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“The Only Way is Essex” Co-Creator Ruth Wrigley on What Makes Reality TV Awesome

November 7th, 2011 by Rachel Kraus

The first image you’ll see when you tune into “The Only Way is Essex” is a dire warning to all viewers: This programme may contain fake boobs and flash cars. And that “while the tans you see might be fake the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.”

Oh, how right they are.

Welcome to Essex, where the ordinarily pasty Brits’ fake tans take on a decidedly different hue than those of their Jersey Shore counterparts. Where ex-‘footballers’ sport watches the size of small islands and the breasts, when submerged in water, will most certainly float. But all in all, in the entertainment department, British reality series “The Only Way is Essex”(TOWIE) certainly does deliver.

Over at Hulu we sat down with TOWIE co-creator and producer Ruth Wrigley to introduce us to “The Only Way is Essex.”

Hulu: So Ruth, what is Essex?

Ruth Wrigley: Essex is a county just outside London. And what Essex represents is “new money.”

Considering Britain’s long history of very, um, old money, who actually lives in Essex? What is “new money” culture?

Working-class, ordinary people who lived in the East End of London who made money would move out of the city to the suburb. And because it’s new money they like to flash the cash. They have nice houses, big cars, expensive watches because that’s the sort of culture.

Essex people are very close to the city, close to London. They have a confidence about them and the way they are. They’re very smart—they look like they’re going to a wedding at all times. They’re very glamorous, but very quite earthy and normal. But not false. Not like LA celebrities. But they speak like this: [Ruth imitates a trashy British accent, almost entirely incomprehensible.]

Wow. So how did you pick the cast?

Actually, Amy and Sam we found in a bar and they looked amazing so we sat down and chatted.

What about the show’s leading ladies man, Mark Wright?

I knew there were a couple of clubs that the celebrities of the county would go to. I found out who were the faces there, and asked who were the names that kept coming up? Mark’s name kept coming up.

And when you put all the elements together – the ladies man, the beautiful girls, and the new money culture – what sort of a show is it?

It’s a reality show that looks glamorous and glossy with lots of drama. But more than that I knew that it needed to be immediate rather than all filmed up front.

What do you mean by  “immediate”?

The thing about TOWIE is that there are three days from the moment we start filming an episode to it actually being transmitted. The on-air announcer will actually refer to what the cast is tweeting during the show.

How did you decide to bring that live element to the show? How did you get involved in TOWIE?

I brought “Big Brother” over to the UK way back—probably 11, 12 years ago—and exec produced the first three seasons. And I was always interested, obviously, because it’s a massive reality hit over here, probably the biggest one that we’ve had, in how to take reality forward.

And I was very interested in sort of the stuff that was going on in the US – “The Hills”, in particular, fascinated me—because I noticed there was a generation who had grown up on reality that sort of understood it. And I got together with the producer of big, teenage soap in this country called Hollyoakes . . . Hollyoakes is sort of like Beverly Hills 90210. It’s quite a glamorous teen soap. So for me, [TOWIE] sort of became “Big Brother” meets Hollyoakes. And it needed to be reactive. And have a sprinkle of entertainment and comedy in order to make it broader. So instead of just appealing to a teen audience, I would enjoy it too.

And bringing reality forward meant introducing a live element?

For me, again it stemmed from “Big Brother.” On “Big Brother,” we would turn around a program in 24 hours.  What I was looking at was lots of reality dramas—real people, shot like it’s a drama, but they’re more pre-recorded, they’ve been in edits for weeks. My brain had been in live shows, shows that had been turned around really quickly. TOWIE is filmed in about as (close to) real time as it can be, considering how glossy and lovely it looks. And what that means is, people watching it—the audience watching it—can respond to it in the moment. We actually don’t know what’s going to happen yet because it hasn’t happened yet.

So how does that live element impact the actual show?

By them watching themselves, it creates its own drama. And that’s what keeps it going, that’s what keeps it interesting. It’s like finding out what your friends have been saying about you—that in itself creates its own drama in the series, which I think is lost when a show is filmed upfront.

How did your fascination with “The Hills” influence the creation of TOWIE?

I thought it was dull. My kids really cared [about the drama]. I said something to them which triggered my brain, I said ‘oh my god this is so set up,’ and they said ‘mom, we don’t care.’ That got me thinking about reality, that these kids who grew up on “Big Brother” understood the medium of reality. TOWIE is very upfront about what it is and what it is not. It is not scripted. We never ever tell them what to say. It’s called ‘structured reality.’ What we don’t do is tell them how to react or what to say. So if someone’s confronting someone about something, I have no idea whether they’re going to cry, throw a drink in their face, or march off in the other direction.

So what is it about the medium of reality that makes it so special? How do we see that in TOWIE?

My theory as a producer is that real people are always much more surprising than anything that I can think up. The twists and turns in these peoples lives are beyond anything I can dream of.

[We love reality TV] because it is real. Because you’re looking at people who are real. And you can discuss them and they live in your world and what they’re doing is happening now. On TOWIE, you watch them, you can have an opinion, you have favorites, you can even respond to them. And I think that’s the nature of the audience now, they want to interact with their television, and if it’s reality, then can interact with it. If it’s a drama, it’s not real. It’s just actors.

Is that what an American audience wants, too?

I’d like to think that Americans will enjoy The Only Way is Essex. They’ll watch it and be really intrigued by these people.

Any parting words?

How about “vajazzle?”

Last comment: May 18th 2013 2 Comments
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