It stands to reason that if there are places on Earth where you can be closer to God, then there are places on Earth where you can be farthest from Him.
At 6:30PM on the evening of the Love Island 2019 finale, the section of Brighton's beachfront that has been cordoned off for "Love Island: The Experience" seems like a forsaken place. A family of four are posing in front of a plastic backdrop that has been emblazoned with unnervingly-less-than-life-size images of islanders. Teenage girls are eating chips buried under mounds of grated, un-melted cheese.
On a large screen, an advert for Family Guy giggity giggity giggities into the sea air.
"Love Island: The Experience" is not a thing, in the way that things traditionally are. It is an event, yes – one that cost £14.50 to attend as a prole, or £29.50 to attend as a "Premium" guest – and there is food, and there is drink, and there is a live screening of the Love Island finale. But no one at "Love Island: The Experience" is actually here to watch anything – everyone is here to be watched. Queues quickly form around a series of sets designed to look like the iconic villa.
"You can't actually sit on the beds," a staff member informs me, right after I jump onto the neon pillows. If there is one thing that sums up "Love Island: The Experience", it's that you can't actually sit on the beds. No matter which word you emphasise in that sentence, it's depressing. You can’t actually sit on the beds! The whole point of attending "Love Island: The Experience" is to obtain a 30-liker of yourself in a wooden set that resembles a room in reality TV's best-known Spanish villa. The whole point is to sit on the beds.
And yet, despite the untouchable beds, and the un-melted cheese, and the uncanny backdrops of near-naked islanders, no one at "Love Island: The Experience" can claim to have been ripped off. Why? Because absolutely nothing was promised.
Take, for example, this verbatim quote from the official website's Q&As. "Q: What's a Premium ticket? A: Premium tickets include one entry into the screening and a deck chair to sit on." This is an event where chairs are requisite, and yet somehow people paid £15 extra to get one. It's as if the French Revolution never even happened.
But yes, "Love Island: The Experience" proved that it is impossible to rip off Britain, despite what 45-minute segments on BBC One might claim. Businessmen and business girls take note: people will pay anything to look mildly interesting on Instagram.
By a set designed to look like the Love Island fire pit, a bald man coaxes his girlfriend to get in the queue for a snap. "Let's do it, it's cute," he says, as if it isn't the sole reason that everyone is here.
Near the border of the Gobi desert there is an oasis: a crescent-shaped lake six kilometres south of the city of Dunhuang. At a picnic table by the outer edges of "Love Island: The Experience", there is Sarah, 75, and Peter, 81.
"We're expecting to see four Barbie dolls and four Spidermen," says Peter of the upcoming finale, which he and Sarah have brought their 15-year-old granddaughter and her friend to watch. Before attending "Love Island: The Experience", the pair have caught ten minutes of the show – Sarah quips that, when Greg's mum brought Amber a necklace the night before, she "should've just given her a pair of shorts".
"There is nothing left to the imagination," says Sarah sagely. "If you really want my view, I'm horrified that it's all muscle and beauty. But then if I listened to the programme I'd probably find out they're really nice people and there's a lot to them." Peter laughs heartily when asked if he has a favourite couple: "Good gracious, no."
Sarah and Peter have at least 70 years on the youngest attendees of "Love Island: The Experience" – children who look as young as six can be seen running around delightedly, posing in the beach hut set and snacking on popcorn. "It's quite clearly a big phenomenon," says Peter. Sarah adds that her granddaughter and other teens like her "seem to think these people [the contestants] are wonderful", and are excited to see the stars in the flesh.
"Love Island: The Experience" ran for multiple evenings in July, and each evening two former Love Island contestants made an appearance (pour one out for attendees on the 25th of July, who got Marvin and Maria, two people no one – not even their own parents – recognise). Tonight, Michael "Chaldish" Griffiths and former finalist Josh Denzel are making an appearance.
