Tag Archives: reality television

Hats off (or on) to the past few days!

It’s been quite a four days – perhaps best summarized with The Hat.  Everybody’s had a go at this new game.

The Hat – the inspiration

Princess Beatrice and The Hat at the royal weddingFriday was the birth of The Hat. The day was a bank holiday in the UK so that everyone could watch The Royal Wedding.   Millions of us elsewhere also watched.  The Hat made its first appearance. On Princess Beatrice’s head, blocking the view for many.

Photoshopping The Hat

White House, with hats, from FacebookBut while we were watching the fairy tale wedding, in the White House other events were being watched.  Friday, so we learned, was also the culmination of 10 years of The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.  The Hat was there, helping.

Sunday, Celebrity Apprentice was pre-empted in the last few critical moments (would Nene pleasepleaseplease be fired?  No – she Star, Hope and Nene in the boardroomwasn’t, oh no!)  The Hat should have been there – this is its natural habitat.  Some of the outfits worn by these “celebrity” women would fit right in those worn by the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice.

Donald Trump, with The Hat, from FacebookWhy did President Obama interrupt The Donald?  Osama bin Laden had Osama bin Laden, in The Hat, from Facebookbeen killed by US troops.  Before this news was made public, The Hat had already found its way to bin Laden’s head.

Monday, Canada’s election produced an odd result.  A Conservative majority with (for the first time ever) the NDP as official Opposition.  The Liberals and Michael Ignatieff, with The Hatthe Bloc were pretty much wiped off the political map.  Gilles Duceppe said his goodbyes to his party Monday evening, Michael Ignatieff waited until Tuesday morning.  The Hat talked him into it.

Brilliant Speed, with The HatAnd coming up on Saturday, hats will be big in Louisville.  It’s the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby.  Having tried my hand at photoshopping The Hat, I’m definitely rooting for Brilliant Speed. He very kindly loaned me his head. It looks quite nice on him. But it would make for serious wind resistance.

Patrick wins – no hat

Patrick Chan, doing victory lap at WorldsBack to last Friday, Patrick Chan won gold at the World Figure Skating Championships in Moscow.  Hurray Patrick, hurray Canada. (no hat)

The Hat on Princess Beatrice is an AP photo from Friday’s wedding.  The Hat on Michael Ignatieff was done by Jim Stewart.  The others of The Hat are from Facebook.  The photo of Patrick Chan is by AP and the boardroom photo of Team ASAP is from buddytv.

Sarah Palin and Targets

The first time I saw Sarah Palin on television, I was impressed. It was soon after she was announced as John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 US presidential election. She was forthright with her opinions and seemed level-headed. I liked how she talked about being a woman – and wife and mother – with a political career. I might not agree with her political beliefs but I could respect her as a politician. That’s what I thought.

Sarah’s Targets

targets on SarahPac's Take back the 20 map of USIt went downhill from there, pretty rapidly. But never, even in my most extreme thoughts of “what stupidity is this woman going to do next” did I imagine she would post a list of Democratic party targets online, and show their geographical location on a map of the USA with marks that are very similar to gunsight cross hairs!

Gun imagery and reality

I had heard on tv about her statement that it was time to “reload”. Her choice of that word seemed incendiary and irresponsible to me, and I was sure it was deliberate on her part. Still, giving her the benefit of the doubt, I thought maybe she was just playing up her self- or media-created image as a rifle-toting, sharp-shooting “momma Grizzly”. Had I known about the list and map! I only found out about that on CNN today, the day a US congresswoman was shot in the head, 6 people were killed and many more wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson Arizona. The Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Gifford, was on Sarah Palin’s list of targets.

