Sunday 26 February 2017

Why we just love to hate RTE's reality show disasters

Fade Street is the latest 'real-life drama' in a long list of flops from the national broadcaster, writes Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power

The stars of Fade Street
The stars of Fade Street

Fingers on buzzers, TV fans. What does a slow-motion train wreck sprayed in fake tan look like? For the answer, tune in to RTE 2 tomorrow night for the latest instalment of reality pile-up Fade Street.

'Inspired', if that's the word, by insipid MTV 'reality drama' The Hills -- in which protagonists spontaneously pretend they're following a lousy script -- this slice of D4 life has been proclaimed the television disaster of the season.

Quite an achievement, you'll agree, in a winter which has given us Budget Speech 2010 (Lenny's Revenge) and Katherine Lynch's Wagon's Den (the comedy equivalent of a stranger projectile vomiting through your letterbox after you've had someone in to clean the carpets).

Fading Fortunes

Still, even up against such competition the further adventures of Vogue, Danielle, Cici and Louise -- all their actual names, apparently -- takes the biscuit.

Actually, it takes the entire packet of digestives. Chronicling the aimless flailings of a bunch of bronzed South Dubliners with Beverly Hills 90210 accents, Fade Street makes I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! look like something clever on BBC4 hosted by a Stephen Fry.

Being generous you could say it accurately encapsulates the existence of its protagonists -- like them, Fade Street comes across as shallow, callow and difficult to put up with for more than five minutes. Unless your idea of an exciting night is watching glossy Donnybrook debutantes OMG-ing their way down South William Street you'll probably find pouring hot gravy down your trousers a more rewarding experience.

Should we be surprised? There are some things our national broadcaster does well and some which appear entirely beyond its powers of comprehension. Where TV3 and TG4 have made persuasive stabs at the reality format, Montrose still seems profoundly -- almost existentially -- stumped by the concept. Above all, it repeatedly gets the tone wrong.

At their best, foreign imports such as Big Brother and the aforementioned I'm A Celebrity amp up the human drama so that the Z-list, desperate-for-fame calibre of the competitors is occasionally transcended. RTE shows too often confuse bad blood for good TV.

Celebrities -- Get Us Out Of Here!

That's particularly the case when that strange beast which is the Irish celeb enters the frame.

In this regard the high (should that be low?) watermark is surely 2003's Celebrity Farm, in which a motley assortment of vaguely-famous types (most terrifyingly, Twink) were dispatched to the depths of rural Ireland and required to prove their skills at animal husbandry.

The problem is that marooning Twink, Mary Coughlan, Paddy O'Gorman and random TV presenters/soap actors in some misbegotten corner of the sticks sounds more like the set-up for a low-budget horror movie than a formula for sparkling TV. And so it proved: a quite horrific falling out between Kevin Sharkey and the rest of the contestants wasn't so much pile-up viewing as straight-up unwatchable.

The air of farce was heightened further by Sharkey's subsequent reluctance to join the rest of the cast of Late Late Show hug-in, opting to go on Eamon Dunphy's short -ived TV3 show instead (the love clearly flowed in both directions with Twink referring to Sharkey as "an emotional Molotov Cocktail").

Towering Inferno

Similarly, 2008's Failte Towers worked so hard at winding up participants -- another motley line-up of celebs riding the greasy pole to obscurity -- that the results were just plain off-putting.

In particular, a face-off between judge Derry Clarke and musician Don Baker reminded you of one of those Christmas party rows that flips in a heartbeat from guffaw-splashed 'slagging' session into crockery- smashing punch-up.

Nor were matters helped by Baz Ashmawy's style of presentation -- in one unforgettable link he invited viewers to vote for their favourite contestants whilst forcefully manoeuvring his crotch in the direction of the cameras.

More recently, the national broadcaster had a stab at imitating Britain's Got Talent,the series that introduced Planet Earth to Susan Boyle's voice and Piers Morgan's smirk.

Alas, where UK viewers were treated to judges Morgan and Simon Cowell embracing their panto villain roles with moustache-twirling glee, The All Ireland Talent Show came off like a Father Ted out-take on repeat.

Indeed, in its latter stages season one of the show lurched from the ridiculous to the surreal, as the fiddle wielding Mulkerrin Brothers went toe-to -toe against a six-year-old free-style hip-hop dancer from Wexford. You kept expecting Father Jack to be wheeled on to spray the audience in a volley of "Feck, Drink and Arses".

McCall of the Wild

The shocking truth is that The All Ireland Talent Show -- the third season of which gets under way shortly -- was regarded as a vast improvement on its forebear You're A Star.

With quintessential efficiency, RTE had struck upon the idea of shoe-horning its Eurovision obligations into a bargain-bin X Factor format.

Alas, it hadn't reckoned with the regional voting proclivities of small-town Ireland, with the result that winners were often seemed to have been selected as much because of where they came from as for their blinding bright talent. In that regard the terrifying Joseph and Donna McCaul -- a sort of rubber-masked Athlone take on The Carpenters -- may be regarded as the midlands' revenge for decades of benign neglect by the rest of the nation.

With crushing inevitability they were knocked out of the Eurovision at semi-final stage.

Nor has RTE fared any better on shows in which the great unwashed are dropped in front of the camera.

A sort of Big Brother on water, 2003's Cabin Fever quite literally ran aground when the schooner on which it was being filmed hit rocks off Tory Island and the contestants had to be rescued by the Arranmore lifeboat.

Such was the furore, a then backbench Barry Andrews questioned the wisdom of dispatching people with no sailing experience on to the high seas (albeit with qualified sailors as chaperones).

Still, the whiff of disaster boosted viewership figures and the show became a ratings winner, though that didn't prevent it being junked after a single season.

Kicking The Can

Indeed, if anything binds together RTE's multiple attempts at reality television, it is lack of longevity. You're A Star seemed to rumble on for decades. Otherwise, however, most of the network's efforts have been canned after one or two seasons.

Contrast that with TV3 where, despite initially hostile reviews, The Apprentice shows little sign of flagging. Or with the UK, where franchises such as I'm A Celebrity and The X Factor look destined to rumble on towards infinity.

To be generous, we should probably applaud RTE for having the gumption to step beyond its comfort zone with Fade Street. If nothing else, the show at least mirrors the Ireland in which we actually live.

By all means, cast your eyes heavenward at their silly names and overdone tans, but its cast of privileged Tiger Cublets with Valley Girl accents are recognisably drawn from 21st century Dublin --a striking change from the rural freak-shows which too often pass for reality TV in this country.

And when the alternative is a depressing parade of current affairs specials whetting their chops over the meltdown in the economy, it is perhaps not surprising that Fade Street has, thus far, proved somewhat of a ratings over-achiever.

Escapism is escapism, quality be damned.

Irish Independent

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