THE PRECURSOR TO REALITY TV WITH JAMES BARNES

There was a time before what is now known as Reality TV; a time when entertainment production companies tried to capture reality rather than create it. This time parallels the public’s foray into Social Media and its attempt to make everyone a commodity. There was a previous stipulation that celebrities were famous for a talent or having been a part of a significant occurrence rather than being famous for….well, being famous. In these days of yore, the public was fascinated with how normal or how abnormal these noted public figures were in their personal lives. It seemed to be a connection, a look behind the curtain, access beyond the velvet ropes. One of the most significant productions that predates the switch to manufactured Reality TV was MTV UK’s “Pete Doherty in 24 hours.” Doherty is the English musician, songwriter, actor, poet, writer, model, and artist most widely known as the co-frontman of rock band the Libertines. As a charismatic, talented, handsome, and sometimes drug riddled artist of many different mediums, Doherty was the very representation of what many of the 90’s youth aspired to be. Director James Barnes was working at MTV in London and had a connection with Doherty through a company he modeled for (Gio-Gio clothing) which he and EP Juliet Denison used to pitch and manifest the production. Barnes had been working with MTV News travelling around the world. Because he was able to operate as a self-shooting director, Pete agreed to the casual method of filming. What was revealed in the special was actual and bizarre reality before it was the M.O. of Reality TV to always present this. Almost a decade since the production, James states, “Even today it’s the thing that people see on my reel and want to ask me about. I was proud to be part of something that I believed was exactly what the channel I loved (MTV) should be making. The dawn of true reality on the channel was sadly, in my opinion, just around the corner.”

The mood of “Pete Doherty in 24 hours” is completely different from what we see in current day productions. The vast majority of Reality TV is heavily produced and engineered. Watching “Pete Doherty in 24 hours” one gets a sense that the viewer is not being pushed into a decision or judgement about what is occurring on camera but rather that each individual makes up their own mind as they view. It’s likely that different generations and walks of life took away different decisions about Mr. Doherty’s actions and comments. In large part this was made possible by creating a comfortable environment for him during filming. Series Producer Simone Haywood remarks, Pete Doherty in 24 Hours had all the components of a great MTV show: exclusive talent access, an engaging storyline, and a constant feeling of ‘anything could happen’. I worked closely with the director James Barnes on this program. Pre-production was as thorough as possible but this was all about being agile and reactive on ‘set’. We needed to be a lean crew to gain Pete’s trust, so for the main part it was just James and myself. I would tease the best (yet bizarre) editorial out and trust James to capture those moments as they happened, which he did exceeding well. So well in fact that it resulted in a natural and intimate portrait of a star loved by many, but known by few. It attracted a lot of press, was as one of MTV UK’s most successful shows of the year, and led to further episodes featuring the likes of Kelly Osbourne.”

This first program was so successful that it would be followed by four more: Kate Moss (Topshop NYC opening), Sarah Harding (of girl-band Girls Aloud), Kelly Osbourne, & Daisy Lowe (model). “Pete Doherty in 24 Hours” granted something at the time that was not the norm, complete access to one day of a celebrity’s life. Created in that sweet spot before the famous were advised to “play it up” for the camera, this glimpse into Doherty’s reality was sincere due to his trust of Barnes. Because of his tenure at MTV and extensive work with musicians (Barnes directed the series “Future Sounds” for UK’s Channel 4) James had a very good idea about how to approach and relate to Pete. He notes, “These were the days before social media and the more mercurial of music celebrities were seen as inaccessible. Pete Doherty especially was a cult figure that was loved by millions but known by few. Up until this point I’d worked so much with musicians that there was a natural familiarity for me. It’s a dance. Building enough trust for them to believe you’re trying to make them look the best they can, whilst not becoming so over familiar that they don’t respect you.”

There is an eccentricity that is clearly visible, particularly in the scenes filmed at Doherty’s private residence. The potential darker side of taxidermy and blood stained walls of his home are offset by the boyish side of climbing trees and strolling amongst the fields of his residence. While Pete’s sometimes unusual demeanor is present, it’s presented as a possible effect of fame rather than a judgement of his personality. James stipulates, “Pete was in almost every frame I shot, leading us around his property so I felt like that was a type of permission. There were moments where he was off camera but I could still hear his private conversations on the radio microphone…this is something I would never include. Because of the chronological nature of this format it also meant that you couldn’t really manipulate the edit to make it look like something was happening that really wasn’t, which is an approach that I don’t agree with. It’s something that potentially happens in other reality shows to heighten the drama. I think our show differs because we got unfiltered access to an A-list celebrity. Famous individuals used to agree to this for the exposure they wanted but these days they have their own social media accounts to distribute their own content. I don’t think we will see a time when Reality TV programs that are both forthright and revealing are produced…but I hope they will be.”

The process for Barnes as both the director and the camera operator of this 24-hour shoot was physically demanding. Cameras have evolved a great deal in the past ten years and are less taxing on the professionals handling them. Beyond this, there is a mental strain that James felt. It’s something that is less prominent these days; the idea that a professional should not alter or misrepresent productions of this type that are focused on a subject’s personal life. Barnes confirms, “The strange thing about operating a camera is that you are watching everything through a lens, so you feel strangely removed from the real life you are filming. I can see this represented currently in the disconnect many people have from what they post on Social Media, whether it be a comment or a photo. It’s not only important to consider what you are presenting to the world but also how you present it. We had a very lean crew for ‘Pete Doherty in 24 Hours’ which made communication simple. I think we were all proud of creating something that was both honest and sincere but handled with responsibility as well. As a professional, I know of no other way to conduct myself.”