With the exception of everyone working in reality TV, most people in the industry will tell you that the genre is the death of serious drama, documentary, news, et al.
It makes stars of mediocrities, glamorises the inane and takes advantage of the stupid.
And why? Because it’s cheap.
The difficulty arises when you look at the reasons – or, rather, reason - behind the ongoing success of reality TV: it is, quite simply, hugely popular. Katie Price, Peter Andre, Kerry Katona and The Only Way is Essex crew in the UK; the Kardashians, Paris Hilton and all the Real Housewives Of . . . clans in the US – like them or loathe them; this is what audiences want to watch.
The reason why is a more difficult one to understand. Why would anyone want to watch Kerry Katona in yet another reality show? Has there ever been a woman who has achieved so little and yet made so much money from her mistakes? If she really is bi-polar, then it is serious medical help she needs, not more stints in the public eye, exposing her every word and action.
I feel the same about Katie Price. Never mind that her new love Leandro has a limited grasp of English; so does she.
In the States, I recently tried to go a day without hearing or seeing the surname Kardashian; it was impossible. It was like deciding to go to Iceland and vow not to see any snow. The family really is inescapable – in their own shows, on news items, showbiz reports, on the net. Ubiquitous doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I’ve been more of a fan of The Real Housewives of . . . series, but that’s because a group of women bitching amongst themselves always makes for good viewing (it’s as true when this happens in soap as in reality TV).
This week, however, the reality behind reality TV and, in particular, this series, came to the fore when the estranged husband of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills committed suicide.
On Monday, Russell Armstrong, father to two sons by previous relationships and also five year old Kennedy with his BH wife Taylor, was found hanging in the friend’s house where he had been staying since separating from his wife. He had not left a note.
The papers have reported that in recent months he had claimed that The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills had destroyed his life: that any problems he and his wife had had were exacerbated by the public exposure.
It has since emerged that he was in debt, having struggled to keep up with the outward expressions of wealth demanded by the show, and that he allegedly physically and emotionally abused his wife.
A report also surfaced that he had sent an aggressive letter to Camille Grammer, another of the Housewives and ex of TV star Kelsey, after Taylor confided in her about her husband’s abuse. According to these reports, Taylor had to have reconstructive surgery when filming began, so badly beaten was her face.
It is also claimed that a book revealing Russell’s bisexual proclivities was about to be published.
Now it is claimed that Russell’s family are considering suing Bravo TV, which makes the programme, and especially if they show so much as a frame of Russell.
But is it fair to blame Bravo for his death?
Russell was an adult who, for all the pressure he might have come under from his wife to appear in the show, could, quite simply, have said No. Every reality show always throws up people who claim to have been “destroyed” by it afterwards, yet they always seem to be the people who have not made as much money as everyone else who has appeared.
The difficulty of appearing in front of any TV camera, whether it be on reality TV or in a proper job (yes, I am making a clear distinction), is that it changes you; it has to, in order for you to be able to do the job well. You are not in the pub, chatting with a few mates, with half a Stella spilling out of your mouth and down your front; you are inviting people into your world, for better or worse, and asking for their opinion on how you live your life.
And, to that end, you are always on show and trying to portray the person you want them to see, rather than who you actually are - yet it is that, ironically, that reveals the truth you are often trying to hide. That's because you have to be a bigger personality for the small camera and that means that every aspect of you, good and bad, is magnified tenfold.
I’ve been in front of the camera a lot of times. I was an extra in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein and was demoted from grieving widow in warm church to starving, freezing peasant in courtyard, because I was considered too short to be a widow (“But short people can be widowed!” I complained, to no effect).
I filmed a series called So You Think You Want a Healthy Lifestyle? for Channel 4, when they left me with a camera to film myself, if and when I had something to say. They had to bring eight hours’ worth of extra tapes on day one, after I filled up the initial batch on the first night.
I appeared regularly on daytime TV for many years and had to be “on” as they say in theatrical terms all the time. For those presenters doing two hour stints of live TV every day, I have nothing but admiration. My own ten minute slots were stressful enough; performing for long periods really is like playing a part in a multi-faceted play in which you are never offstage. You cannot help but reveal aspects of your true and often not so pleasant self.
I could go on. The camera brings out your inner egotistical monster and, in the case of Russell, I suspect it released demons he was already, at best, trying to keep under control. But reality TV is not the perpetrator of the crime - only the key to setting free what is safer locked up.
With or without the show, Russell might still have taken his own life – many abusers do; it is the ultimate act of violence. It is desperately sad that he has left a grieving family, including three children.
But let’s not lay blame at the door of reality TV.
That’s too easy a copout for what was obviously a complex, tortured soul whose problems off camera always threatened to overwhelm him.