It is 9:50AM on a pissing-down Friday, and I appear to have walked in on the UK's annual Convention of Jehovah's Witnesses. I'm making my way down a cavernous stretch of east London's ExCel centre while the beginnings of the religious gathering (this year's theme: "BE COURAGEOUS!") kick off in at least three of its enormous exhibition rooms, which in turn are punctuated by a number of off-brand coffee stands. Momentarily, I am concerned that I have come to the wrong place. Is there another ExCel? Surely the idea that this spiritual summit might be going on alongside what I have come here for is much too ironic to be true. Compelled by my mission, however, I keep on, past the Christians and retailers of £5 paninis – and then I hear it.
Ed Sheeran's "Castle On a Hill" peals out from an as-yet-unviewable source (a PA system? God?) even further down the corridor, and I know I am home. I have arrived at Love Island: Live.
In the vein of YouTube meet and greets, Love Island: Live seems to be part of a new venture by the show's broadcaster ITV to move into the event industry (they also recently ran the demented-sounding This Morning: Live, which could only mean some nans handing over fistfuls of cash for the privilege of having Gino D'Acampo roar cooking innuendos at them in person).
The first portion of the morning is a stage show – the snappily but also grimly and resignedly titled Back to Blighty, which feels doubly appropriate on this rainy day, anomalous for our hot, sweaty summer. This is to be followed by a second section, which allows those who have paid an extra £15 on top of the £20 Back to Blighty entry fee access to a second room, wherein select Islanders can be met and gret – and dreams, burning incandescent like the Mallorcan sun, can be realised.
By 10:03AM I'm inside and waiting for Back to Blighty to begin. In front of me is a stage, a big screen, a sofa and two rows of seats, which soon, presumably, will cradle the Islanders' famous bums. Behind all of this, there are some photo canvases of beach scenes fastened to the back wall, and to the left, there are also The Mac Twins, Love Island Aftersun’s resident DJs (who I later spot walking around the meet and greet area, entirely un-approached, more than once). They are standing behind a "booth", from behind which they warm up the audience by warning us at least five times that the next track they play will be the last before the Islanders come out. We are being encouraged to stand up and dance by crew members with glitter on their faces. I'd like to repeat at this point that it is 10:03AM.
Looking around me, I realise that I had expected an older crowd – people in their late teens, or students, perhaps – but clearly I have hugely underestimated Love Island’s impact in the child community. Many members of the crowd are aged ten or under, mostly accompanied by equally excited mums, and some joined by dads who cannot believe this is where the promise of their youth got them.
We're all sitting on chairs arranged in rows on the floor, and the whole affair has the feel of an expensive school assembly (like, one of the special ones where they get a company in to do a play in which the moral is to not have an abortion), and that's even before Caroline Flack, a TV presenter who could just as easily be a sort-of-sound English teacher, clomps out in front of us. As she strides onstage, the clack of her heels resounds in this windowless bunker, just as it did on the villa's gravel driveway.
Here are some of the things that happen during the Back to Blighty stage show: Georgia wails the words "goodness gracious me!" like a pantomime dame. Dr Alex is shown a videotape of all the times he was cuckolded in the villa. Caroline Flack asks Jack and Dani, who notably did not fuck on television, whether they have now "done bits", to which they respond affirmatively as the onlooking children voice their hearty endorsement. Wes dances. Megan wears a genuinely very stylish leopard print and tartan blazer. Eyal and Adam are challenged to procure objects from the audience in order to establish which of them has the most "game", resulting in Adam being handed all of the requisite items by an eight-year-old in the front row, and thus crowned the victor. Laura puts her hand on the inside of Paul's thigh, in a place that is frankly too high up in front of this many strangers, and it feels less like a gesture of affection and more as though she is thinking about how best to immobilise him should he bolt.
It is, therefore, everything I had hoped.
The appeal of events like this, of course, is to get closer to the real experience of something glamorous. But reality is rarely glamorous – it is much closer to the awkward pauses and bad timing of the Back to Blighty stage show than to the slick editing and clearly mapped emotional arcs of the show Love Island. I'm especially struck by this during the second part of the morning, when we're transferred into the second room for the meet and greets.
The audience is initially so eager to move across that they have to be stopped by a line of blue-jacketed security staff holding hands with each other. Eventually we're let free from the kettle, and what we are confronted with is an Instagram acid trip. The entire place is a blank canyon of overstimulation; it is full of photo opportunities with nothing in between them.
One of the attractions is what I can only describe as a blue mat (covered in picture-friendly swimming pool inflatables, perhaps, but a mat all the same). Another is a perfectly rendered copy of Love Island’s diary room-esque Beach Hut, complete with wicker chair. There are basketed palm trees. There is a ten-foot-tall effigy shaped like a Love Island water bottle, mounted in sand.
The most important photo-opps of all, however, are with the Islanders themselves. Attendees queue in designated areas under banners emblazoned with the name of the Islander(s) they'd like a selfie with (though there are also members of staff on hand to take your photo should the selfie angle be displeasing). Jack and Dani's queue is so popular that it has to be closed after ten minutes. For their part, the Islanders, though late to start, accept their task very good-naturedly – Georgia takes time to cuddle an overwhelmed little girl; Jack offers to take a photo on someone's phone, citing his "long arms". Ultimately, they give the people what they want: proximity to the new stars they admire, and a photo to commemorate the occasion.
Everything in this neon-lit, squint-inducing room is designed to be captured in the frame of a phone's camera, and that makes the sheer normality of what's happening outside of the lens' gaze – kids sitting on the floor; Islanders' newly-acquired agents making furtive phone calls; even the non-polished appearances of most of the audience members, me included – feel even more pronounced.
Love Island is a show which is highly inflected by the aesthetic of social media – in particular, Instagram – so it's no surprise that this event follows the same pattern. But outside of social media, there is life, and the non-curated mess of it, and at Love Island: Live, the two collide.
That collision is a girl eating a pack of Ready Salted crisps brought along for her by her mum, while wearing a T-shirt that reads "#Loyal"; it's a selfie with Megan and Wes that you had to wait an hour-and-a-half to take. It is, essentially, everything you'd expect when you attempt to squash Britain's biggest televisual phenomenon and everything it entails into four walls on a rainy Friday in August, instead of onto a screen: untidy, and funny, and brilliant.
As I leave a few hours later – headachey, nauseous and robbed of a few years of good eyesight – I could see that the group of people with tickets for the show's afternoon session were starting to turn up. What I took away was an odd comfort in realising that people will always search for specialness – which, if we are to truly experience it, must be couched in a banality like that of refrigerated sandwiches in convention centres – and in seeing the cycle continue in front of me. Birth, death, Love Island. Say it with me.