Thursday, December 08, 2005

Boldly Going Nowhere

Note: Most of this post was cobbled together in the early hours (ie. before 10am) of Thursday morning, on four hours sleep and three mugs of caffeine. Due to the pressures of daily life (ie. Christmas shopping) however, it was not finished until the following Monday morning, a good two days after the original programme had been heartlessly recorded over with Strictly Come Dancing by persons who shall remain nameless. So if this piece makes very little sense (ie. even less than usual), that's why. But if anyone would like to pay me good money to write this kind of thing on a professional basis, thus enabling me to sub-contract out my Christmas shopping to a family of Filipinos, and dedicate more time to the world of reality TV, then you can e-mail me here. Thanks.

One of my favourite television moments of 2003 was the episode of 'The Pilot Show' in which Channel 4 convinced a few desperate TV wannabes with learning difficulties that they'd passed the audition to go into space on a new reality show, and had no trouble persuading each of them to pose behind a cardboard cut-out of a rocket, and utter the immortal line "I'm going to the moon with Paul Ince and Stelios from EasyJet!". A believable proposition, clearly. Well, Endemol, the people behind both Big Brother and Noel Edmonds' TV comeback (I'm not sure which is the bigger crime), clearly saw the potential in that scenario, and have duly cranked it up to the nth degree in the fom of 'Space Cadets', possibly the first of a new breed of reality show - the reality hoax. It may not have Stelios from EasyJet, but it does have a load of people who share his love of self-publicity.

Back in June, Endemol advertised for people to take part in a new TV show, about which they would reveal only the vaguest details. Clearly only a fool would apply for a show they knew nothing about, which is handy as that's just what the producers were looking for. Judging by the audition tapes, the show attracted the usual mix of the stupid, the arrogant, the prejudiced, and the annoyingly camp, all of whom shared a desperate desire to be famous for doing nothing in particular. It's what scientists call the Jade Goody Syndrome.

The producers meanwhile, were busy turning a decommissioned military base in Suffolk into a mock-up of a Russian space training facility. A huge task, you might think, but speaking as someone who lives in the area, I'm no stranger to bottles of vodka and queueing for bread, so frankly if you want to recreate Russia, going for a field just outside Ipswich makes perfect sense.

Back at the auditions, the producers had enlisted the help of Professor Robert Edelmann to identify the most "highly suggestible" (ie. very, very gullible) applicants, which he did by means of a series of psychological tests. The first was the 'dot pattern test', in which the subject was asked to identify a face in colourful patterns of dots which actually contained no facial features whatsoever. Not that the wannabes let that put them off. The answers given ranged from "Boy George" to "the bottom half of a dolphin", and "an Italian priest with the Joker out of Batman's make-up on". Under normal circumstances of course, people such as these would immediately be referred for psychiatric care, but we're talking reality TV here, so instead of being locked up, it was on to the next round of auditions.

Having counted eyeballs in a jar, been strapped into sleeping bags, and then shut in a lift for twenty minutes (all everyday occurences in Suffolk), the remaining wannabes were asked to don blindfolds and dance around a room in silence, before being shipped off to an outward bounds course in Cumbria. Amongst them were three actors - Ranie, Steve and Charlie - charged with infiltrating the group like undercover moles on a secret mission, and helping to convince them that everything was above board.

And what actors they were. Charlie, whose cover story involved him being a poet, came up with this cast iron defence when challenged:

"I saw a pebble on the beach,
And it reminded me of you,
Or was it the dog behind,
Scratching its shit into the cold sand?"

Speaking as someone who once had a poem rejected by the Brighton Argus, I'd be quite proud of that.

Steve meanwhile was struggling with the physical aspects of the job, which involved abseiling, canoeing, and jumping off a bridge into a river. Like any half-decent thespian, he immediately threatened to call his agent, and complained he was sick, cold and underpaid, before asking for a Bafta, tossing his head about, and mincing off up a hill.

At the end of it all though, nine of the applicants were chosen, and together with the three actors, were taken off to Biggin Hill for a meeting with Johnny Vaughan, and a first opportunity to witness his (frankly startling) furry-hooded coat up close. Johnny informed the group that they would be flying into space (via Volgagrad), and with the annoying whoops of typical reality show contestants, they boarded the plane for Ipswich and began to discuss the business of pooing in zero gravity.

Of course, American billionaires have each paid about thirty million dollars for the privelege of going into space, so it seemed perfectly feasible to one and all that Channel 4 would be putting up the cash for a few members of the general public to do the same. After all, with the range of deeply irritating people involved, all Endemol need to do is let viewers vote on who should be shoved out of the airlock first, and they can make that hundred million back in a week.