action.

The Apprentice's London is bold and impressive. During the daytime shots, the sun shines on a glittering Thames, glass covered offices sparkle and lush green parks are filled with smiling citizens. At night The City twinkles, alive with lights atop and within the Gherkin, the BT Tower and Canary Wharf. It rarely rains in The Apprentice, and on the rare occasion it does the city looks sexily mean and moody, rather than miserable and soggy.
So here Sir Alan, at the front so we're reminded he's the boss (but not how short he actually is; clever thing, perspective), with his minions on either side. But who is that in the background, playing a supporting, yet undeniably striking, role? Creeping in over the shoulders of the competitors, famous for a few months at best, are landmarks of our great city, which will outlive even Sir Alan and The Apprentice franchise. Proudly at the back are the Swiss Re building, more commonly known as The Gherkin, and Tower 42. No matter that the image is a Photoshop creation of various elements - boss, candidates, backdrop of skyline - they are all combined to give a sense of the programme; 15 people seek the approval of one man, in one city recognised worldwide by its iconic architecture.

Prince Charles may this week have delivered a scathing attack on the "carbuncles" of British architecture but this architecture brands our city, and gives those outside our limits a picture of London. Architecture, like art, relies heavily on personal taste yet in its very existence it provides an image, a story and a backdrop to something far larger than a single edifice. Millions of people live out their lives here, lives far less glamourous than the steel and glass constructions which portray London on television. Yet these buildings belong to them. The skyline and streets are theirs. And as a resident, I think London scrubs up pretty well. It does us proud.

Do admit - it's rather fine. Even if not always beautiful (sorry, Prince Charles) London can certainly bring the drama.


  1. Ha ha, thanks! Am braced for the Big Brother backlash soon to ruin all news media around us, as political crises go unreported, replaced by minute by minute commentary on the latest reality TV horrors in this year's house.


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