How a sarky Scot and a Fettes girl saved reality television
Love Island has been the feel-good hit of the summer and is much needed, says Aidan Smith
Do proud mums of famous sons and daughters still keep scrapbooks? Lovingly-tended albums stuffed with the banner headlines and vital moments of glittering careers, preserved for posterity on stiff paper? Possibly not, which in the case of Love Island would be a shame. Has there been a TV show which has generated more words? Big, brainy words and small, racy ones. Long-reads of 2,500 words and urgent 140-character pleas from the Twittersphere, such as: “Camilla is a beautiful humanitarian bomb disposal expert and Jonny is a waste of space. Get him off my telly pronto.” Words, words, so many words.
If scrapbooks were indeed compiled for this programme, which ended last night, then separate volumes would be required. One could be called The Brexit Edition, collecting all the articles declaring Love Island to be the Britain of 2017 in microcosm. Either because it depicted a conservative place where the inhabitants were desperate to couple up in the old-fashioned way, pulling up the duvet and then pulling up the drawbridge while the rest of the world jeered. Or, given that the setting was Majorca, because it offered a bunch of twentysomethings one last blast of hot sun and freedom of movement before their killjoy, insular parents and grandparents’ rule becomes law.
Then there would be the Literary Edition. Not to be confused with the Literally Edition which records the many occasions when contestants used “literally” for emphasis (“I literally shot past the Moon and orbited Venus a couple of times when he snogged me”), this is a compendium of the equally-numerous attempts by cultural commentators to garland the show with comparisons to great works. Love Island is Shakespearean! No, it’s Chaucerian! Get real – it’s The Decameron, that 14th century Italian classic of villa-based romantic romping, transposed from Florence to a Brits holiday playground in the immediate post-david Decameron years!
Still with me? Have you ever read an article about Love Island which has gone this long without mentioning bikinis, bums and bonking? Well, the Sex vs Love scrapbook would be another whopper, from the early accusations that the show was nothing more than “sneak-porn” through to the eve-of-final assertions of executive producer Richard Cowles and presenter Caroline Flack that the show wasn’t exploitative or gratuitous and was about relationships.
To paraphrase one of Love Island’s many gifts to our language, Cowles and Flack were presiding over a show which “100 per cent on paper” looked like a grim sleaze-fest. But television doesn’t play out on paper any more than football does. Love Island has saved reality TV. Yes, and clutch those pearls all of you over 35: sex is a proven byproduct of love!
The programme-makers couldn’t have achieved all of this on their own, though. Love Island owes most of its success to two Scots – contestant Camilla Thurlow and Iain Stirling, the narrator. Indeed, without them I wouldn’t be writing about the show, wouldn’t be straining for a literary reference of my own to best convey the thrust of Stirling’s commentaries before eventually settling on Rabelaisian – and 2.1 million of you wouldn’t have watched.
Stirling developed his quick wit on the stand-up comedy circuit while at Edinburgh University, then further honed it by sharing screentime with one of TV’S sharpest minds – CBBC’S Hacker the Dog. “Still to
come,” he’d announce before an ad break, “Montana’s breakdown”. But that wasn’t him being cruel. Similarly, he wasn’t desperately fame-seeking in the reality TV tradition when he groaned: “I’m a law graduate, you know.” There are only so many single entendres about sausages an educated man can take.
Meanwhile, Thurlow attended Fettes College, whose dreaming spires I can glimpse from my office window. What has been the school’s reaction to her appearance on Love Island? When the head of English, my neighbour, returns from holiday I’ll endeavour to find out. Maybe you think the alma mater of Tony Blair producing a reality TV star cannot be considered a proud moment (or maybe you think it’s all of a muchness). And perhaps you wonder how Thurlow has gone from her day job to Love Island – for, yes, this is the Camilla who’s the “beautiful humanitarian bomb disposal expert”. But her mother doesn’t wonder, remarking on a visit to the set that, never mind all those hazardous assignments, this was “the bravest thing she’s ever done”.
Don’t put your daughter on the reality TV dating show where it’s only double beds, Mrs Worthington? Well, none of the parents seemed especially deranged, and none of the contestants who made it through to the later stages was drunk on the prospect of D-list celebrity status. Actual bevvying was controlled. Maliciousness – a reality show staple – never reared its head. The night lenses in the communal bedroom flickered now and again, but weren’t really the reason the audience watched.
Mostly Love Island was a group of attractive, if occasionally bicyclepumped pneumatic, millennials sitting around in not many clothes and having a laugh and trying to form friendships and a bit more – and in that Thurlow became hugely popular with the core audience for being shy and not very successful at romance. She also drew cheers for bodyswerving one would-be paramour who was suspicious of feminism and of happily admitting to liking what another termed “books and s**t”.
A bit of fun, then. Some escapism before the nation’s escape committee do the needful.
2 Camilla Thurlow, formerly of Fettes College and more recently employed in bomb disposal, has found fame as a contestant on reality TV show Love Island