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Watching celebs in court raises drama to a whole new low | Life and style

I want to be entertained. I find current entertainment lacking. Find my own entertainment? No thank you – I’d like my entertainment presented to me, cut up into bite-size pieces, occasionally pre-chewed. Is that too much to ask? Honestly? That somebody else is responsible for my fun? For bringing something fabulous? Something delightful? After many months consuming prestige TV as if a Michelin meal, dodging online spoilers, I am entering a time in my life where I would like to sit low in a beanbag chair and have a little excitement, a little joy poured directly down my throat like a foie-gras goose. Currently, I have to settle for less.

It is no coincidence that reports of the end of “prestige TV” coincide with my own personal exhaustion of the stuff – I have, I believe, singlehandedly maintained this industry through my personal relentless viewing. There is not an award-winning drama I haven’t watched, there is not a darkly comic show investigating grief and/or trauma I haven’t mainlined with biscuits, there is not a philosophical American review I haven’t read solemnly at midnight, occasionally looking up Shakespeare references by the light of a phone.

But now the shows have ended, with no obvious heir in sight. And the entertainment which has replaced them is not (as some have written) reality TV like Love Island, its scandals now as predictable as its catchphrases and bikinis, and it’s not comedy (as others suggested) – Hannah Gadsby’s latest project is a show at the Brooklyn Museum called “It’s Pablo-matic” where she has annotated Picasso paintings with jokes “calling out” Picasso’s misogyny, to loud criticism. No, the modern successor to prestige TV is clearly the celebrity trial.

From the terribly gruesome (Johnny Depp v Amber Heard) to the awfully glamorous (Coleen Rooney v Rebekah Vardy), these cases were all connected by two things – the fact of the defendant’s fame, and the fact they all proved the same thing: that nobody should go to court if they can possibly help it. The trials have spawned merch, memes, musicals and thousands of newspaper columns, sometimes because of the legal implications, sometimes the shoes. My favourite, partly because its stakes were lower than carpet, was Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial, where it was found she wasn’t to blame for a collision with a retired optometrist during a 2016 ski trip.

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I look back fondly on those days when the world’s news hinged on who skied into whom on an exclusive slope in Utah. As I write, Prince Harry is giving evidence at his phone-hacking trial and, as cameras aren’t allowed in, Sky has hired a ginger-bearded “lookalike” to read out the transcript in a show called Harry in Court. I heartily recommend tuning in, if not for the testimony itself (which, while undoubtedly important, sadly does not contain the drama required for a piece of theatre, I’m sorry) then for the camp deliciousness of such details as whether or not Chelsy Davy changed her Facebook status being read, straightfaced, by an actor surely repeating, “I went to Rada for this…” in his head.

But the deeper I sink into celebrity trials for entertainment, the more I’m forced to ask, what does their popularity say about us? Partly, they act as an extension of our thirst for more knowledge about the celebrities we see as close friends or enemies – . It’s also exciting to watch an actor play themself. Paltrow playing Paltrow was a masterclass in branding; she knows how to present her wealth as class, as a kind of superior honesty, and how to monetise outrage, and she leaned into the extreme exclusivity of the trial (in which, let’s not forget, she’d lost half a day’s skiing). At its core, though, isn’t our new obsession with these trials about power?

At a time when the gap between rich and poor is wider than it has been for a century, when the richest 1% of people in Britain are now wealthier than 70% of the population, it can be satisfying to see the ultra-privileged fall. But to see someone use their wealth and privilege to poke at that power in the public interest is more thrilling. Prince Harry is one of a handful of people in the world with enough cash to turn down a settlement in a phone-hacking case and instead go to court, confronting one of the biggest scandals in living memory. Yes it’s fun to hear his honest reactions to historic tabloid stories about his breakup with Chelsy Davy, but it’s even more exciting to contemplate media reform, and the possibility that a case like this could help politics rebuild itself with an independent and accountable press. That’s entertainment!

If you were to tell teenage me that an evening’s fun in 2023 would consist of watching a celebrity read out old text messages on one screen while I furiously message friends about the court artist’s impressions of said celebrity on another, a large bar of Dairy Milk shattered before me, I think she would promptly expire. But until I am presented with something juicier, richer, crueller, better, this life of crime will have to do.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

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Eva Wiseman

Published: 2023-06-18 08:01:36

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