Full English

05.15.14

The ‘Real Housewives’ Land in London

Bravo refuses to say so, but for the first time it is taking its hard-drinking and bitching franchise across the Atlantic. And yes, in London as in Beverly Hills, it's the usual cavalcade of tears, champagne, and bitching—with added polo matches.

Silly me. A show following a group of seven rich, glamorous women, drinking, partying, and bitching at each other, competing and crying and somehow having the resources to have makeup artists on hand in their kitchens, is not the latest in Bravo’s latest Real Housewives franchise but a “group of women who connect socially through business, family, and friendship.”

So, with an absolutely serious tone, says Bravo executive Kathleen French, senior vice president of “Production-Current,” about the channel’s new series Ladies of London, which follows the interconnected friendships, rivalries, and sob-sessions of two posh British women and five Americans who have made their homes in the British capital.

140514-teeman-london2-embed
Noelle Reno, Caroline Stanbury (Laurence Cendrowicz/Bravo)

Well, as a British person might say, Ms. French has “front.” Not only is Ladies of London absolutely, definitely, the first-ever British Real Housewives offshoot from Bravo, it comes with the added spice of the culture clash of those glacially reserved Brits, with their opaque class system and superior ways, looking down their noses at the brash Americans, who do things like actually watch the match and cheer at the polo. How ghastly.

The show, which begins June 2, begins, as every show about London must when shown to an American audience, with a speedy montage of red buses, the Houses of Parliament, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. As a Londoner, I would dearly love to substitute those images for the Caledonian Road, people snoring on the Tube, and the top deck of the No. 38 bus.

Caroline Stanbury is the first London “lady” to be introduced and is clearly the show’s pivot. From an aristocratic British family, she is the founder and owner of luxury site Gift-Library.com, and is described as a “pit bull.” She doesn’t seem to be one, just cutting and offhand in the way that those bought up with privilege can seem. Annabelle, the other Brit, is more rock-chick (she wears a camo jacket with “God Save the Queen” sprayed across its back in white). She was a close friend of the designer Alexander McQueen and likes riding horses at high speed—which, future clips hint, may end painfully.

Of the Americans, the most famous—for a British viewer, anyway—is the model turned lingerie entrepreneur Caprice, who has lived in Britain for 17 years and first became famous for not wearing many clothes on the covers of men’s magazines. Now, like many a long-term stayer in the U.K., she seems fully acclimatized, ending her sentences with little Dick Van Dyke-ish Cockney sharpness. It’s cute.

The loudest, by several hundred decibels, is Juliet, who whoops and hollers and confronts, and is supposed, I guess, to be every Brit’s nightmare of the loud, bolshy American (truth: we don’t mind, it kind of awes meek little us). Juliet says in America everyone wants to know if someone is famous; in Britain it’s if they have a title. As a Brit, I can say that many of us—indeed all of my buddies—don’t think about that at all when they meet someone, so perhaps it’s a value judgment for the sad, airless social set Juliet mixes in.

Juliet’s attempts at sympathy are as terrifying as any threat. That emerges when she bats her eyes solicitously in the direction of someone called Noelle; Noelle isn’t a gold digger, says Caprice stoutly, more a hustler, just as Caprice says she was when she first came to the U.K. The thing is, Noelle is now involved with a guy whom the tabloids and courts have already worked over after he allegedly hid part of a large fortune. He is bearded, squat, and angry-looking. Noelle is a siren. One wonders if her love would burn with such ardor if he didn’t have the cash.

And then there is Marissa; Annabelle says Marissa is like a poodle, “probably pink.” Marissa is sunny and bright, and wears light-blue sleeveless shirts and is sleek and perfect; a forever-smiling, megawatt yummy mummy. Marissa knows people really wouldn’t care about her had she not married the man who owns Boujis, the nightclub that was hot about five years ago that has a special entrance for royals. (Another, as yet unseen, American, Julie, is marrying into British aristocracy.)

The first episode of Ladies in London is a relatively sedate introduction, with mutters of dark, bitch-slapping portents—you don’t want to get x angry; x is too loud; x is never going to be happy with him—as the women prepare to usher in the social season at a big polo event.

And yes, it’s there where the Americans are loud, and the Brits curl their lips at Yank-crassness and drink their tea tutting. And poor Noelle—who is shaping up to be the Teresa Giudice/Ramona Singer of the proceedings—is wearing a hat. A hat. Stop the clocks. Send her back. Oh dear, the Brits sneer at her, you don’t wear a hat at the polo; why must Americans think every social occasion is like a smart Buckingham Palace garden party?

My dears, what a faux pas. The queen should issue directives on national television to prevent such transgressions.

News to Americans: Most Britons don’t care if or where or how you wear a hat. Noelle, be hat-proud, dear.

Future episodes promise a familiar cavalcade of meltdowns in cars, people admonishing others for rudeness, Noelle possibly getting proposed to by the squat, rich suss guy, and Juliet being taken to task for her manners.

French says the idea isn’t to manufacture conflict but to capture the lives and relationships of the women as they unfold. Yes, Bravo looks for people who are “comfortable in front of the cameras,” she tells me, but they are not ordered to scrap. The eight-episode series was filmed last summer, the summer of the royal baby, and the city in its shimmering summer glory, says French, is a character in itself.

Except, of course, this is a very particular London: a high-class, swanky, glossy London far removed from the daily reality of most Londoners. French is unapologetic: This ritzy canvas merely matches the other Real Housewives canvases. Which is to say, a canvas of Extremely Unreal Housewives.

The etiquette class Stanbury inflicts on Juliet in a future episode crystallized the show for French: The American-English culture clash, the differences between the women, the things they can learn from each other, the commitment Juliet is making to living in England. Again, news to Americans: An American, just because they are an American, doesn’t need to go to an English etiquette school to live on our island. Just be polite, and try to have the right change for small purchases.

Stanbury tells me that “every one” of her posh friends had told her not to take part in the show, “which made me all the more determined to do it. I wanted to have a life experience they would never have. I grew up in that society. A lot of people who grow up like that feel they are entitled to things. I didn’t. I’ve worked for what I have.”

It took Stanbury about a year to agree to do Ladies of London, “but then I decided I was 38, had three children, to do a TV show was on my bucket list, and I wasn’t ready to curl up and just be comfortable. So why not? If the worse comes to the worst after it comes out, I’ll move under a rock.”

Filming the show did consume her a bit, she admits, but Stanbury says she knew what she was getting into as a “big fan” of Bravo’s other shows. She doesn't think that her business will be adversely affected by the presentation of her flinty, bitchy side.

While the popular British show Made in Chelsea made it acceptable for posh people to take part in a reality show, Stanbury said her participation in Ladies of London had brought “frowns” from her peers. But, she says blithely, so what? Anything adverse said to her, any bump in the road for her business arising from fallout from Ladies of London, she is ready for: “Whatever happens, I shall rise.”

If the show is popular, a second season will be commissioned, promises French: Caprice now has two babies (both biologically hers, one carried by a surrogate), Noelle is engaged, and Juliet is trying to convert herself to a fully English life. So there’s the potential for plenty of drama—even if, its makers insist implausibly, it will be done in the best possible taste. Personally, I'm waiting for the first scones, jam, and clotted cream fight.