THE SUNDAY TIMES
11 JUNE 2017

‘UNLESS IT’S LOVE ISLAND RELATED, DON’T BOTHER TALKING TO ME’

Between 9pm and 10pm for the next seven weeks, Christa D’Souza predicts we will all be in the grip of the best reality show on TV. Popcorn at the ready, phone on silent.

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Lord. It’s that time of year again. What time of year, you ask? Love Island time of year, that’s what! Which means forget trying to get me out of the house for the entire seven weeks between the hours of 9pm and 10pm. In fact, unless it is Love Island related, don’t bother talking to me either. Sorry, did you say you’d not heard of it? Like many a trashy reality show, the premise is preposterously uncomplicated: 11 hot, publicity-seeking twentysomethings aiming to get themselves coupled up, musical-chairs style, ASAP.

 

Throughout the show, evictions are made and new arrivals drip-fed in by presenter Caroline Flack. Like the last series, the show is set in a villa in Mallorca complete with Break-Up Bench and infrared cameras in the massive communal bedroom. The winning couple, ie the couple most solid and apparently loved up, get £50,000 to share. Hardly anything original, if you know your trash reality TV.

 

Which makes it all the more puzzling, then, as to why a 57-year-old like me, who hates reality TV — even the posh kind — is so hooked. Ditto the person who introduced me to it, my geeky 19-year-old son, who otherwise only watches University Challenge. Even in a postmodern, ironic sort of way, it is hard to admit the headspace it took up last summer — still takes up, actually. Like, are Cara and Nathan, last year’s winners, going to get back together again now Cara’s having a baby? Were those pictures circulating on social media of Alex’s willy — since hidden by a giant aubergine emoticon — for real? (I’ve scrutinised them carefully and, given that the tats match up, I’d say yes.)

 

But it’s not just me. The second series garnered an average of 1.5m viewers per show, making it one of the biggest successes on digital TV. There’s obviously something that hits the parts that all those other reality-TV shows about young people with no superfluous body hair and Orangina skin just don’t. Less feral (and frankly easier to understand) than Geordie Shore, seemingly less staged than Ex on the Beach, and yes, curiously reassuring in tone with its camp, innuendo-laden voiceover, not to mention the parents being invited in halfway through, it feels like the sort of show the family can gather round the TV to watch like we did in the olden days with Blind Date and the Generation Game. Yes, of course they do it, that’s the whole point — can you believe when that minxy Emma-Jane and Terry did it on top of the sheets last year? — but in an age where fifth base is a proper official thing (and for the average 15-year-old, first pretty much means third), Love Island comes across as quite PG.

 

It’s oddly heartfelt, too, even though we know the format is about as authentic as pro wrestling. Did you not feel last year for poor Zara, shuddering with tears when she lost her Miss GB crown after having it off with Alex? Or when Malin, after being booted off made a surprise appearance back in to confront love rat Terry? Or poor old Adam who hadn’t really had a girlfriend before and nobody really fancied except for Katie (and that was only because Katie got dumped by Sophie — that’s Sophie who used to be with Tom)?

 

“The point was that, yes, it should be aspirational to a certain young demographic who see these gorgeous young people and think, ‘I want to be that’,” says Amanda Stavri, ITV’s commissioning editor for entertainment, “but just as important, we wanted them to be relatable. Although they are gorgeous and are picked because they are gorgeous, you can meet any one of the islanders in any club up and down the country on a Saturday night. Their insecurities and vulnerabilities are very much out there. They feel shame and embarrassment and excitement just like the rest of us. The whole point is to get the viewers to invest in their stories and their inner feelings. They’re not just kids with great bodies and tans.”

 

She’s right. When you boil it down, the basic material is no different to Thackeray or Austen or Tolstoy (except maybe for the girl-on-girl action) infused, of course, with the stink of fake tan and bad aftershave. (It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? The clashing scents when they’re all getting ready for the evening in that communal bathroom… Or the colour of the pool water by the end of the seven weeks.)

Of course, this being day six on the Love Island, we’ve already met the lucky contestants (there were 60,000 applications for this series alone). Among them is Olivia, the motorsport grid girl who doesn’t believe in a girl code; Jessica, the glamour model who doesn’t like wearing clothes and, slight departure from the norm here, Camilla, the bomb-disposal expert who was caught in a clinch with Prince Harry three years ago.

On the boys’ side there is Marcel, the former rap artist, Sam, the oil-rig worker, and Kem, the hairdresser. Come this evening, I’ll be shouting at the TV, trying to fast-forward the endless Superdrug ads. In the interim, a private message to the production team: if you need any assistance on set, I’m your man, and if not I’d die for a T-shirt if there was one.