A Welsh reality TV car crash

Susie Wild says an emotional void has taken Wales out of the Valleys

Susie Wild is a journalist, poet, performer and writer, and an Editor at Parthian Books. She blogs here and is on twitter as @Soozerama

All would be well if, if, if
Cry the green bells of Cardiff
Why so worried, sisters, why
Sang the silver bells of Wye
And what will you give me
Say the sad bells of Rhymney

From The Bells of Rhymney by Idris Davies

By now you have probably seen or heard about MTV’s latest Reality TV show The Valleys. Filmed in Wales, it is a spin off from Geordie Shore, MTV UK’s commercial hit show which was based in Newcastle. Following a similar format MTV producers chose volatile wannabe halfwits trying to make it in ‘the industry’, this time plucking nine young people from the ‘obscurity’ of the south Wales valleys and placing them in a share house in the bright lights of Cardiff. Although the show is unscripted, unlike TOWIE and Made in Chelsea, it still sets up scenarios and heavily edits footage to cause the participants to get it on or kick off with little regard for the communities and reputations of the places it discusses on camera.

The Valleys’ emblems are lazily obvious Welsh stereotypes – sheep, leeks – shoved on billboards, and later tattooed on the girls’ nether regions in a charming display of commaraderie. Seeming to prefer unreality for their reality shows, the MTV team created their own Welsh myths – press releases depicting the valleys as rural backwaters, talking about the ‘tranquility of valleys life’ and our ‘hamlet towns’ (but meaning the contestants home towns of Swansea, Bridgend, Tredegar and Pontypool). Towns that they imply are uncrossable distances from the metropolis of Cardiff, rather than the short bus or train hops they really are:

“Deep in the heart of South Wales, in the quiet and picturesque rolling countryside known as The Valleys, nine youngsters are currently stuck in humdrum and unexciting jobs, but dream of a life of stardom, limousines, flashing paparazzi bulbs and adoring fans. Brand new show The Valleys will pluck them from obscurity and thrust them into the limelight where they will live in a house kitted out with a ‘cutch-hut’ (sic) and cameras, to see if they succeed amidst the hustle and bustle of Cardiff city.”

Throughout the show the south Wales valleys and their inhabitants are snided and jibed at while the cameras focus in on contestants’ sex lives and partying, causing Heat magazine to brand the show “the rudest, brashest and most jaw-droppingly funny reality show on TV”. In one early episode Jordan – the housemates’ future boss exclaims, “I was expecting some diamonds in the rough, but I just really forgot how rough the Valleys is”. The show’s narrator also finds numerous ways to say: “The harder they party the harder they fall, will they make it in Cardiff or will they just be right back in the valleys?”

With viewing figures levelling at 600,000 MTV’s director of television, Kerry Taylor, was keen to dispel any bad feeling. She told BBC Wales: “It’s absolutely not about stereotyping. I feel whenever you make a successful reality show, there are always some accusations. But the show is absolutely celebrating these nine young people and their mentors. It’s very much about their individual stories”.

Does her audience agree? The Facebook page has over 66,000 likes. When they used it to ask their viewers to ‘Describe The Valleys in 3 words! GO!’ they received 1,192 comments and many were derogatory from Callum Rhys Bodman “Bag of w*nk”. to Katherine Jenkins’ “Extreme attention seekers!” Elsewhere some sense was typed, with Adele Delly Matthews writing:

“This is going to be car crash TV at it’s finest & will make the Valleys look much worse than people already think due to the brainless, perm-a-tanned celebrity wannabes that will be representing us.”

Tim Price, founder of Cardiff’s underground theatre company Dirty Protest, agreed. After hearing MTV producers talking about the show in the foyer bar of a Cardiff hotel, clearly revealing that they did not having a clue about the place they were filming, he “did what any self-respecting Valleys boy would do – I tweeted the f**k out of them”, posting the unbelievable comments he’d overheard.

This sparked the idea for Dirty Protest’s one night only performance of Real Valleys which asked six writers – Sam Bees, Kelsey Richards, Patrick Jones, Rachel Trezise, Carmen Medway-Stephens, and Alun Saunders – to write a short 10-minute theatre script each in response to the programme. They were given just one month to put this together, and all the pieces were performed script-in-hand to a packed The Bunk House on St Mary Street in Cardiff last week.

The results were far darker, wittier and real than anything MTV producers managed to come up with, depicting a grittier urban existence of hit men, heart, humour and second home hoi polloi in wry and knowing ways. From snakes, shroom-taking squaddies, pint-pulling police informers, and a reformed rapping heroin addict, characters picked their poison. Proving that truth is often far funnier than TV show’s attempts to fictionalise it, Price’s hilarious MTV tweet sketches were spliced between each original short play. They commented on potential cast members – “I spoke to an awful lesbian earlier” – or asked deep and meaningful questions in casting interviews, such as: “Do you ever like do anything totally random?”

