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The Enduring Appeal of Britain’s Posh Young Things

In late 2010, on the verge of signing a contract to appear on a new reality TV series about fashionable young people in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, Ollie Locke, then 23, had a moment of hesitation.

Locke — with his glossy hair falling past his shoulders, Queen’s English and predilection for wearing designer shirts open to the sternum — worried that he might be depicted as garish, affluent, out of touch with the common man. He voiced his concerns to an executive, Locke recalled in a recent interview, who reassured him by explaining that it was basically out of his control: The show could make Locke appear that way only if he already had those attributes.

When “Made in Chelsea” premiered in the spring of 2011, Locke had a starring role among a coterie of chic socialities. The show was a stylized observational documentary in the style of MTV’s “The Hills,” and a consciously upper-class counterpoint to “The Only Way Is Essex.” — “Made in Chelsea” followed Locke and his circle as they navigated the often tumultuous ups and downs of friendships and relationships, all while dining at London’s swankiest restaurants, sipping cocktails at exclusive nightclubs and cheering on polo matches.

The formula has been an enduring success. “Made in Chelsea” is one of Britain’s longest-running reality TV programs; it has had dozens of seasons over the past 13 years and has ranked among the top unscripted programs on its home channel, E4, every year since its debut, even as it has gently changed with the times.

“It’s amazing,” Locke said in a recent video interview from a resort in Barbados, “because we didn’t think it was going to work at the beginning. We thought it would be kind of a funny show that people would laugh at for six months and then move on with their lives.”

But the show has been so successful that it will soon break out of Chelsea: “Made in Bondi,” the first spinoff, is in the works from Australia’s Seven Network and Britain’s Channel 4, and will air later this year. “Bondi” will take the original’s formula to an opulent beachfront Sydney suburb, known for its picturesque glamour and high-end surfing culture.

The spinoff will be “set against the backdrop of some of Australia’s most affluent and beautiful suburbs,” according to a statement from Angus Ross, Seven’s chief content officer. The original “Chelsea” was pitched as a kind of real-life “Gossip Girl,” said Leonie Joss, an executive producer of that show.

It was crucial, she said in a recent interview, that “Made in Chelsea” didn’t ridicule its cast members for their excesses: Viewers were meant to relate to them, despite their privilege.

In the early seasons of “Made in Chelsea,” what Joss called “the posh factor” was front and center. There was Mark-Francis Vandelli, who had an aristocratic manner and used a special pair of scissors for cutting grapes, and Millie Mackintosh, who was known as the “toffee heiress” thanks to her family’s chocolate empire.

Over the years, “Made in Chelsea” has shifted toward slightly more down-to-earth men and women. Joss said that today’s cast members are still “wealthy and elite,” but they tend to be more “real people who are hard-working, entrepreneurs who have done well for themselves, not just spending Daddy’s money.”

As the show has evolved, some of the original cast members have parlayed their time on “Chelsea” into British television careers, appearing on shows like “Celebrity Big Brother.” Others have started podcasts and businesses. Many of them have remained fixtures of the British tabloid ecosystem, their lives still chronicled obsessively, just not on prime time.

Miles Nazaire, a cast member since 2018 and the closest thing the show currently has to a main character, said in a recent interview that while he grew up in Fulham, next to Chelsea, he felt different from his cast mates since he “actually wasn’t from that sort of class.” Nazaire, who is half French, was recruited by producers when the show shot scenes at a Chelsea club where he was working as an event marketer, and has since gravitated to the center of the show, alongside mainstays like Olivia Bentley and Emily Blackwell.

Locke, who is still a regular presence on the series — his 2020 wedding was filmed for a special episode — said that the shifts on “Chelsea” have reflected broader changes in the world.

“The show has changed, but you’ve got to remember that life has changed an awful lot in 14 years,” he said. “Chelsea is not the same place that it used to be. It was all about pashminas — now it’s a little bit realer, if you will.”

Chelsea is still among the most expensive boroughs in London, though house prices there and in neighboring Kensington fell more than 17 percent last year, one of the steepest drops in the city, as the country grappled with a cost-of-living crisis and stagnant economy. In the decade after “Made in Chelsea” premiered, the borough’s population has decreased — bucking the city’s overall growth — and more residents are renting than when the show premiered, according to government data.

These and other changes have made Chelsea seem “a bit more accessible to people now,” Locke said, and that shift is reflected in a less flagrantly lavish show.

As the Chelsea on the show more closely resembles other moneyed metropolitan areas, it seems fitting that the program expands its focus to likable young posh people living elsewhere. On a “Made in Chelsea” miniseries that aired in December the core cast vacationed in Sydney, both to set up “Made in Bondi” and to remind viewers that this sort of drama needn’t be limited to one elite borough.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this move toward relative normality.

“Personally, I’d like it if we had more helicopters and things — we used to have private jets,” Locke said. “I haven’t seen those in a while.”

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