Gerry Byrne reviews The Great Reality TV Swindle, Channel Four, 2 December
It had to happen. It's like when you're a child and you have this boy-mouse and a girl-mouse. Oh dear. Big Brother mates with Survivor, with some additional genetic material from Enron and the Cook Report
Take a bunch of young hopeful TV-presenter wannabes, blag a classy audition suite, a private island in the Thames on the basis of free advertising, take on some eager camera crew who'll work for the kudos, tell your hopefuls to divest themselves of all ties - flats, lovers, commitments - for a year, ask them to turn up penniless but passports at the ready. What do you get?
And your task is, in your teams of ten, to make a million pounds, starting from nothing, in a year. The ultimate twenty-first century capitalist product: asset-light, built on spin, oiled with raw hunger for celebrity, the promise of money, money, money at the end of the rainbow. How can it fail?
One of the draws of reality TV is putting yourself in the picture. How would I react to being buried up to my waist in a tub of maggots? Who would I get on with? Who would I avoid like scabies? Drama does this imaginatively, lets you experience emotions, dilemmas, choices, through made-up characters, gives you a deeper experience of reality. Reality TV is like microwave drama: real characters in a made-up environment, enacting speeded-up, overheated emotions - over-stimulating but curiously tasteless and unsatisfying.
So how would you react to finding yourself penniless, homeless, jobless and told to make a million, at the whim of an under-resourced would-be TV producer, who might well be a total fantasist?
I think they did well. One group went back to the home of the volunteer cameraman, took stock and decided they'd make their programme anyway. Only it would be about the experience of being set-up. They contacted the press. They set up a confrontation with their would-be producer, Nikita Russian. They got on the TV news, and as a result Channel 4 made this film, using some of the footage they'd shot for their original reality TV show. They tracked down the producer, who'd used his family and friend's addresses (without telling them) as part of his scam.
You could read it as a parable of twenty-first century capitalism, all inflated promise based on illusion and spectacle, where those who have been picked to be exploited turn the tables, take over the means of production, and thus achieve what the exploiter promised but had no means or intention of delivering. Or you could see it as a post-modern fable questioning the meaning of "reality" in "reality TV". Me? I'd like to nominate Nikki Russian for the Turner Prize for services to situationism.