Gimmicky live episodes of established series are so common these days that every time I tune into gritty Danish jumper advert The Killing I half expect to find Sarah Lund giggling uncontrollably while examining a breathing corpse.
The reason they’re so popular is that we’re all horrible people who want to see things go wrong. Unfortunately for us, soap actors take live episodes in their stride. They’re seasoned, five-episode a week professionals, which means mistakes rarely happen and viewers are reduced to glumly picking over the odd fluffed line for evidence things didn’t go entirely to plan.
The Only Way Is Essex Live finally provided us with what we’ve all been waiting for: an utter car crash that will probably go down as the most disastrous programme in television history. As it’s a semi-scripted show starring ‘real people’, TOWIE is hammy and daft at the best of times. Add in the pressure of live TV and the whole thing exploded like a giant orange balloon filled with glitter (which, coincidentally, is what most of the cast look like).
It didn’t help that the episode was based around a charity talent show format that made it seem like a bad pantomime put on by drunk holiday reps at a third rate holiday camp. In terms of overall quality, it made your average primary school nativity play look like an all star production of Les Miserables.
The worst ‘talent’ performance of the night was also (in some ways) the best: an off-key version of Aqua’s Barbie Girl belted out with gusto and an utter lack of self consciousness by Chloe, who was wearing an outfit that made her look like she was being eaten alive by a pink fondant fancy. You couldn’t help but applaud her bravery…while simultaneously plugging your ears with whatever came to hand, like cats or small children.
The talent show was intercut with bizarre backstage conversations that usually seemed to go wrong in some indefinable way. One particular chat between Jedward-haired Joey and bouffant-blonde Sam went on for a cringe-inducing six minutes. It seemed that he was either supposed to propose or dump her but he didn’t do either. Instead he rubbed his tear-filled eyes like a confused child then asked to go outside. It was genuinely pitiful.
Another scene showed a panicky Arg in the middle of what appeared to be a real argument with Debbie and Lydia, while an off-screen Nanny Pat shouted ‘well maybe if you lost some weight you wouldn’t be out of breath’. There’s a good chance he hadn’t realised the cameras were on him, but the whole thing was so chaotic and stressful it was hard to tell whether it was a mistake or if the acting had suddenly got much better.
Arg did look like he was completely losing the plot though, so maybe it’s the former. You could hardly blame him if he did have an on-screen meltdown, as all of the performers had effectively been set up to fail. Regular TOWIE isn’t exactly highbrow TV, but it’s camp, silly, fun and fills a gap in the market. This just felt exploitative: it’s hard enough for veteran soap actors to do a live episode, these amateurs had no chance.
Someone should set up a new charity called RSPCTOWIE, then have the cast run a live charity benefit to raise money for themselves. Maybe if they make enough they’ll be able to buy back their freedom from ITV.