Mark-Francis Vandelli Orlov-Romanovsky (real name), the son of a Russian princess, is caught lounging on a white sofa, a taut cashmere vest about his torso, in an episode from the third season of Made in Chelsea. A friend, “Gabilicious”, steps into shot, having entered his south London flat through a door left open to gape onto the street. At her admonitions about security and the dangers of city life, Vandelli looks aghast. “But this is the Royal Borough!” without irony, is his retort.
The Royal Borough, or at least a locale around SW3, has been the subject of one of E4’s most successful projects to date. The “scripted reality” of a motley collection of heirs, socialites and assorted tag-alongs, Made in Chelsea has become a Monday night phenomenon. The 600,000 society fans who first tuned in to see champagne guzzled like Mountain Dew have since swelled to almost a round million.
A show that isn’t half as witless as its characters, Made in Chelsea is staged, cropped and moulded into a product that spreads lucratively from the 9pm TV slot to the pages of Grazia. It is engineered to be a neo-soap opera – with all the hooks of traditional melodrama but with the added draw of characters whose antics spill over into the tabloid news. Mark-Francis Vandelli, one has to remind oneself – all evidence suggesting he was shipped in from Roman Saturnalia – is actually a real person, whose mother is a real princess, and who really lives in SW3.
In this respect, Made in Chelsea has a straightforward appeal. From the meddling of Lucy Watson to the psychotherapy sessions of Spencer, a web of social politics is slung artfully over long arcs that resolve themselves, inevitably, in tears, slaps and projectile cocktails. It is an easy – and easy-on-the-eyes – sanctuary from the working week.
But the show offers up a very specific kind of escapism. In the 1930s, it was noted that a population labouring under the Great Depression turned its heavy heart to the cinema. There, it found The Wizard of Oz, Cleopatra and Gone With the Wind, and the business of fantasy boomed. But the dreamland on offer in Made in Chelsea is not fictional, nor is it simply an adventure that relies on comfortable finances. It steers us into a corner of Regency London where wealth is the adventure.
The show flags up a debate that last surfaced in the autumn, as Leonardo DiCaprio scorched a Quaalude-fuelled path through the boomtime stock market in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Audiences fell about the aisles, limp with mirth, as helicopters were totalled, dollar bills were flung into the wind, and coke was inhaled between bites of executive lunch. But the point of that movie was to provoke such a reaction, and then to ask you why you had it. A.O. Scott in The New York Times referred to a “vulgar, voyeuristic energy” – the thrust of the film that both disgusts and excites us. We were seduced, like DiCaprio, by the very lifestyle we turned up at the cinema to look down upon.
To watch Made in Chelsea is to wrestle with one’s conscience. To spend protracted hours in a world so grotesquely, unapologetically, divorced from the reality of our crumbling economy, focusing on the lives of the very people who brought it to its knees, can only be so ironic. At some point, you’re just enjoying it.
The show started as it meant to go on. Its first episode opened with a yawning, lavish montage: vintage cars rolled by Belgravia façades; bronzed bodies sweated on Mediterranean decks – shots flicked by beneath the drawl of a long-haired Spencer Matthews (“I wouldn’t sleep with anyone who wasn’t my girlfriend”). But the sequence was broken, momentarily, by a green titlecard with a bald white inscription that was perhaps the most audacious on television. It read: “Ad victorem spolias – To the victor go the spoils”.
Where the spoils in question become part of the fabric of our entertainment, we must re-evaluate our position on the super-rich. Perhaps Made in Chelsea is a sharp indictment of greed and excess. Or perhaps we are all wannabe One Per Centers.