We Know 'Love Island' Is Staged, But That Doesn't Stop Us Watching
It might not be totally authentic, but its universal themes of yelling and true love keep us coming back.
Eighteen years ago today, Britain was invaded by a cultural behemoth that changed it forever. On the 18th of July, 2000, Big Brother launched its maiden UK series. Soon, a house in Bow (and later, Borehamwood) became of more national importance than 10 Downing Street, and reality TV as we know it now – screaming; shagging; wine bottle shoved firmly, defiantly, in its foof – came to be.
Almost two decades later, Big Brother’s influence races through the clogged arteries of British popular culture. Without it, there would be no Alison Hammond interviewing Harrison Ford, no Brian Dowling, no "FUCK OFF, GILLIAN MCKEITH." Think about it: a Britain where you cannot look at someone and shriek "David is dead!", to be met with tears of laughter, would be no Britain at all.
Aside from the many, many references it has given us in isolation, however, it's also had a more pervasive effect. As the first TV show which allowed UK viewers to just fucking watch people every day – really indulging our national sport of voyeurism, our endless capacity for which had previously been exemplified best by the supremacy of tabloid newspapers and how obsessed everyone still was (and is) with the circumstances of Princess Diana's death – it totally changed what we expect from television. Big Brother recognised that there's nothing more fascinating than what people do when they're put in an alien situation and basically left to their own devices to cry and argue. Just look at any channel’s programming schedule – from TOWIE to The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds – and you’ll see how Big Brother, and particularly its hidden camera format, took UK television by the throat and hasn’t let go since.
While Big Brother does still air on Channel 5, its legacy feels far more important than its current iteration, and its days as the reigning monarch of reality TV have long since ended. For years, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! – which took Big Brother and added snakes, famous people, a long-drop and Ant and Dec, providing viewers the irresistible opportunity to vote for poor bastards like Iain Lee to eat kangaroo bollocks – wore the crown, though its three-week runtime pales in the face of the months-long Big Brother run, which is so crucial in fostering an invested audience.
There is, then, only one other programme since BB’s heyday to have grabbed the zeitgeist with the force of Sam Gowland sticking his tongue down the throat of any girl with hair extensions: Love Island, obviously.
There's an easy way to tell that Love Island now is just as huge a phenomenon as Big Brother was back in the early and mid-2000s: both shows spawned their own cultural languages, and to be tapped into these programmes is to speak their lingo. From Nasty Nick came Muggy Mike; from "nominations" and "evictions" came "recoupling". What is "babe, I'm loyal" but the bratty, spiritual daughter of "who IS she"? In this way – in its ability to totally embed itself in the cultural conversation – Love Island is simply Big Brother, only social media proficient and drinking protein shakes. It is souped up with swimwear and enforced horniness and a Spanish location, certainly, but ultimately it is just a bunch of people put in a house with the sole objective to relate to each other in various ways for our entertainment, with the most likeable ones chosen as the end victors, over the course of two long, hot summer months.
The main variable between the two shows is the fact they come from different times. Big Brother began as a sort of Y2K-era social experiment, in keeping with the mores of the turn of the century, and its form has not changed since its inception. Love Island, however, takes hidden cameras and meshes them with the present moment. It is a real-time reality show that is also post-Made In Chelsea, post-Geordie Shore, post-Instagram, post-Kardashian, post-arse implant as a 21st birthday gift.
All of these influences, which came to life in the years between Big Brother and Love Island (which began in its current mode in 2015, as a remake of 2005 and 2006's Celebrity Love Island, which starred such luminaries as Calum Best and Paul Danan), have drastically changed our aesthetic sensibilities, and Love Island is a product of that. The villa itself looks like the holiday resorts you see all over social media in July and August; every woman on the show resembles a YouTube MUA; candid conversations are inter-spliced with deliberately filmed, glossy, aspirational montages – and the footage for the latter, at least, is clearly staged.
This year – perhaps because of its status as part of the national conversation, a level it reached about halfway through 2017's series – Love Island has been the subject of accusations of fakery, after viewers have picked up on a number of continuity errors. I'd argue, in one sense, that as Love Island’s level of production value is closer to something like The Only Way Is Essex (a show which opens each episode with a disclaimer stating that "the tans you see may be fake, but the people are all real, although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment") than the original Channel 4 Big Brother series, in some ways this shouldn't be surprising.
On the other hand, the fact is that in our cultural memory, Big Brother is Love Island’s nearest touchstone, and so, despite living in a society which has become defined by self-editing and showing our "best bits", we expect similar levels of authenticity from the show. BB involved no outside interference other than the voices of Big Brother, Davina McCall and the crowds that would inevitably gather outside the house every Friday to boo whichever housemate The Sun was trashing that week. The producers of Love Island, however, are known to roam the villa and interact with the contestants – and making the show we see every night would be impossible if they didn’t.
Appearing on the podcast Millennial Love, 2017 contestant Montana Rose Brown confirmed that the production crew interacts with the Islanders. She noted that participants would be asked to move to a different location to have a conversation if they couldn't be properly picked up on camera, or might be prompted to talk about their opinions about goings-on in the villa, though they were never told what to say.
Even without Brown's confirmation, though, it's pretty clear to any viewer that there is a degree of stagedness on Love Island, and with Missguided officially providing clothes for the contestants this year, it's a widening element of the show. However, barring clear and unacceptable exceptions from which the programme's makers absolutely must learn (two examples are Adam Collard’s seemingly forced apology to Rosie Williams following accusations of gaslighting, and the poor editing and lack of inclusion for black woman contestant Samira Mighty, which directly led to her leaving the show), the manipulation inherent to Love Island feels like a crucial part of its appeal. We have to ask, after all, if it would be so successful if it didn’t depict universally loved concepts – romance, people from Essex screaming at each other – in line with the aesthetic preferences of millennials.
Ultimately, even though we know Love Island – Big Brother’s cousin with a boob job and veneers – is staged at a growing rate, we go back to it because we’re invested. We’re invested because we’re people, and we have a timeless desire to watch other people. While it's a formula that has clear room for improvement in order to properly reflect the world we live in, specifically in terms of the range of races, bodies, sexualities, genders and abilities shown, and the fair and objective depictions of everyone regardless of their identity, Love Island has demonstrated that when you take a proven format like Big Brother’s hidden camera conceit, which reflects our need for a national voyeurism, and update it to reflect the aspirations of a generation raised on grids of inspirational quotes and highlighter, you have something completely unstoppable.