Getting Down to Reality
01 August 2006

OK, I draw the line at Big Brother — and I’m ashamed of my sneaking weakness for I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!, in which a group of celebs eat creepy crawlies and brave snakes in the Australian jungle.

But I have to admit to having been hooked on two recent — and very different — strands of reality TV.

The Apprentice pitted 14 would-be tycoons against each other in a series of challenges designed to test their suitability for a job with the British multimillionaire businessman Sir Alan Sugar. At the end of each programme one contestant was ‘fired’. The participants displayed considerable enterprise, creativity and ingenuity in their attempts to avoid this fate — and, at times, jaw-dropping degrees of nastiness.

A huge contrast then to The Monastery, which followed five men as they spent 40 days with the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey, joining in their routine of prayer, work and silence. ‘They were asked to listen continuously and deeply to themselves, to other people and to God,’ writes the Abbot, Christopher Jamison. ‘Forty days later, this profound listening had reshaped their hearts and minds.’

And, as discovered by a follow-up programme, the effects lasted. One of the men had returned to an earlier aspiration to become a priest; another, an ex-offender from Northern Ireland, was visiting prisons; while a third had given up his job making trailers for sex chatlines. His new beliefs, he said, had created problems for him: ‘I know when I’m doing wrong whereas before I was oblivious. So I have to forgive myself and accept myself, which I do by asking for forgiveness and acceptance from God.’

The monks were astonished and reaffirmed by the response. Forty thousand people visited their website in the month following the first programme and hundreds of people signed up to come on retreat, testifying to the huge spiritual thirst of our age.

Now, as we go to press, it’s the women’s turn. The Convent follows a driven career woman, a recovering alcoholic, a free-living atheist and a mother of three as they spend 40 days with the Poor Clares, an enclosed order of nuns. For them too, the onion-layers of armour and pretence are beginning to peel away, as they discover the courage to be their true selves — giving ‘Reality TV’ a whole new level of meaning.
Mary Lean