By Dr Nigel Mather
Difficult decisions, tempestuous times and complex relationships in Love Island (2021).
Caliban: ‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ (Act 3: Scene 3).
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611), Act 5: Scene 1.
Faye: ‘It’s so done, it’s unreal’: Love Island (2021).
The seventh series of the ITV 2 programme Love Island began in the summer of 2021 as England sought success in the Euro 2020 football tournament and drew to a close as American and British forces and personnel left Afghanistan after a presence there of nearly twenty years. In other words, the series often faced stiff opposition in gaining the full attention of viewers and spectators and of proving itself to be a compelling, worthwhile and rewarding televisual experience. Viewpoints will vary as to the entertainment and moral value of Love Island 2021, but, arguably, few programmes this year – at least those not involving Piers Morgan – have generated as much online discussion and debate on an ongoing basis. This essay will seek to explore and unravel some of the key dramatic and psychological mechanisms and character/contestant manipulations out of which the show generates its series of accumulative mini-character narratives and story arcs, and consider what the series may have demonstrated or suggested about British male-female relationships and interactions, circa 2021.
Love Island is not a place which that iconic British fictional character Robinson Crusoe would recognise or respect, and indeed the kind of isolation endured by Crusoe whilst marooned on his island would be completely out of place on Love Island, where contestants all sleep in the same room, privacy is non-existent and nobody ever does any work. If Love Island is all about communality and community, as the selected islanders search for love, sexual intimacy (and a possible cash prize of £50,00 if they make it through to the final), it is, above all else, concerned with the contestants’ pairing off with each other and forming couples which may or may not prove to be permanent during the show’s eight-week run. The long-term aim for each couple may be to win the 50,000 pounds, but as in a real-life scenario involving being shipwrecked on a desert island – without the obvious physical dangers which such an experience might involve – Love Island does emphasise the importance of survival, of not being evicted from the villa and of living to fight another day, so to speak. Couples deemed incompatible by other islanders or contestants who find themselves unwillingly single are sent home from the villa on an almost nightly basis. This is the most transparent means by which the producers create suspense and encourage viewers to tune in to the following evening’s edition of the programme. Despite Love Island coming under the category of a competition with a significant cash prize attached, contestants tend to disapprove of anyone who appears to be openly or covertly ‘playing a game’ and those taking part do not draw attention to or acknowledge the cameras covering their (nearly) every move. Although everything builds up towards the final, that concluding episode might be viewed as something of an anti-climax, the real drama and humour emerging from the process and the journey, rather than from the end-product and final result. And even the biggest fans of Love Island might feel that this year’s series did go on for a bit too long; few people, particularly during a pandemic, were able to go on a vacation abroad which lasted for two months…
Love Island focuses solely on male-female romantic and sexual relationships (it would be fascinating to see what would happen if a contestant chose to couple up with a member of his or her own sex), which might make the concept of the programme outdated, regressive and severely limiting for some viewers. The constant introduction of new contestants (‘bombshells’) as the show proceeds inevitably leads to changes within the couples formed, but once a steady or ‘exclusive’ couple have established themselves, fidelity and monogamy become key concerns, with much of the show’s 2021 drama stemming from a concern on the part of the women islanders that their chosen male partner may be being unfaithful to them (a situation intensified by the introduction of a separate villa for the male islanders – Casa Amor – halfway through the show’s run. In this new setting, the original male contestants are introduced to new female islanders eager to get a kind of ‘green card’ allowing entry to the main villa and integration into the community when the men return ‘home’).