Maybe there is no connection between these killings and Sarah Palin’s postings and tweets. But if there isn’t in fact, there is in spirit. An Arizona sheriff, shortly after the shootings, spoke of the spirit of “vitriol” in Arizona. That, CNN commentators agreed, could be extended to the whole of political discourse in the US at this moment. I don’t know what gets more vitriolic than marking a map with something very much like cross-hairs, even if it’s not meant to be taken literally. It is exactly that image of Palin – the gun-totin’ momma – that she has created for herself that makes her use of such language more problematic than with other people’s use of it. With her, it’s hard to hear the words ‘target’ and ‘aim’ without thinking of firearms.

Sanctity of fish life?

I watched a couple episodes of Sarah Palin’s Alaska recently. The one I watched had her and her daughter working on a fishing boat. They were processing halibut before putting them in the boat’s hold. Bristol, then Sarah, held the still-beating heart of a halibut. Both looked at it as the camera zoomed in for a close-up. I thought probably they were marveling at this little organ, strong, still beating, still alive even after it was detached from the halibut’s body. That’s what I was doing.

But nope. Bristol said something like “eew, gross”. Sarah looked at it solemnly for a minute and, just when I thought she was going to talk about the miracle of life, she shrugged, said “weird”. Then she flicked the still-beating heart over the side of the boat into the sea. So much for the sanctity of life, I thought.

 

Lifeboys: Reality tv before “Reality TV”

In the spring of 1992, I heard an interview with Pat O’Rourke, of Liverpool, on CBC Radio’s As it Happens. It was about Lifeboys, a television show that he was making, based on the real lives of real people. O’Rourke and his wife owned and ran the Shipperies, a long established Lifeboys Shipperies Pub, Durning Road, Liverpoolpub in Wavertree, part of Liverpool in the north of England. In it, they were making Lifeboys, based on their pub and its patrons.

I went to visit the O’Rourkes at the Shipperies when I was in England soon after, while researching Coronation Street for a radio documentary. I liked what they were doing: making art out of their reality, or portraying reality through the art of being Liverpudlian, “Scousers.” Either way, it was blurring the lines between reality and entertainment.  It was neither documentary nor fiction. Now we would call it reality tv; then it was comparable only to continuing serials like Coronation Street and East Enders.

I wish O’Rourke had met another producer in England who, at that time, was also thinking of how to change the stories told on television. Charlie Parsons had an idea for a different kind of show based on reality. He wanted to put ordinary people into extraordinary, and stressful, situations and tape what happened. His idea eventually came to fruition on Swedish television in 1997 as Expedition Robinson. It enjoyed some success there and was produced by broadcasters elsewhere. The idea exploded when Mark Burnett sold it in 2000 to American audiences as Survivor.

Competition or “Real Life”

Since then, there has been every kind of reality show imaginable. Some are competition of stress and manipulation, like Survivor. Some are talent shows.  Others are daily lives of regular people doing whatever it is they do, like a television diary. Some have huge prizes for the winners. Some have only the prize of having your life documented and aired.

UnStable website (CMT) horse and womenI started thinking about the “record of life” type of reality show when I watched one called UnStable. Being interested in horses, I’ll watch anything with the word stable in it. I still can’t figure the show out, other than it seems like a “reality” version of CBC’s Alberta-set horsey drama Heartland. I thought to myself, somebody in Alberta must have watched Heartland and said, “this isn’t what our lives are really like, I bet I could tell better stories about what it means to be a rancher in Alberta.” And, with a proliferation of cable stations looking for cheap programming, they indeed found a buyer in CMT (Country Music Television). They’ve got a nice website and presumably lots of fans who want to see “real” families running “real” horse ranches instead of, or as well as, the fictional ones on Heartland.

So that’s what made me think of Pat O’Rourke and what he had put his heart into. But he was thinking of it in terms of continuing serials like Coronation Street and Liverpool’s Brookside. A couple years later, when reality television began flooding the airwaves, I think his eavesdropping on a Liverpool local would have been a hit.

Lifeboys and Wrinklies

What O’Rourke wanted to do was produce a tv show about his pub patrons by his patrons for his patrons. He had worked in television and film and was an actors’ agent. He borrowed and bought equipment and set up the upstairs of the pub as a production studio. There he and writer Paul McKane wrote and produced scripts based on the stories and lives of the people in his neighbourhood, the people who frequented his bar.