Tim Price explained why Dirty Protest decided to putting on Real Valleys in the following way:

“I’m delighted Dirty Protest is able to offer an alternative view of the valleys than MTV’s crass, sneering and exploitative show MTV The Valleys are Coming. For anyone who knows the valleys’ history, this is yet another example of big business exploiting the people of this region. Market forces have robbed the valleys of all its resources and the only thing we have left is our pride. And MTV is trying to take that.”

He continued:

“I have nothing against the people in the show, in fact, if someone exploited, manipulated and commodified me in my 20s I’m sure I wouldn’t look too dissimilar. The people who need to be ashamed of themselves are the producers, who think the only thing young people from the valleys are good for is humiliating. [With Real Valleys] we hope to show MTV and its fans that life in the valleys is more nuanced, complex and rich than MTV’s artless effort”.

Treorchy-based novelist and playwright Rachel Trezise was keen to be involved, saying:

“Even though all the writers were busy with their own projects and jobs we all thought it was important to pull together and present the creative talent that is overflowing in the Valleys. The plays were warm and full of humility, in total contrast to the MTV show. I am really pleased with the outcome and it was exhilarating to see my own first theatre script come to life on the stage”.

Poet and playwright Patrick Jones also contributed a script to the night:

“I love Dirty Protest’s ideas on theatre and performance – just what we need. They give new voices new audiences. Thursday’s audience was young, edgy and up for debate and challenge and not merely passive consumers like many theatre audiences. I was quite touched they asked me. It was a fast writing process – scary yet great to be able to respond quickly and get it out.

“I hate the portrayal of masculinity on the MTV show. It’s homophobic. Macho. Violent. Sexually agressive. Thick. Uneducated. Insensitive. And emotionally illiterate. And we as men have moved on from the ’80s. I do think The Valleys is worst of the bunch of these kind of shows as it sort of spins your mind out of control and haemorrhages conflict Ego. Narcissm. Selfishness. Unintelligence. And emotional void through the screen. And kids watching it might bullied into thinking ‘This is the way I should treat women. Or deal with my friends.’ The show is not representative of what, who and why people live, breathe, work, create and even leave the valleys.”

There have been other backlashes against the show. The Valleys are Here website was set up to set the record straight and:

“…to make sure that MTV doesn’t make any more slip ups or give millions of people another bad image of the area… It’ll be fun, but at the same time give a positive picture of Valleys life – so look out for a stream of films, pictures, stories and loads more. Life here isn’t all rosy, nobody would say that, but we’re proud of where we come from – and want everyone to know why.”

Further discontent has been voiced by Bleddyn Parry in Radical Wales:

‘Against our best wishes, the show will certainly influence widespread popular perceptions of Wales and the valleys, possibly, for years to come and is, therefore, worthy of our attention and concern. As with Geordie Shore, The Valleys promises to be a lucrative investment for both MTV and its producers, the Leeds based, True North Productions. The contestants, meanwhile, will no doubt fulfil their dreams of achieving C-list celebratory status. As for the residents of the valleys themselves, they will receive no reward or recompense for MTV’s shameful defamation of their communities.’

We Are Cardiff also rallied support:

“If you’ve been on a train in or out of Cardiff recently, you may have noticed an enormous billboard just outside Cardiff Central promoting a television show of dubious – well, dubious everything – called MTV – The Valleys. As yet another example of lazy, poorly executed ‘reality’ brain mush that misappropriates everything about the place we live (the Valleys are part of south Wales, after all, just like Cardiff is), you can imagine how annoyed we were to see it was being produced… To show our support for the real Valleys and these events, we’re publishing our first ever non-Cardiff story – by Rachel Trezise, about her home town of Treorchy.’

The Valleys are Here Campaign has called for MTV to give something back to their community by donating 5 per cent of the takings from the show to local youth charity Valleys Kids. They have yet to hear back from MTV but Dirty Protest have showed their honourable colours by donating 5 per cent of their takings from their Real Valleys night. More info on the Real Valleys project can be found here.

While you’re here, we’ve got something to ask you: will you join us?

We’re working every day to bring the right people together and generate the ideas to make Wales a world-leading force.

We’re independent of government and political parties. We provide a much-needed space for open, transparent debate about the ideas that can make Wales better.

To continue to do this, we need people like you to join us.

Join us today and you’ll be supporting vital work that’s making our country better than ever.

Find out more