Since its inception in October 2010, The Only Way is Essex has become the Marmite of British television.
With enough fake tan to make Dale Winton go pale – no mean feat – the show documents the glamorous lives of Brentwood’s finest.
It has also contributed to the English language, with words like ‘reem’, ‘vagazzle’ and the phrase ‘well jel’ enriching the national lexicon.
But whether you like or loathe the reality programme, you’ll recognise the name Arg.
This is the nickname of James Argent, who has been a regular cast member since the show’s launch.
As the right-hand man of the show’s original lothario Mark Wright, Arg is well prepared for his upcoming role in this years pantomime at the Kings Theatre.
He will be making his panto debut in Southsea as Dandini, the Prince’s loyal sidekick.
Arg says he cannot wait to start rehearsals.
‘I miss performing onstage. I love performing with my band but I do love theatres as well, and where I’m usually so busy with The Only Way is Essex it’s nice that Christmas is quieter so I have the opportunity to do something like this.’
He adds: ‘I can’t believe how big the Kings Theatre is – it’s a great size. I’m really excited to perform here.’
To go from being unknown to cab drivers beeping me and people shouting out “Arg” as I walk down the street... it’s nutsJames ‘Arg’ Argent
As any fan of Towie would know, Arg is a lover of swing music, and still performs with his newly-formed band, aptly named The Arg Band.
But his passion for the stage began as a student performing musical theatre. ‘My favourite musical is Les Misérables or Jersey Boys. I know they are completely opposite but I love the music and songs in both.
‘I like the era of Jersey Boys, that sort of Goodfellas period. I love the style and the songs.
‘I was actually in an amateur production of Les Misérables when I was a youngster. I played Enjolras.’
Arg’s schedule for the year has been packed. Before the press launch of the panto, he had to travel down to Portsmouth from Essex where he was filming for the show.
He says: ‘Filming Towie is pretty mad. It is great fun being with all your mates, but it is pretty constant.’
A common topic of debate among viewers is how much of the show is actually real. It is described as a ‘scripted reality’ soap, with real people in modified situations.
So do all the cast really know each other outside the show?
‘We’re all real friends, all the relationships are real. We all get on – or don’t get on – in real life.
‘A lot of people I would spend time with offscreen because I’ve known them for years. There’s only a few people I didn’t know.’
While many situations are manufactured, the cast often don’t know what is going to happen beforehand.
‘There’s loads of times where people walk in and it’s unexpected. I like those sort of moments.’
Arg’s past self may well disagree, because he has been the butt of a few twists that are now Towie folklore – particularly one involving car saleswoman-turned-plus-size model Gemma Collins.
During The Only Way is Marbs, a special that was shot in Marbella, Spain, Arg was given a poolside surprise by his then-flame Gemma.
As a retort to his rumoured comments about her weight, she stripped down to a one-piece and told him ‘you ain’t ever gonna get this candy’ [sic] in front of the rest of the cast. It is a line that Arg says he still gets people saying at him in the street.
He says: ‘I didn’t actually know that was coming. That was a bit of a shock to the system.’
He adds: ‘Months before she would have been in her mirror rehearsing that. People still quote that to me millions of times to this day. She did me big time with that, I have to admit.’
The panto star is now back together with his long-term sweetheart Lydia Bright, whose on/off relationship makes Ross and Rachel from Friends look like Posh and Becks.
Arg says that having a relationship in front of the cameras can be tough.
‘It depends whether it is going well or not. If it’s in a good place, it’s fine; if it’s in a bad place, it’s really bad.’
In early years of Towie, there was another male presence in Lydia and Arg’s relationship. And he wasn’t human. Mr Darcy, a micro-pig that Arg gave Lydia as a present, turned out to be a regular porker, growing to full adult size.
Arg says: ‘Lydia doesn’t have her pig any more – he’s living on a local farm. We do go and visit him.’
Despite the media scrutiny, Arg is grateful for the lifestyle Towie has afforded him.
‘I’ve been able to get two properties off the back of Towie and set up my business with my band. There’s a lot of opportunities you can get through doing reality TV. I’d advise anyone to do it.’
If Arg wasn’t on the show, he thinks he would be ‘singing in various bars and restaurants, just working the local circuit in Essex’.
‘I probably would’ve learnt more songs,’ he jokes.
But that wasn’t meant to be. They say it’s who you know, not what you know – and this has certainly been true for Arg. After best friend Mark Wright was signed up for the show, it wasn’t long before the offer was extended Arg’s way.
He says: ‘I was in Spain with my girlfriend at the time and Mark had just been cast to the show.
‘I came back from Spain early and Mark mentioned that I’d come home. Then the producers met me and within a month the first episode came out. It changed my life.’
He says the initial reaction to Towie was ‘crazy’.
‘It was mad. To go from being unknown to cab drivers beeping me and people shouting out “Arg” as I walk down the street... it’s nuts.’
He says that since becoming a celebrity he has gone ‘to lots of cool events and met amazing people’, including David Beckham and One Direction.
The pinnacle for Arg was when the series won the Audience Award at the 2011 Baftas. He went up onstage to collect the award, which he describes as ‘pretty mad’.
The Towie veteran has seen a lot of cast members come and go, including Mr Wright himself.
Since departing the series in 2011, Mark has gone on to be runner-up on I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!, appear on Strictly Come Dancing and have a successful presenting career on TV and radio.
Will Arg continue to follow in his friend’s footsteps?
‘I’d like to do one of those shows when the time is right. I’ve got a project for ITV which starts in January but I’d love to do Strictly, or go in the jungle.’
If he was on the show, he’d take a top hat and tails over cuban heels and a flamenco shirt any day of the week.
‘I’d love to do the Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly type dancing. That’s my look.’
Arg says that he’s still happy starring in Towie, but his career could take a theatrical turn after his stint at the Kings.
‘Hopefully I’ll get the buzz of the stage after this.’
He adds: ‘I’d really love to do Les Misérables again, play Enjolras on the West End. But to be honest, I think I’m more of a Thenardier!
‘I could see myself doing Chicago playing Billy Flynn.’
Cinderella is at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, from December 8 – January 3 | Tickets: from £8.50 | Visit kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call (023) 9282 8282 to book | To watch a video interview with Arg, click here