Generically, as befits a programme which can be viewed as the lovechild of Big Brother (2000-2018)and Celebrity Love Island (2005-2006)[i], Love Island offers a hybrid mix of drama and documentary, fiction and reality, involving soap opera-type plot twists and melodramatic events, and featuring moments of ‘low comedy’ evoking 1970s British ‘Confessions Of’ and ‘Carry On’ movies in which the contestants take part in the kind of ‘saucy’ and sexually suggestive games once associated with ‘18 to 30’ holidays. Such sequences can and do, however, lead on to very different kinds of scenes and scenarios where the contestants probe, investigate and dissect the relationships developing and unfolding in the villa in microscopic and minute detail. These moments of acute psychological analysis and in-depth exploration at times resemble those undertaken by the more tortured characters of Ingmar Bergman’s chamber and ‘island’ films and the plays of Tennessee Williams with claustrophobic settings; thus, revealing just what a distinctive and diverse set of elements Love Island is composed of. These scenes of intense drama tend to be what sparks of most of the online discussions about the programme and are, subsequently central to the perceived success or failure of a particular series. If everyone treated the scenario for what it ostensibly is, an extended summer holiday for attractive men and women, and all concerned got along amicably and did not seek to form romantic and sexual bonds which might last a lifetime, then the producers would have to more overtly stir up tensions in order to create antipathy and antagonism amongst the islanders of a Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1954) nature.
Temporally, each episode begins with a continuation of events unfolding in the previous night’s edition, with contestants then being shown going to bed at the same time (everyone sleeps in the same room, which resembles a school dormitory, even down to ‘lights out’ at a certain time). Women and men in a relationship sleep in the same bed. If these couples engage in sexual relations during the night, these interactions are not shown on primetime television, but as the 2021 series progressed, allusions to sexual activity taking place became more pronounced, culminating in a somewhat bizarre (and tacky?) sequence whereby the women were awarded ‘degrees’ of attainment according to how far they had engaged in full sexual activities with their particular partner. These ‘awards’ were awarded by Priya, a late entrant to the show, and trainee doctor in real life. Priya, herself, did not receive such an accolade and her time on Love Island was cut short after she failed to bond with Brett, a fellow intellectual, doing a PhD in Sports Science.
Differing parts of the day’s and evening’s events are divided up by advertisement breaks, creating a real sense of time gradually passing on this seemingly endless holiday (the 2021 series lasted for nearly fifty episodes). Each edition of the programme moves towards a cliff-hanger conclusion where the contestants receive a text and are summoned to the seminal setting of the firepit. Here numerous couplings and recouplings take place and one or more islanders consistently face the prospect of being (in the show’s terminology) suddenly and immediately ‘dumped’ from the island. Those asked to leave are filmed pulling a small suitcase on wheels out of the villa, the evictions possibly taking place in the middle of the night.
The harshness – some might say cruelty – of this process of selection and re-selection, coupling and recoupling, means that the contestants constantly live under the pressure of not making the grade, of being found wanting and lacking in terms of personality, desirability and attractiveness, and of being summarily dismissed from their current job (i.e., being a contestant on Love Island). If much of the show in its happier moments is devoted to celebrating the formation and consolidation of female-male relationships and demonstrating the pleasures and rewards of same-sex friendships along the way, equally, the programme does not shy away from revealing that not everyone is going to find sexual, emotional and romantic happiness within its sun-drenched location (the island is, thus, notably not a utopian setting). A somewhat Darwinian element can, hence, be detected in the very heart and centre of the show; only the loveliest, the most adaptable, desirable and ‘fittest’ get to survive and prosper to the very end; and even then, only one couple in particular is rewarded financially at the close (it is not clear if the contestants are paid for their participation in the show).
If life in much earlier centuries was perceived as involving suffering and hardship before death inevitably intervened and the gates of heaven, hell and purgatory opened and loomed large ahead, Love Island concentrates on finding sensual and emotional satisfaction in the here-and-now, but this search is presented as a tortuous and perilous one, with many false roads, futile detours and potential disappointments. In between the fifth and seventh series of the programme, the show’s presenter Caroline Flack (1979-2020) committed suicide whilst facing charges pertaining to domestic violence against her boyfriend. This inevitably leaves something of a tragic shadow hanging over the programme’s depiction of tempestuous, mercurial and sometimes tormented relationships. Laura Whitmore subsequently took over from Flack as the show’s 2021 anchor and presenter of the show (although she rarely appears in the villa itself). Whitmore’s husband, comedian Iain Stirling, provides a wry, sarcastic and sceptical view of proceedings in voice-over form throughout each episode (interestingly, he is heard but never seen on the programme), so that a husband-and-wife partnership might be perceived to be acting as a kind of surrogate mother-and-father team behind the scenes, working for the ultimate good and well-being of the islanders, despite the gossiping, disagreements and evictions which are a regular part of each episode. (Stirling’s humorous observations are presumably included to suggest that despite the sometimes-dark nature of the material, audiences should mark Prospero’s advice in The Tempest to a worried Miranda, when he tells her, ‘Be collected/ No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart/ There’s no harm done’ [Act 1: Scene 2].)
