Sophie Thompson talks about her show Losers, which explores the depths reality TV contestants will go for fame, and looks at the top lessons we can learn from some of the nation’s favourite reality TV moments.
Whether you love it or hate it, there is no denying that there is something intensely watchable about reality TV.
Before creating my Edinburgh show Losers, I'd never been a fan of it - but quickly found myself totally immersed: gorging on the humiliation of others, delighting at priceless moments of actual 'realness' that sprung from carefully crafted gamified worlds and, most of all, feeling I had the right to know everything about these so-called reality stars.
Our show satirises the extremes contestants are willing to go to keep both audiences and the producers behind these shows happy. It's a late-night, rowdy and interactive game show. Every audience member is handed an electronic voting pad and must make increasingly disturbing decisions about which contestants to reward and which (more importantly) to punish.
The most interesting part of Losers, perhaps, is the punishments. They are far from “acted” or fictional; my fellow performers and I run the risk of having to suffer disgusting and fairly humiliating forfeits every night - and it's entirely up to you as to who'll suffer what.
The show also poses the critical question of where the unseen masterminds (the TV execs) plotting these strategised 'realities' should, and do, draw the line. It seems a given nowadays that contestants must be willing to share every bit of their lives with the public. No element of their personal is private and that’s the way we like it. We watch people shagging, fighting, breaking up, having babies, in life-threatening situations and killing animals. The more gritty and gruesome, the better.
Geordie Shore, for example, is infamous for its boozy raucousness. We tune in to see just how messy things can possibly get. And boy, do the show’s stars deliver. Case in point: a “completely mortal” Chloe Ferry gets a towel to the face, falls over, literally pisses herself from laughing and runs away straight into a glass door. Seemingly harmless and hilarious, but other moments show a darker side to the calamity ensued by constant drinking and enforced idleness.
Enraged that someone she likes is flirting with another girl, we see the same personality’s temper explode when - in one infamous episode - she puts her foot through a mirror, tramples across the room bleeding and gets physically attacked by Charlotte Crosby. We call that “entertainment”, but we can't forget that the lifestyle these 20-somethings are encouraged to lead are utterly destructive to their health and well-being.
It is moments like those when the audience is torn between enthrallment and horror. The contestants appear more like victims in a cruel game where they are all pitted against one another repeatedly, fuelled essentially by poison, to create high drama and good TV. But it would be naïve to think that all contestants are simple victims.
As reality formats become more predictable and outrageous, its stars are definitely becoming savvier. They have learnt how to “play” and are using it to advance their careers. Megan McKenna is one of the best examples of this clued-up generation, because she knows exactly how to get and sustain our attention. Watching her tantrum explode as she screams into the diary room camera on Celebrity Big Brother not only prompted security to be sent in but also secured her a place on The Only Way Is Essex. She knows the game and how to play. We can predict a long career in TV.
So don't get me wrong - I am by no means a reality TV hater and I'm as obsessed about this series of Love Island as anyone else! But, on occasion, we definitely need to take a step back and try to view these programmes objectively. Is it ethical to be entertained by a real 21-year old's mental breakdown over the discovery of a cheating boyfriend? Is seeing two guys square up to each other and have to be separated by the show's security team really that enthralling (can we not see that down the local ‘Spoons any night of the week)?
Losers looks at what happens when contestants, producers and audiences take things that little bit too far. Can something ever be ‘too real' for comfort?
Losers is performed from 3rd -27th August at Underbelly Cowgate at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Tickets available at www.edfringe.com