‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen’: how The Only Way is Essex warped our reality

·13-min read
The original gang: Sam Faiers, Lauren Goodger, Jessica Wright, Kirk Norcross, Mark Wright, Candy Jacobs and Amy Childs
The original gang: Sam Faiers, Lauren Goodger, Jessica Wright, Kirk Norcross, Mark Wright, Candy Jacobs and Amy Childs

The morning after the first The Only Way is Essex aired on ITV 2 the entire cast resigned. “We lost everybody,” says show co-creator Tony Wood. “It was bewildering.” 

The series, whose original cast included club promoter Mark Wright, his girlfriend Lauren Goodger, glamour model Sam Faiers and beautician Amy Childs, landed on screens in 2010. It followed a group of big haired and boldly tanned friends from the county as they lived OTT lives filled with micro pigs, vajazzles (Google it) and lots of relationship drama. All of which was aired with the disclaimer: “The people are real although some of what they do has been set up for your entertainment.” 

The series was one of the earliest “scripted reality” shows on British TV, a predecessor of The Hills and Laguna Beach in the US – youth soaps that were shot like reality shows and edited like dramas. The Only Way is Essex (Towie) episodes were aired just two days after they were filmed. It meant that cast members would catch up on the action at the same time as viewers and then react on screen. None of them had seen the pilot when it aired.

“I don’t think they knew what to expect,” says Wood of the mass walk out. “But then their phones started to ring [with media attention] and they were all back by mid-afternoon.” 

If you’d been following #Towie on Twitter the night episode one came out you’d have noticed the same tweet being retweeted again and again: “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. When’s the next one?” By the end of the episode Alan Carr was raving about it. Soon its catch phrases – “well jeal”, “shat app” and “reem” were being printed on T-shirts. It even won a Bafta. 

“My parents were like: Amy, we don’t think this is the show for you,” Amy Childs says of appearing in the series. She went ahead anyway, asking her boss for five weeks unpaid leave to film it. “The first episode came on TV and my manager phoned me up and was like: ‘You’re not coming back, are you?’. It just was so big.” 

The series has now run for a decade; the 26th season came to an end this month. (Childs left after series two but had returned for the anniversary.) It has become an unexpected British TV staple for 900,000 regular viewers. It has churned out celebrities who huge followings like Gemma Collins (who now has her own show Diva Forever) and Joey Essex. And it started a wave of scripted reality in the UK: Made in Chelsea, Desperate Scousewives and Geordie Shore all arrived hot on its heels.

There are two conflicting Towie origin stories. One is that production company Lime Pictures stole an idea submitted to them by Big Brother contestant Brian Belo, Sassy Films and Massive TV. The trio say they took a documentary series about a group of friends in Essex, called Totally Essex, to both the production company and ITV in 2009. It included a tape that featured future Towie stars Mark Wright, Kirk Norcross and Childs. A lawsuit was settled outside of court. 

Scripted: The cast of The Only Way Is Essex - ITV
Scripted: The cast of The Only Way Is Essex - ITV

The other goes like this: Ruth Wrigley, executive producer of Big Brother, had an idea for a British reality soap. She’d noticed that her children had become obsessed with The Hills. “I was like: Oh my god, this is so set up,” she tells me. “And they turned around and were like ‘Look mum, shut up, we don’t care’. I found it interesting.” She paired up with Wood, the executive producer of Hollyoaks, to make the show. He had recently been behind early attempts at scripted reality – Living on the Edge, following teenagers in Cheshire, and The Season, about a group of ski instructors.  

The plan was to set the soap in Bournemouth, about a surfing community that was expected to grow around a wave machine. “We went off to Channel 4, very cocky.” Wrigley explains. “But they didn’t get it at all.” It was only when Wrigley mentioned the idea to a commissioner from ITV – Claire Zolkwer – that it got picked up: “She was the person who said: Surfing? Bournemouth? Bit too middle class. Could you set it somewhere like Essex?” 

