Inspired by U.S. teen dramas such as “Gossip Girl,” “Made in Chelsea” was originally conceived in 2011 as a reality TV series chronicling the lives of wealthy 20-somethings in one of London’s most upmarket districts.
Ten years and 22 seasons later, the show — which airs on Channel 4’s digital channel E4 in the U.K. and on streamer hayu in the U.S. — has acquired soap status among audiences young and old, who still tune in to watch cast-members (many of whom are now 30-somethings) as they grapple with not only make-ups and break-ups but also weddings, childbirth and even death.
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“The show started off being about dating and friendship — that is its foundation — but it’s about a whole lot more now basically,” says David Granger, an executive producer on “Made in Chelsea” and co-founder of Monkey Kingdom, which makes the show. (Monkey Kingdom is part of Universal International Studios, a division of Universal Studio Group.)
To keep the E4 show fresh, new (and younger) cast members are introduced almost every season and producers have finally, albeit slowly, responded to criticism regarding “Made in Chelsea’s” lack of diversity by introducing more cast members of color, including British model Paris Smith, who became the show’s first woman of color when she joined in August 2020.
Behind the camera, the creative team also continue to tweak the series in subtle ways. “There’s loads of things on a psychological level that you wouldn’t even be aware of,” says Nazleen Karim, who joined as an executive producer three years ago with a mandate to shake the show up and make it “feel more real.” She cites, for example, the color grade, which has been changed from “milky” to more vibrant to reflect the trend for brighter colors on Instagram.
The key, she says, is to keep any changes “incremental.” “There’s a reason that ‘Chelsea’ has been going on 10 years,” says Karim. “So you just don’t want to meddle with the magic formula too much.”
Other techniques have included more handheld camerawork and, occasionally, breaking the fourth wall. In 2019, for example, when two central cast-members — Jamie Laing and Sophie Habboo — had an explosive fight “for the first time ever, the cameras — and they’re really heavy cameras — came off their tripods to follow the action,” says Karim. “And actually, it was a moment that felt electric at the time.”
Equally, the most recent season saw the disintegration of the long-term relationship between cast members Reza Amiri-Garroussi and Ruby Adler, during which Amiri-Garroussi pointed out Adler was breaking up with him on camera. “That was a very real, visceral moment,” says Karim. “Suddenly in that moment, everyone at home was jolted into thinking ‘Oh yeah, this isn’t Netflix. We’re witnessing the demise of an eight-year relationship.’”
With renewed concern in the U.K. around the impact of reality TV and social media following a spate of suicides linked to shows including “Love Island,” “The Only Way is Essex” and “The Jeremy Kyle Show,” “Made in Chelsea” so far boasts an impeccable record in terms of the welfare of its current and former stars. There have been no tragedies or even public falls from grace, despite its cast sharing some of their most personal moments on the screen.
Ollie Locke, who joined “Made in Chelsea” in its first season, knows all about sharing his most intimate moments on camera. Locke came out as bisexual and, eventually, gay on the show. He has also shared with viewers his relationship and friendship woes as well as his pandemic wedding last year, and now his surrogacy journey. “It’s like a family,” says Locke of his trust in both the producers and his fellow cast members (even if, as he admits, they don’t always get on). “I’ve always felt it’s very ‘Kardashians’ [meets] a Richard Curtis movie.”
“Putting your life on camera is never going to be easy. It’s not an easy thing to do. However, we know when we go onto that show that this is what we’re doing,” says Locke, who was working in the VIP section of a Chelsea nightclub frequented by Prince Harry when he first landed a spot on “Made in Chelsea.” (The moment he knew the series had become a cultural phenomenon, Locke says, was when he found himself looking after singer Ellie Goulding in the club one night “and I got asked for a photo and she didn’t. I went ‘Okay, I think it’s time to give up [the day job].’”)
If anything, Locke says, he appreciates being able to share his story with an audience, not only to shine a spotlight on diversity — “Gay weddings are still something that you don’t see on camera very much,” he says — but also because of the positive feedback he receives. “A lot of people talk about trolling and stuff like that,” he says. “On the opposite side, there’s a lot of people that aren’t trolls and 99% aren’t.”
Having spent almost a decade of his life on “Made in Chelsea” (he briefly left the show in 2013 before returning two years later), how long does Locke think the show will continue? “As we’ve grown up and as we’ve developed, especially when we’re talking about weddings and marriages and surrogacy, we’re not only bringing back an audience that once watched it, but inheriting a new one that is interested in those things,” he says. “Maybe they’re not interested in some parts of it because [some of the cast] are 19 and you don’t care about a 19 year old’s breakup, but you’re watching it because you want to see the bit that the 35 year olds are doing.”
For the producers, catering to an audience that spans the demographic gulf of their cast is more of a challenge, but Karim is sanguine about it. “I think as long as the stories are engaging,” she says, “no matter what age you are, you just will resonate with someone who’s opened their hearts and lives to camera.”
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