If the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky) had its eponymous characters contemplating group sex, the final of Love Island (2021) featured four couples – Millie and Liam, Chloe and Toby, Faye and Teddy, Kaz and Tyler – vying to be crowned winners for being the most compatible and likeable island couple as voted for by viewers of the show. The initial favourites to win the show – Liberty and Jake – who had formed an exclusive couple almost from the start, broke up just as the final approached and each left the villa voluntarily. (It is very rare for contestants to leave of their own accord.) Liberty and Jake, with their respective pronounced Birmingham and Bristolian accents, had stood out from the other islanders in terms of the seemingly solid and untroubled nature of their relationship. All this was to change in the final two weeks, however, as producers (or/and the couple themselves) decided to reflect deeply on how far their relationship was likely to last outside the villa and was genuine on both sides. Fellow contestants and online commentators were not slow to notice that Jake rhymed with fake and snake, and as the couple became ever more introspective and unhappy, each decided that it would be inappropriate for them to be present in the final show and thus eligible to win the competition (the concluding stages of Love Island should be based around happy, not sad occasions, noted Liberty, philosophically). Living up to her name, Liberty sought liberty by leaving the island villa. The deterioration in the relationship of this likeable couple was a distressing spectacle to witness and one might question whether such relentless soul-searching is really necessary or mentally healthy for two young people, who have, after all, met on what is essentially an extended summer holiday (albeit, one broadcast on national television). It would seem, though, that every couple must have their own story arc and Liberty and Jake, perhaps, paid the price for their share of dramatic narrative coming only when the show was nearing its completion.
Unhappiness and disappointment were also associated with contestant Hugo, described as the show’s first disabled islander because of being born with a club foot. He summed up his time in the villa as ‘tragic’ when he was voted out several weeks before the end of the series. By the use of this strong term, he was alluding to the fact that he had not succeeded in forming a relationship with a female contestant during his time there. Initially, the majority of online commentators felt sorry for him, although sympathy was in shorter supply later on as he spurned a contestant (Georgia) who entered the show at a late stage, and who appeared to have been brought in because she was keen to enter into a relationship with him. Later, Hugo did succeed in gaining an apparent girlfriend (Amy) to accompany him on his departure from Casa Amor and return to the villa, but this relationship fizzled out, and he was to accuse Amy in a post-show interview of using him simply to gain access to the final stages of the Love Island series.
All this sub-drama was mild, however, compared to the controversy stirred up by Faye and her relationship with Teddy. Ally Ross in his TV column in The Sun claimed that ITV ‘had a dud series on their hands, which meant that someone had to be thrown to the wolves to raise the show’s profile’ and to maintain viewer interest at a late stage in the proceedings. Ross claimed that residential lettings manager, Faye was led by producers in a segment entitled ‘Mad Movies’ to conclude that boyfriend Teddy had been emotionally unfaithful to her during his stay in Case Amor (this despite the fact that she had recoupled up with someone else during his absence from the villa). Faye, who had already become known in the series for her forthright and uncompromising manner, subsequently entered into a blistering, expletive-ridden and highly aggressive and sustained rant and tirade at Teddy. Islanders who tried to calm down Faye were told to mind their own business and her behaviour appeared to shock and disgust most viewers and commentators (there were reputedly 25,000 complaints made to TV regulator, Ofcom, about her conduct). Ross noted that Faye did not ‘let up until she’d told every single part of Teddy to ‘Fuck off’, including his sandals’.[ii]
An episode aired several days later did show Faye expressing remorse and regret about her behaviour, but viewers were left wondering how far this apology was prompted by producers now worried about the show’s reputation, and how far this stemmed from a feeling deep within Faye herself that her behaviour was unacceptable, threatening and disturbing. Some online commentators wondered how Faye might act in a similar situation that was not being recoded for public viewing. Others wondered why the producers had not intervened and how they had come to the conclusion that this was fit and edifying viewing for TV audiences. Numerous online commentators claimed that if a male contestant had acted in a similar way and manner, he would have been escorted off the premises by security staff and evicted from the villa. Faye, in a reunion Love Island special on the 5th of September, 2021,did have the wit and humility to comment that if she had been watching such a performance from a contestant on the show at home, she ‘would have been complaining about it too’. Despite this unpleasantness, Faye and Teddy did reunite as a couple and were voted third in the show’s final, so forgiveness from the viewing public and Teddy was clearly evident in the attaining of this result. When the couples in the final show were required to write a speech praising their partner’s qualities, Faye was the only contestant to write a speech in the form of a rhyming poem, showing that obscene cursing, ‘Caliban-style’, was not her only way of expressing herself.
