Reality TV has been dealt its fair share of criticism over the years, and rightfully so, from a staggering lack of diversity to normalising concerning behaviour. But it can, on occasion, also put some good out into the world. Made in Chelsea's Olivia Bentley openly discussed the impact that her alopecia has had on her self-esteem during last season's run. Remember when Love Island's Camilla Thurlow educated fellow contestant Johnny Mitchell on why feminism is just as vital as ever? The missteps of the aforementioned are undeniable, but it would be remiss not to give credit where credit's due. And Peckham's Finest, a new ITV2 reality series, has certainly captured our attention for all of the right reasons.
The show revolves around a group of big personalities making waves in the south London district of Peckham and beyond.
"Everyone's really talented," DJ and presenter Mark-Ashley Dupé told Digital Spy. "Everyone's really humble but has also got their own shit going on."
Other cast members include Mojo, a shop assistant who has built up a sizeable following on social media as a body confidence coach, and student and part-time model Isla, who wants to make the leap from commercial to editorial, among others.
"You're going to get a little bit of drama, you're going to get a little bit of romance, you're going to get a little bit of heartbreak and you're going to get a lot of laughter," added Mark. "The one thing I've realised about this cast is that we're all low-key comedians. I expect us all to be at the Apollo fairly soon [laughs]."
Not only have the producers assembled a group who are able to hold your attention without resorting to histrionics and problematic behaviour, they've also created a show in which the central cast are all Black, which is revolutionary here in the UK.
"The first word that came to mind [when the show was announced] was relief," said Mojo "Finally, we've got it. We've been crying, begging, pleading, wondering, waiting for a little bit of diversity on TV and it's finally happened. I'm just like f**king finally!"
But as Isla is quick to note, it's not just exploring diversity in terms of race, but a number of other factors which are often overlooked.
"There's so much more to diversity, like where people come from and the LGBTQ+ community," she explained. "And different jobs. It's just representing all types of people and I think it's going to be inspiring to people, just to be like, 'If this person can do it, I can do it too.'
Mark, who is gay, was keen to highlight one narrative that is very rarely – if ever – included in popular culture, but features in the opening episode of Peckham's Finest.
"I feel really blessed that I've been able to bring my mum into it and show my relationship with her," he beamed. "Being a Black gay guy, you don't usually hear those stories about Black gay men and their mothers – and when you do, they're usually negative.
"The fact that I get to showcase this relationship that I have with my mum, which is so special to me – that, alone, is just like… I'm just really happy because I feel like it's going to be able to show so many other young, gay, Black men that it's okay.'
There's both a vibrancy and an authenticity to Peckham's Finest – two attributes which have become a rarity in the reality TV landscape. Those key ingredients can't be manufactured, but stem directly from the show's many faces, who have been shaped by the place itself.
The district has been at the centre of the gentrification wars for a number of years, with residents and those further afield fighting to ensure that it remains uniquely Peckham. The grand transformations – upgraded housing, an influx of bars, restaurants and other social venues and spaces – as well as a commitment to making it safer all sound enticing on the surface. But so often, those developments come at the expense of the locals.
"There's nothing wrong with upgrading the area, but upgrade it for the people who are actually in the area," said Mark. "We've needed it to be upgraded for years and years and years, but they needed middle-class, white business owners to move in to then upgrade the area. And now we've all been priced out. As Black people, we like nice things too. We want nice bars, and nice houses, and nice coffee shops, and nice restaurants. But don't make it in a way that we feel excommunicated, and then have to move out of the area.
"This is not an area where we're saying that white people are not allowed. We welcome anybody. It's Peckham. Only Fools and Horses is Peckham. It's about balance and making sure that you look after the locals because one thing about gentrification is that people move into areas because of the culture, but then as soon as they get there they push it all out and you lose the essence of what attracted them to the area."
Peckham's Finest is a delicious morsel of escapsim which successfully distracts us from an apocalyptic news cycle that shows no sign of slowing down, but it also has a greater sense of purpose than your average reality TV show. It's as good a campaign as any for showcasing why stripping away the community's heritage would be a genuinely devastating loss, and it does that by tapping into the very best of Peckham. Instead of finger-wagging or sobering lectures, it lets its people do the talking and with that, we'll let Mojo do the rest.
'When I moved to Peckham, I had the option to leave and go back to North Lincolnshire," she said. "But actually, having a Ghanian family across the way, a Sierra Leonian family just down the road that I could run to sometimes, and a Jamaican family that treated me so nicely down here – it was an opportunity for me to not embrace just being Black, but other types and other versions of being African and Caribbean and what that means.
"The culture of Peckham is what made me fall in love with it and I just don’t want to see that lost. You have to make Peckham safer, but that doesn't mean making it whiter. We are the root tree. We're like one tree that you can't get rid of. You can cut it down, and shave its sides, and get rid of all the leaves and stuff. But that tree, that culture, will forever remain, no matter what you try to build up and around it. And the roots run deep".
Peckham's Finest airs on Wednesdays at 10pm on ITV2. Catch-up on the ITV Hub.
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