‘I come not from heaven but from Essex’, the time-travelling narrator declares proudly in Morris’s A Dream of John Ball; but he might be inclined to keep his county shamefacedly to himself if he had watched the trashy ITV reality-show The Only Way is Essex. The latest series has recently ended, with a spectacular pool-party in Brentwood at which Mark and Lauren, Arg and Lydia, Mick and Gemma, Joey and Sam kept us entertained with their romantic entanglements.
‘Essex man’ once denoted the aspirational working class that voted for Thatcherism, but this particular set of young Essex people wouldn’t have a clue who Margaret Thatcher was in the first place and probably couldn’t name the current Prime Minister either. It would be easy enough to see them as a group of glamorous air-heads whose main concerns are fake tans, vajazzles, boob jobs (‘mine are from Belgium’, one woman announces at the pool-party), night clubs, fashion boutiques and who’s shagging whom this week. Meantime, ‘estuary English’ perpetrates horror after horror upon the language of Shakespeare.
Yet we keep watching, and in our millions, apparently. Why? Partly because, for all the ridiculously staged petty tiffs and jealousies, this is none the less a community of sorts, centred around Mick’s Sugar Hut night club; and there is thus something utopian about this sense of close-knit Gemeinschaft, however degraded it might currently be.
And partly because, if Mark’s Nanny Pat reminds us of an older working-class Essex, we just can’t wholly believe this lot are as hollow as they seem on the surface either. History won’t forget them, however much they might like to forget it; and it will take the form of public service cuts and unemployment in the short term, and climate change in the medium term as Essex becomes an ever drier county. ‘You have to try to think well of people’, as Raymond Williams once remarked; and watching The Only Way is Essex therefore becomes in the end a test of us, the viewers, a test that we don’t fall into the kneejerk dismissals that would be so easy here. We have to remain not ‘pilgrims of hope’ but, as it were, viewers of hope.
‘In Essex they were on the verge of rising’, Morris’s narrator tells us in A Dream of John Ball. Well, we are a very long way indeed from that in this ITV series, but we have to believe that Mark, Arg, Kirk, Amy, Lauren and Sam are capable of political growth and change, capable one day, we trust, of blasting my old home county out of the current media stereotypes that have so engulfed it.