To view Jake and Liberty, Hugo/Georgia/Amy and Faye and Teddy’s experiences retrospectively, and try to make sense of what befell them, and what they brought upon themselves, one might say that the Love Island production team are trying to bring about happy endings where possible, but that the aim of the show is to test these relationships as fully as possible, so that only those relationships which might stand the test of time (or at least survive until the show is over) are prioritised and privileged. Male and women contestants are shown not just entering into relationships, but constantly, actively, reflecting on these same relationships and whether they are all that they should be. ‘Compatibility’ became a key term as the series neared its conclusion and contestants were forced to rank and evaluate the status, well-being and future prospects of their fellow islanders, an activity which unsurprisingly led to some heated arguments and disagreements.
Thus, in its concern with the ebbs and flows of human relationships in their sometimes rawest and almost primordial states of being, Love Island, arguably,has links with the novels and short stories of D.H. Lawrence (one can imagine this particular author finding fiery Faye to be the islander who interested and fascinated him most of all). One might also make links with certain plays of Shakespeare and such dramas as Romeo and Juliet (1597) and The Taming of the Shrew (1592). The most dramatic Love Island scenes take place around the firepit on eviction/recoupling nights, evoking the beginning of King Lear (1606) where the ageing King divides up his kingdom and relationships all around him subsequently turn very sour indeed. One thinks also inevitably of The Tempest with its secluded and self-contained island setting where the ethereal Ariel uneasily interacts with the all-too physical and unattractive Caliban. Stretching the imagination quite widely (some might say wildly), the producers and their representative, presenter Laura Whitmore might be seen as ‘Prospero-like’ figures, forever creating dramatic situations and scenarios in order to reveal, test and challenge the islanders’ true nature and character. The final of Love Island,with eight ‘characters’ left standing on the stage, resembles a number of the conclusions to Shakespeare’s comedies, romances and problem plays, where characters are finally paired off and proceedings conclude on some note of hopefulness and optimism. Those who made the final of Love Island 2021 did not do so without a considerable struggle, echoingProspero’s words in The Tempest that this ‘swift business’ which he embarks upon, he ‘must uneasy make, lest too light winning/Make the prize light’ (Act 1: Scene 2). Few reality television programmes, arguably, make as strong demands on its contestants as Love Island does, even though those taking part in the show may seem to be doing no more than lazing around in the sun and having a hedonistic time without a worry in the world.
The four couples in the programme’s final were composed of one white couple, three mixed race relationships and one black couple, which could be viewed as indicating that Britain is in some ways becoming a more genuinely multi-cultural and integrated society. The only all white couple in the final (Liam and Millie) were voted the eventual winners by a public vote and their main dilemma was how they would overcome the fact that they lived in very different parts of the country (Liam: South Wales: Millie: Essex). Before entering the villa, contestants in the 2021 series had apparently been pursuing a range of occupations, including waitressing, plumbing (aka a water engineer), hairdressing, working in the Civil Service, studying, and in the case of Amy, acting/ performing. Their working lives were rarely the topic of conversation, however, as everything was focused on life in the villa in the here-and-now. When pop singer Mabel was unexpectedly brought into the villa to perform a few of her songs for the islanders, her appearance was brief and she was not shown speaking to the contestants or being given a guided tour of the Love Island setting.