Earlier, in the queue to get into the event, a teenage girl spotted "the outline" of Griffiths. "It's Michael! It's Michael! It's Michael!" she said, alternating between screams and reverent whispers. "It's Michael! You can see the outline of his body."
Michael and Josh take to the stage at 8PM, an hour before the finale, to say things like "she's obviously a very attractive girl" and "I'm just a normal guy from Liverpool" as the wind blusters at a nearby fake fern. There is an alarming amount of microphone feedback, and at one point, after a short clip of the villa plays, the screen goes blue.
As the sun sets behind the stage, a gold crucifix gleams at Michael's neckline: too little, too late.
On the road above the beach, a throng of people have now gathered to watch the show, hanging off the green railings, jeering delightedly. In contrast, the crowd on the pebbles is unnervingly quiet – no one has quite forgiven Michael enough to laugh at his jokes. One woman has taken off her shoes, which doesn't feel right.
The evening turns cold. Rolling grey clouds ominously hang over the large screen as seagulls caw overhead. Teens soldier on, braver than any boomer, in vests and shorts and platform wedges. Peter and Sarah haven't moved from their bench. The presenter on stage has just said the sentence: "Girls and their dresses! You want to look good for your man."
When the finale begins, the atmosphere is exactly as you'd expect: a few hundred Brits sitting in near silence on some pebbles, witnessing history. When Curtis appears on screen, someone shouts that he is gay, three times. Squeals and "awws" erupt when Greg reads Amber his poem, even though he sets up a classic Shrek gag: "The perfect balance of honesty and sass / and of course we can't forget about your gorgeous…" and he just says it. He just says "ass".
The finale is Love Island's most notoriously boring episode, and the crowd's faces begin to reflect this. Around the plebs on the pebbles are a series of £150 VIP huts, each named after a brand (imagine shelling out 150 big ones only to find your VIP experience is sponsored by Lenor). In return for their money, these VIPs get a B&Q shed, some deckchairs and a mini-fridge containing four small beers, two cans of Coke, two Sprites and four cartons of mineral water. A man in a pinstripe suit and a gold wristband wanders up and down next to the huts. Who is he? Why is he wearing a suit to "Love Island: The Experience"? What does he want? There are no answers, only questions.
It is then that it happens. At the behest of a middle-aged woman, Michael comes down from the stage and walks to the railings in order to take a selfie. Instantly, there is stampede greater than that which killed Mufasa – teens scramble across the beach, front-facing camera mode at the ready. This is the reason the word "carnage" was invented. No one cares about Curtis and Maura's best bits playing out on the screen. No one cars that Ovie and India have come third. Girl after girl – leopard print blur after leopard print blur – gather for a prized selfie with Michael and Josh.
Later, to reset the tone, someone heckles at Michael that "Amber doesn't want you". "I ain't even worried about that," he retorts.
I am sure people at "Love Island: The Experience" are having a good time, but it's not the sort of place where "having a good time" is in any way visible. Just before the final episode began, the presenter asked the crowd to tell her Ovie's catchphrase, and there was a somewhat enthused reply of "Message!" Moments later, she asked if we were excited. There was a muted roar. She opted for a classic back-and-forth routine, "That wasn't loud enough!" Roar. "Not loud enough!" Roar. It never gets loud enough.
Here's the best bit of all five hours of "Love Island: The Experience": Josh tells the crowd that, during the filming of villa "party" scenes, three songs are played over and over again, and none of the islanders are allowed to sing along. This is good intel: the kind of intel that makes you reflect on mortality.
As "Love Island: The Experience" draws to a close, my friend texts to ask me, "What happens there?" I don't – I realise with a thud – have an answer. It was a photo opportunity that didn’t have the decency to be glorified. It was, for many teen girls, a remarkable night. Can I truly claim that "Love Island: The Experience" was bad? No. Was it good? Also, no.
It was – as Caroline Flack herself would read stoically from a teleprompter – what it was.