The trouble with reality: it’s just not real enough

221B Baker Street: the harsh reality is, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. Guys, he didn't really live there!

Reality: it seems we can’t get enough of it – until, eventually, it becomes tedious. Channel 5 announces the end of Big Brother, after 19 series: the father of reality shows has had its day – though, in truth, there’s plenty of rubbish taking its place. Yet how real are reality shows? Hardly at all, I reckon. The problem is, reality just isn’t real enough to make good TV.

This thought was stimulated by an amusing end-piece in the journal of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), in which Jon Bryant discussed a new phenomenon in tourism. With the world’s most famous destinations – Venice, Everest, the Antarctic – overrun by visitors, clever entrepreneurs are setting up opportunities for people to gain “real”, authentic experiences.

Not only, Bryant remarks, does Airbnb allow people to stay in remote farms and join the locals treading grapes in the harvest: “there are now Genghis Khan warrior training camps in Mongolia, holidaymakers can pay to be shouted at by fake KGB officers in a Soviet bunker… On the Île d’If, an island prison just off Marseille, the fortress has a stone dungeon that includes the original shaft through which Edmond Dantès, one of the inmates, escaped. The problem is that Dantès, better known as the Count of Monte Cristo, never existed.”

Be fair. Everyone does it. In the North, Chillingham Castle invites you into a hilariously bogus dungeon filled with spurious instruments of torture. We’d be disappointed if it weren’t there: every castle has a dungeon.

Except Alnwick Castle, where instead you can see where Harry Potter learned to play the great game of Quidditch. But if you think Potter-mania is a North-East phenomenon, try Oxford. Its only connection with the boy wizard lies in the early movies’ use of Christchurch College’s elegant Hall as Hogwarts’ dining hall: nonetheless, tourists throng the streets sporting scarves in Gryffindor house colours and, frequently, carrying a Nimbus 2000 broomstick.

221B Baker Street, the home of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes: in reality you’ll find it at No. 239.

In London’s Marylebone last week, I had a whim to find the home of Sherlock Holmes. In the days of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Baker Street didn’t extend as far as 221B. It does now, though: so 221B is where the great detective lived? Up to a point – except that he, too, is a fictional character. Moreover, a large Abbey National building swallows up several property numbers, including 221: the museum dedicated to the world’s greatest detective actually nestles between 237 and 241.

Makers of film and TV programmes and writers of fiction have never let reality spoil a good story. Their detective must uncover more corpses in a week than a police officer will in a lifetime: real rain is never wet enough, so stormy scenes are captured with actors deluged by a firehose.

Reality TV shows stretch “reality” to breaking point. The only real-life approximation to the Big Brother house must be a large family gathering in Devon when endless rain renders the whole party housebound: only then might we appreciate the need for that confessional chair where inhabitants pour out their inane thoughts and frustrations to a comatose TV audience.

Love Island: reality TV or an unrealistic piece of tacky voyeurism?

In I’m a celebrity, participants are shut in a glass coffin full of creepy-crawlies, or forced to eat grubs. It’s reality of a sort, I guess, to watch C-list “slebs” having a miserable time: but what’s real about that confected situation? Similarly, the sole interest in Love Island lies in the voyeuristic desire to know whether two young people with fake-tanned, barely-swimsuit-clad bodies will have a shag in their bizarre synthetic paradise.

When it comes to authenticity, then, it’s as Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) said about sincerity: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

It’s true of reality: the trouble with it is, it’s never real enough. You have to fake it.


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