All of the couples in the closing night of the competition appeared to be vowing eternal love and dedication to each other, but, naturally such togetherness cannot (and perhaps should not) be guaranteed. When their relationships are no longer followed by cameras 24/7, and public interest inevitably fades, these made-on and made-for TV relationships may start to falter and possibly crumble. John Updike in his Memories of the Ford Administration: A Novel (1992) writes of ‘How quickly we become history, while wanting always to be news’.[iii] But the same author also concluded his seminal novel, Couples (1969) by stating that a couple, who had become notorious and disliked in their original setting, eventually found solace and acceptance ‘gradually, among people like themselves’, where they were accepted as just ‘another couple’.[iv]
Successful couples amongst the Islanders may not wish to become too much like other people on their return to British shores, as there can be money to be made from lucrative advertising and promotional deals whilst their names are common currency in British culture. But one should not underestimate how difficult the transition to everyday mundanity may be; or, how for many of the contestants, this may be the most exciting and eventful few weeks of their life. A segment of the show did ponder the possible future when contestants and couples had to look after a pretend baby in the form of a white or black baby doll. Whilst this competition was played largely for laughs, the women did not enjoy the constant crying of their ‘babies’, and they were not pleased when the male contestants were relieved of baby-minding duties and allowed to go off for a friendly and male-bonding game of golf while the women stayed at home. They would have been pleased to learn, however, of how highly their male partners on the golf-course spoke of them in their absence.
The series deserves high praise for the excellence of its editing, use of music and unobtrusive and telling camera-work. Perhaps the highest accolade might be that during a difficult time in human history, the show showed how relationships involving people from very different walks of life might fail or prosper, but were always worth persevering with. There was controversy and unpleasantness, but there was also courtesy and an unyielding emphasis on the processes of courtship and consideration for one’s partner. The unchallenged emphasis on heterosexuality and the fixation with monogamy and fidelity can seem strange and misplaced in a post-modern world of shifting sexual identities and preferences. A pornographic version of Love Island would have little time for the endless spoken reflections on the underlying features and elements underpinning each relationship formed in the villa. The show’s producers might well argue that the programme needs clearly defined parameters and restraints for it to function as an engaging example of human drama and family entertainment. If life in the villa is not quite a heaven-on-earth, there are clearly worse places to be ‘shipwrecked on’, and so, for the moment, its immediate future appears secure. However, as the show itself demonstrates on a regular basis, nothing is entirely secure and everything can change without warning. One day the gates to the villa may end up being closed forever and the islanders just a distant memory. Until such a day, one can only wish the class of 2021 good luck, a favourable wind home and thank them for their efforts on our behalf. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, the programme illustrates that no person is an island unto-themselves, and that love will always be a precious commodity, worth seeking, finding and holding on to, if at all possible.
[i] In his autobiography, Michael Parkinson claimed that ‘Shows such as Celebrity Love Island…did nothing to improve either the ratings or the reputation’ of ITV in 2005-2006.
Michael Parkinson, Parky: My Autobiography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), p.344.
[ii] Ally Ross, ‘Caring? That’s mental’, The Sun, 13 August, 2021, p.15. Ross felt by allowing such behaviour to continue unchecked and then deciding to include footage in the show, producers were more concerned with the ‘financial well-being’ of their ‘advertisers’ than with the mental and psychological health of the show’s contestants. Some of the contestants faced experiences which will always remain disappointing and disturbing for them, but as the series is now in its seventh incarnation, presumably (like marrying into the British Royal Family), few people can be completely unaware of what life in the villa might be like if they chose to enter its confines.
[iii] John Updike, Memories of the Ford Administration: A Novel (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992), p.366.
[iv] John Updike, Couples (Penguin: 1969), p.506.