After discovering that the phenomenon TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) is currently in its eighth series, I began to get the impression that its genesis had been somewhat forgotten. When asking my flat mates if they knew how it started, they simply said: "What? Shut up". I decided to investigate the imprint TOWIE has made on those who watch it, and how its cultural dominance has affected the reputation of Essex and the people from there. As a young man born and raised in the county, I felt I would be able to conduct this research fairly and without bias. What I discovered was terrifying.
As it turns out, many people don't realise that Essex is actually a real place. Instead, it seems, they think it's a kind of Disneyland. A theme park that can be holidayed too.
I travelled to Leeds to try and find some answers. Leeds, like Essex, has a community heavily built on "big nights out". In Leeds, and throughout much of the North-West, the rating figures for TOWIE are nearly as high as the heels of those who star in it. I got chatting to a group of girls who I met at a TOWIE Viewing Conference (TVC).
"If you're from Essex" said Jenny, one of the girls, "does that mean you know Arg?" Before I could interject the girls had begun screaming and reminiscing about the time Joey Essex tried to call Harry Styles by dialling 118. After they calmed down they told me that I couldn't be from Essex, as it's only open Sundays and Wednesdays when the show is broadcast.
It turns out that this is an opinion mirrored throughout the country. I got chatting to a group of lads perusing the hair care section of a Boots in the Hilton Park service station.
"Me and the boys are actually on our way down there now. Going on holiday!" said Paul, who would only state his occupation as an FTL (Full Time Lad). "Yeah, we've got it all planned out. Staying in a tidy B&B in Hutton, and then we're gonna visit Brentwood first thing in the morning. Really looking forward to seeing the sights. Glenn's gonna pop into the Amy Childs beauty salon, get something real romantic for his girlfriend".
"And then we're gonna smash up Sugarhut!" interrupted another lad, Carl, "can't wait! I hope I get to meet all the characters and have my photo taken with them".
"It's only costing us about £300 to £400 each. And to be fair most of that goes on the Sugarhut admission fee. It's a bargain. Much more betterer than going to Marrakech like Gay Duncan wanted to". The boys all jeered at Gay Duncan, who looked coy at the back of the group. I wished the lads well and left them to it. I found out a few days later that the boys never made it into Sugarhut, as the bouncer had turned them away for "not having enough girls with them".
This was the general trend. I spoke to hundreds of people on my journey back down towards Essex. Of everyone I met, most people thought that Essex was an invented place, like Ramsey Street or Hollyoaks. A group of small children seemed to still believe in Essex, and wanted to go even more than they wanted to visit Santa's Lapland. I spoke to one couple, on their honeymoon, who said "Yeah, it was either visit Essex or the Harry Potter Studios in Watford. I think we made the right choice".
I found the ignorance of people infuriating. At one point I was locked in an argument with a girl called Tania. I was frequenting a Wetherspoons in Norfolk and I ended up talking to her after I saw she'd order some wine-on-tap. She was adamant that Essex was the new Alton Towers and I tried desperately to correct her. "Essex" I said, "is a real place. It's a real place that I'm from. If you look beyond the Ford KA's with eyelashes on the headlights you can see it. Just because the people on TV are the way they are, it doesn't mean that everyone is!"
She thought this over for a second and then seemed, finally, to understand.
"Amazing. Do you think it's the same thing with Geordie Shore?" she asked.
"What Newcastle?" I said, "Nah, there's no way that's a real place".