The bar is divided into two – a large public room on one side, bar in the middle, and a smaller parlour on the other. The younger people tended to congregate in the larger bar where the music was loud, the older people in the smaller room. The ones in the large room, at least the men, were known as “Lifeboys”. The people in the smaller room were generally known as “Wrinklies”.

The stories O’Rourke wanted to tell were those from both sides of the bar, but the name he liked for the whole was “Lifeboys”. So the real lifeboys and wrinklies told their stories, and Pat videotaped and took notes. He then edited the tape into short episodes and aired them in the big room for the patrons. Everybody loved it.

Watching at The Shipperies

Evenings when episodes were shown began drawing capacity crowds from the neighbourhood. Lifeboys began getting a lot of media attention too. UK, European, even Canadian tv, radio and newspapers wanted to know about the “pub soap”. O’Rourke and McKane had hopes to get Lifeboys picked up by a network for national broadcast. They thought their product told the real stories of Liverpool. They thought they could go up against Brookside, Emmerdale and, yes, even Coronation Street.

It didn’t happen.  I don’t know why. O’Rourke, McKane and all the actors wanted to make a good product that entertained and reflected their reality, and did. I spent a wonderful three days at the Shipperies, with the real lifeboys and wrinklies, and with the actors and production crew.

Lifeboys didn’t make it into my radio documentary on soaps. But it did inform my look at Coronation Street and the other British network serials. Little things like how local are the actors, are the accents authentic for the characters, are the stories believable for these characters in this place? These are questions that also concern Coronation Street and the other UK serials. But opinions vary on how well they succeed in recreating a realistic picture of their environment. Lifeboys is a section of the book on soaps I later wrote. There I could explore the questions of authenticity of voice that O’Rourke had raised as well as issues of reality and story narrative, accuracy and entertainment.

Authenticity of Story

Historic Fire Station and Shipperies Pub LiverpoolPat O’Rourke cared about seeing Liverpool accurately presented, and Manchester and Yorkshire (homes of the other Northern serials). But his concern went further than that. His question was why create fictional people and situations when such richness of character and lifestories is all around you. The real stories are just as entertaining and moving, and to the greatest extent possible, the best people to tell them are the real people themselves.

He found it’s hard to actually do, with time and budget constraints. Especially if you are aiming at well-oiled machines like Coronation Street as your competition. Also the networks had their continuing serial roster pretty well filled up. With home-grown major products, smaller regional soaps in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and Australian imports giving a shot of sunshine and skin, there wasn’t much room for another one. But there might well have been room for a real-life look inside a Liverpool pub and the lives of its patrons in a couple years. By then, pretty much anything that could be made into a reality show was, and was being bought and aired.

Reality TV

In the years since the original Survivor, there have been every kind of reality show imaginable, and then some. In contest form or storytelling, all (except celebrity ones) are “ordinary” people acting in “real” ways.

Perhaps the genre that Lifeboys should have been a part of is the “reality tv” one, not continuing serials. Yes, the latter are a representation of daily life but are clearly fictional. Like a good novel, they reflect reality but don’t intend, or pretend, to replicate it. Pat O’Rourke wanted to document reality and present it as entertanment. In that he had more in common in Charlie Parsons and Mark Burnett. From what I saw of Lifeboys compared to what I’ve seen of reality shows, I much prefer Pat O’Rourke’s vision.

I still don’t know what I think of UnStable. I watched a couple episodes but haven’t felt moved to watch again. The stories didn’t grab me. But that’s pretty much how I feel about Heartland too. I Heartland website mastheaddon’t care about the people that much, and they always seem so clean even after mucking out stalls. I like the horses, though, on both shows and wish they had bigger roles.

flickr photos of the Shipperies by Caroline & Phil Bunford, top, and Jim Malone, bottom. UnStable and Heartland photos are from their websites.