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In a world in which two Love Island contestants and the show’s host, Caroline Flack, have died by suicide, the questions about the duty of care on reality TV shows have never been louder. Parliamentarians have held an inquiry, networks and producers have worked up duty of care charters, and now, dramatists are fixing the issue in their creative glare.
Reggie Yates has been a presenter on British television for 18 years, and although he has never hosted a purist reality show, some of the formats he has fronted have reality elements, including The Voice UK and Release The Hounds. In short, he knows this world and it felt like fertile ground for his first TV drama. “I am uniquely placed to tell the story, as someone who is part of a generation who has grown up watching reality TV,” he told Deadline.
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The result is Make Me Famous, a 60-minute film made through Expectation for youth network BBC Three. It tells the story of Billy (Tom Brittney), the star of a Love Island-like show, who enjoyed a summer of fame and is struggling to come to terms with his waning public appeal as he is shuffled along the conveyer belt of reality stars. His greying existence is punctuated by promoted social media posts, selfies, online abuse and throwaway relationships, which all build to a tragic crescendo. The show was originally titled Killed By My Fame after all.
The BBC approached Yates to write the show, and it was an invitation he accepted with relish. The writer — who has also built a reputation as a documentary host with adventures in China and South Africa for the BBC — threw himself into researching the project, interviewing dozens of reality TV contestants to get inside the minds of those who have given over their lives to viewers around the world.
“People go into it only seeing the positives, which is that you can make a bit of money, people will know your name and you can have an incredibly fun summer, or period of time. The realities are very different,” he said. “The thing that surprised me most is how uniform the reaction was. There was the occasional interview saying ‘I don’t really think this has affected my life,’ but that was 20% of the people I spoke to. There was an overwhelming consistency in the way people’s lives were affected.”
Yates wanted to capture this change — and although the show was originally titled Killed By My Fame, this is a reference to much more than just Billy’s physical wellbeing. “If you’re a young person going into one of these shows, the person that you come out as can be miles away from the one you once were,” he said. “This idea of something dying was integral.”
The show was conceived and shot before the death of Flack, but its themes are made all the more resonant by her passing. Yates, who was also shooting his first feature film, Pirates, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, explained: “This was incredibly important to me years ago. Filming wrapped on 14 February, so prior to the sad passing of Caroline and post-the other tragedies in reality TV. The issues at play in this film have been vital for years.”
He hopes Make Me Famous will contribute to the “considered debate” taking place around reality TV, though he is clear that it is not just the exposure of a show like Big Brother that contributes to a person’s mental health deteriorating. “It’s irresponsible to attribute responsibility to any one factor. We have to step back and look at the world around a person like Billy, which is why this film doesn’t make it about one thing. It makes it about the world around him,” Yates said.
Make Me Famous is available on iPlayer. It will be shown on BBC One at 9PM on June 25.
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