Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Warning: historian about to attempt to deal with popular culture.
As it struts into its third series I have some thoughts about Made in Chelsea, E4’s take on the constructed reality TV series that are so popular right now.
First: Like Paul Morley, West London’s youthful posh have the uncanny knack of being able to speak out of the side of their mouths while barely moving their lips. This generates a startling effect rather like that of a down-at-heel debutante turned piss poor ventriloquist.
Second: Art imitates life / we get both the Government and the television series we deserve: arrogant posh boys in Downing Street and Chelsea’s glittering gibbering waifs and strays on our screens. As recession takes hold once more, what seems to be a new fetishization of social elites jars.
Third: Made in Chelsea is nothing more than interiority—excessive introspection, over-wrought emotion, tortuous reflection on how it feels to be loved or jilted or jealous from Caggie, Spence and the gang. It’s so awful; she’s hurt me so much; I just feel… I just feel… Is there a plot? Is there any sense of how characters develop or change? Or is there just an endless succession of set-piece moments of spectacular emoting? In 1922 James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, commented of Edith Thompson (soon to be unjustly convicted of murder and executed for the murder of her husband): ‘Nourished on melodramatic novels and melodramatic plays, she displayed a mania for self-analysis in copious epistles … that reeked of the theatre and the novel.’ She ‘stood forth as the creature and creation of a hectic and hysterical age that lives on films, headlines and humbug… This is the world begotten by the Great War!’
These concerns about the perils of excessive introspection were common between the wars. Somehow I suspect that Douglas would have hated Made in Chelsea. It has reached our screens as a product of a drawn out process of which he witnessed only part—the interiorization of the modern self traced by historians and sociologists like Carolyn Steedman and Anthony Giddens. Sharon Marcus has shown how new forms of lifewriting ‘began to emphasize inimitable personal details, subjective internal processes, and self-reflexive accounts of the development of perception and expression’, encouraging individuals to ‘to develop elaborate individual mythologies.’ From modernist memoirs through the psychoanalytic case study to Made in Chelsea: the perils of excessive introspection reside in the loss of social context (let alone critique), in the disappearance of plot and narrative and in bloody annoying television.