“Like The Hills but set in Essex,” is how the show was described to series producer Claire Faragher. She was part of the initial search for the show’s cast along with three other producers: Nichola Hegarty, Sarah Dillistone and Sharon Stansfield.

The team started casting in Chigwell, Loughton and Brentwood. They’d talk to nightclub promoters and visit salons and health clubs. “We had to find people who were extraordinary but who, crucially, knew each other,” she says. “We interviewed Rylan Clark for the show. He’d been on The X Factor and he ticked a lot of boxes. But he didn’t live in the same area of Essex as the rest of the cast.” 

Mark Wright’s name kept coming up. Wood remembers seeing an audition tape of him and his girlfriend Lauren Goodger. “I remember noting down ‘this is brilliant because he speaks himself in the third person’” he says. “He also wouldn’t let Lauren speak. The interviewer turned to her and said 'And who are you?' and Mark replied ‘that’s Mark Wright’s girlfriend’.” 

The team built the rest of the cast around their rocky relationship. Goodger was tricky to deal with on set but Wrigley says “that’s why she worked; she always had drama in her life". They called in Sam Faiers, who Mark was pursuing, and she brought her friend Amy Childs along. “It was just like: Wow,” says Wrigley. “There was this girl who was intrinsically funny and beautiful and ditsy.” 

Faragher also loved Childs. “She definitely got humour from her parents. The first time I met Billy and Julie was great,” she says. “Billy opened the door wearing a full dinner suit and bow tie and said: ‘Oh, if I had known you important people were coming to see me, I would have dressed up!’” 

The Childs family wasn’t the only one Faragher had a fun time meeting. She says that when she met the Wrights they opened a bottle of rose and remembers warning Mark’s Nanny Pat that being on TV might lead to her lovers coming out of the woodwork to sell stories about her. “She remarked: ‘Chance would be a fine thing!’” says Faragher. 

Intrinsically funny: Amy Childs
Intrinsically funny: Amy Childs

Wood has a Nanny Pat story, too. He says the team was filming the first scene of Mark Wright in his flat. It was Sunday morning, the runner had said to Wright “Do you want us to bring you any lunch?” and the reality star had replied “Oh no, don’t worry, my nan brings me over some lunch on Sundays”. “She really turned up with a sausage plait,” says Wood. “And we thought ‘Oh, sod it, you’ve got to be in’." 

The casting process Faragher recalls best is for Gemma Collins. She says: “Initially her larger-than-life character didn't really come across. I knew there was more to her, so I arranged for her to be filmed again. This time she was on a big gold sofa, with a big gold bow in her hair, and with a large brandy in her hand, just talking and talking. That was the Gemma we wanted. And when I warned her of all the terrible things that could happen from being on the show she said: ‘I know this is meant to scare me, Claire, but it's just making me more excited.’”

Shooting the first seasons was intense. The cast and crew were making two episodes a week, working 13 hour days, seven days a week. “At the time the cast was unpaid”, says show mainstay Chloe Sims. It’s for this reason that she only joined in season two despite being approached during development. As a single mum she couldn’t take the risk of quitting her job to shoot the series. “Then obviously it blew up and I was like: ‘Oh god, I’ve made a massive mistake’,” she says.

Original meme: Gemma Collins - Redferns
Original meme: Gemma Collins - Redferns

She describes her first month on the show as nerve-wracking. “I’d be embarrassed in front of the extras [who were used to bulk out clubbing scenes]. We’d have loads then. Imagine walking into Sugar Hut with 100 people in there and all eyes on you.” She says that it was also hard, at first, to deal with watching yourself back on screen. “Scenes take about 45 mins to film and they get broken down into a matter of minutes,” she says. “There’s always going to be things missed out. And the little looks that we do – we might not be doing them at anyone in particular and they’ll edit that in to look like we were, which can be frustrating. But it’s an entertainment show, they’re needed for the story.” 

