A man stands spotlit on stage with a microphone

Defining these programmes as reality television

Here are some ways that I think mark out these programmes as belonging to a strand of reality television which shows children engaged in educational activities:

  • The programmes, like make-over and talent shows such as the X-Factor, use experts as mentors and judges. For example, When Romeo Met Juliet features the National Youth Theatre’s Paul Roseby as an experienced director of this age group and this playwright; Lester and Chakrabhati are in-demand actors on the stage and screen; the expert credentials of the crew are emphasized from the Belgrade’s set designers to the Assistant Director, Mike, being freshly qualified from the well-known drama school LAMDA.

  • The child stars of the shows fit the requirements of the reality genre in being stylish and successful but also fallible performers—they dry up, forget lines and misplace props. They also meet the genre’s need for “characters” on which the programme’s narrative attention can focus and “to whom viewers relate in much the same way as if they were characters in a soap” (Kilburn, 2003: 101).

  • The programmes claim to give a voice to young, non-white Britons, immigrants and those from working-class backgrounds as well as to celebrate diversity. However, we might consider the extent to which the programmes can be seen as presenting assimilationist narratives, that is to say, as inducting immigrants, and the children of immigrant families, into British traditions of Shakespeare and theatre.

  • The programmes use narrative fictions to further elucidate social difference, tensions between different groups and to package up an otherwise “pedestrian sequence of events” creating climactic moments and cliff-hanger endings (Kilburn, 2003: 83). Much is done by the shows in terms of using voice-overs, editing footage, and the final episodes’ before and after comparisons to evoke fairy-tale transformations. Roseby, for instance, insists in his address to the Romeo and Juliet cast on the first day of the month-long joint rehearsal period “you are professional actors as of today”. He berates students who fall short of his standards: “it’s you who’s going to look crap and stupid”. Inclusion of this footage reminds the audience of the gap between the students and the professionals and stresses the radicalness of transformation required.

  • The shows emphasise the participants’ need to acquire a body of knowledge and set of skills to transform their ability to perform Shakespeare. The students are—as the RSC’s Director of Movement Struan Leslie explains—asked to rethink “the way they walk, talk, breathe, think” for the duration of filming. In terms of professionalism, they have to learn to deal with nerves, respect each other, memorise lines, overcome inhibitions, take feedback during rehearsal and use it to perform better, be punctual, demonstrate energy and enthusiasm.

  • The participating students learn (or more occasionally resist learning) how to be reality television stars: the sorts of behaviours the editors will enjoy. This includes seemingly no-holds barred self-reflection and idiosyncrasy, of the kind encouraged in Big Brother’s diary room. Kevin in When Romeo Met Juliet demonstrates his awareness of this facility early on accosting the camera during auditions bragging “the camera loves me, don’t you? Don’t you?” Another student from Macbeth, the movie star and me shows his awareness of the programme’s reality television aspect to the camera through a comparison with one of the most successful examples of the genre: “it’s like waiting for X-Factor. I feel like one of the contestants”.

  • Self-work, self-actualisation, self-understanding and self-help are long-established subjects and goals of reality television, particularly the television make-over (Ouellette and Hay, 2008). Advertisements recruiting participants to shows often emphasize possible personal growth, “do you really know yourself?”, or promise to “change the way you think” (Biressi and Nunn 27). In Macbeth, the movie star and me, a sporty student with low confidence about his ability in core curriculum subjects realises he has academic and creative potential: “The way we were taught how to speak and how to act just made me come out my shell a bit more cos I don’t feel silly coming out and doing it a bit more”.

  • The audience learns by watching the programme what it takes to perform Shakespeare well: we can’t all be sent to learn performing Shakespeare from these teachers, but we can have some sense of what it might be like by observing these children (Hardy and Corones, 2006: 126). We learn not only about the staging process but also the plays’ plots and characters. This acquisition of knowledge often occurs “alongside” the children through a slow-drip feed of information from the narrator and/or host. Our stereotypes of today’s children are also challenged. In Off By Heart, the host, Jeremy Paxman says: the “media caricature about the yoof of today, that they don’t know anything, aren’t interested in anything, is just not fair … [they] appreciate words, drama and the human story”.

Maybe you can flip this article on its head and, in the opportunity for discussion, think about some ways in which these programmes do not fit definitions of reality television or are dissimilar to other programmes seen to belong in that category?

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This article is from the free online course:

Pictures of Youth: An Introduction to Children’s Visual Culture

University of York