Wood worked on the drama side of the show. (“The edit that was given to me was what happened. I made it about how they felt about what happened.”) Meanwhile Wrigley came at it with reality show expertise. “You ask cast members things like: ‘You want to talk to X about your boyfriend, where would you normally meet them?’” she says. “Then you set it up. They know what they’re going to talk about. Then you throw in things they won’t expect.”

“It’s like a diary of your life when you look back on episodes," says Bobby Norris. He’s appeared on the show since season four. "The rows you have on camera would happen whether you were there or not. And when you’re arguing you’re so busy trying to get your point across that you’re forgetting that there’s maybe six camera men around you.” 

The only bit of manufacturing Wood will confess to is repeating Harry’s line “shat up” two more times than he actually said it in that first show. 

Both he and Wrigley claim that the show’s action was driven by the cast rather than producers. That’s despite there being moments that even Wrigley didn’t believe were unscripted. She remembers a producer telling her that Joey Essex was taking Faiers on a date to a rubbish tip. “I said ‘That’s ridiculous. Who’s made that up?’ and they said ‘No, he is’.”

Meanwhile the scene in episode one where Childs gives Faiers a diamante design on her pubis? “The producers asked if they knew of any treatments I could do on camera” says Childs. “I was like: ‘I did a course on vajazzling when I was 17’. I got the kits sent to me and before I knew it it was that iconic scene and then I'd been approached to do a line of Amy Childs Vajazzles.” 

By 2014, the impact of Towie on Essex – Brentwood in particular – was huge. One by one cast members opened their own shops, salons and bars in the town. In the programme’s heyday there were 12 of them, plus a four-hour £29 Brentwood Towie coach tour. “One Saturday I sold 500 vajazzles.” says Childs. She wasn’t alone in her success. Nationally, stars began to launch brands, appear on spin-off shows and get approached to front ad campaigns. Many became millionaires. “I think I was the first man in the UK to be the face of a tampon,” says Norris. 

As the series started to blow up some stars became more difficult to work with, Wood and Wrigley tell me. Some would try to play the production to make their scene the big one in an episode – holding information back. “Mark was the best at it,” says Wood. “He would sort of plan his own life a bit. He would manipulate events in the way he wanted.” 

Others began to behave like “spoilt children” explains Wrigley. “Arg [James Argent] would often turn up late and hungover,” she says. “I must have taken him out four times to really tell him off but he’d just laugh and then you’d end up laughing with him. I learned the best way to get them to behave professionally is to just not phone them.”

It’s not just the show creators who have sometimes had a rough ride. “I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been certain scenes that I’m like ‘I don't want to watch that back’,” says Norris. “I had a relationship that didn't work out on the show. Any break up is hard enough but to film it and then have people on Twitter have all their opinions on it, it makes the heartbreak 10 times worse.”

Sims says that she wished she had more guidance going into making the show, but that at the time “there wasn’t anything else to go by... it was a learning curve for both the production team and the cast”. She says that much of the current cast grew up watching it and so “have more of an idea how to behave” on camera to get the reaction they want: “It’s not the same as when we started.” She also adds that the way the cast is treated by the production team has also changed. “We’re more involved in all aspects of the show,” says. “They take into account how we feel more.” 

Current executive producer Luke McFarlane says that the team aim to present the show's stars in a more three dimensional way than they used to. “People may think a cast member is argumentative, nowadays we would want to dig deeper and ask why they’re like that,” he says. “Moving forward we need to do more of this -–these people are not caricatures, everyone has a story.” 

Ten years after its launch, Towie has less of an impact than it once did – many of the Towie shops in Brentwood have shut down – but it’s still going strong. But its impact on reality TV and celebrity culture is undeniable. The Love Island allums owe a lot to the Towie cast who came before them. 

And for long-running cast members, making it has become a way of life. “It would be weird now to not live my life on camera now,” says Norris. “Sometimes you go to Sainsbury’s and you’re half expecting to see the camera men setting up.” Childs adds: “I had a couple of days off last week and was like ‘Hmm.. I miss the cameras today.” 

The Only Way is Essex is available to stream on ITVHub