Monday, 31 August 2009

Big Brother: ending with a whimper not a bang

Three months ago I reported on the start of the latest run of the reality tv show Big Brother UK-10. I said I was writing for the benefit of the half-dozen or so people who still cared. With the finale due this week, it appears the main mistake I made was to exaggerate the number of people still watching. The show's been axed due to apathy. Even the announcement of its demise was greeted with apathy.

So where did it all go wrong? How did the most popular reality show in the land come to go out in such a low-key manner? The reasons behind its fall from grace are long and complex, but this year's show has provided a microcosm of the problems, and of the problems of reality tv in general, because this year it has actually been rather good. It deserved to get double the audience it got, and yet nobody could be bothered to watch some of the show's most memorable ever characters:

There were nice guys: Marcus, the nearest the show has come to putting an ordinary bloke into the house for many years: a mid 30s biker-type with long hair and a healthy disdain for everything. There was Freddie, the toff with a mansion and a total lack of self-awareness that meant he really thought he was a great singer, orator and a man who understood others. There was Angel, a walking talking piece of performance art.

There were the ones who were probably nice if they'd lasted: Hira, who provided us with the most cringeworthy moment of the series with her inability to understand a simple task that required her to take two balls out of a bag, made epic in its stupidity as it was shown live and the program was running out of time. There was Tom, a successful businessman who came in, found that the show was full of vain wannabees and promptly left. Did he think he was joining a Mensa meeting? There was Saffia, who came from my home town so she must have been nice but left before I realized she was there.

There were the ones who might have been misunderstood: Cairon, put in to represent the cool teenagers of today and who therefore did what teenagers do and hid in his bed all day. Except in his exit interview he was intelligent and erudite, so perhaps there was more to him, like Kris. He was the worst type of housemate in that he was only interested in getting in the tabloids. So he tried to have a fake romance with the dimmest girl in the house who had the largest balloons strapped to her chest. Again when he came out he was self-deprecating and almost sensible. So who knows if he was contemptible or just plain tedious?

Then there were the ones who were fascinating despite being horrible: Noirin, the ultimate femme fatale, who was adored by more housemates than anyone in BB history. Marcus was devoted, Sree went mad with desire, Siavash dumped his girlfriend for her and Angel self-destructed over her. The rest just admired her from afar, smitten by her blank eyes, gormless touthy expression and scintillating conversation about hair extensions, until they put her fake ex-boyfriend in. Then she ditched everyone, went out to the loudest boos in history, then fake-dumped her fake ex-boyfriend and hurried to the tabloids. I'm sure we all wish her well. Then there was Sree, about whom I dare not say anything in case he reads this article. And there was Kenneth, the world's most successful wheeler-dealer who has negotiated nine figure deals and sat opposite some of the most dangerous men in the world, and yet who was reduced to tears when Bea told him off.

Which brings us on to the gloriously awful Bea, a hippy recruitment consultant who was so principled she couldn't bear to be nasty to anyone, except every single person in the house. A woman who could cry for England, but never got wet. A woman, who could reduce the whole house to total despair with her lectures on why she wasn't being negative. A woman who could go on and on and on for several days complaining about how other people went on and on and on. A woman who could make hard men like Kenneth cry and make wimpy men like Freddie hide under the bedclothes with her lectures on why they were making her really, really upset. A woman who was so self-absorbed she could probably turn the news that a friend was about to die from a hideous terminal disease around to somehow being a tragedy that affected only her. I missed her. She was fun.

And then there were the people who weren't fascinating, but were just plain horrible. But more about them later. First, how come with such a heady mix did these characters not attract more interest?

Commentators have offered a variety of opinions involving changing social factors, fans have offered a non-variety of opinions revolving around production errors, and the producers have offered opinions about the show not being cool any more. Most of this boils down to the simple fact that people got bored with it.

My ten cents' worth on the reason for that boredom comes from the gradual change in the focus of the show. BB is a mixture of two formats: the social experiment and the gameshow. The former element has been much derided, but I believe it is still there alive and kicking and doing everything it has always done. That is because most people misunderstand the social experiment that is being carried out. It is not us, the viewers, being voyeurs and seeing what makes people tick by observing the inane and the just plain freaky. It is us who are being watched. By watching social interaction and making judgement on that interaction we expose our own prejudices. That is still the case.

This year we got to see all the usual messy and complex interactions of humans, and we judged them and so we judged ourselves. We got to see almost the whole house ganging up on Freddie. Everyone viewed the same footage and yet some thought it was bullying and some thought it was his fault for distancing himself with his irritating behaviour. We got to see men reduced to gibbering wrecks because Noirin smiled at them. Some thought she was deliberately leading them on to their destruction; others thought it showed how men are idiots and misread flirting signals. And then there was Marcus and his legendary non-pc rants, including the best moment of the whole show with his attack on pc culture. Some saw what happened to provoke that attack and thought him a racist for being rude to Sree; others just thought Sree was an annoying little twerp. Marcus's address to the nation that everyone has a right to not like people regardless of their colour, class or creed should be printed out and pinned on the walls of Ofcom then quoted back to anyone who writes to them. But not everyone agreed with him. So which is the truth? There is none. It depends on your viewpoint. That was point of BB. It presented situations and let the viewer make up their minds.

With the social experiment still functioning, the failure of the show was therefore down to the demise of the competition element. BB, in common with all reality tv show competitions, is about the triumph of good over evil, of the success of the nice and the talented over the nasty and the talentless. That's what keeps people tuning in to X-factor and the like. It’s the belief that ultimately the most worthy will win through, even if they are ruining cover versions of dull Whitney Houston songs. Even BB has kept to this ideal. It's usually been hard for me to accept this as until last year I've never actually liked the people who win, but I can accept they are worthy of their triumph.

The show started with BB1 in which decent bloke Craig slew the beast that was Nasty Nick, won, then gave all his winnings away to a disabled friend, having told nobody he'd do this. Frankly it was inevitable it'd be downhill from there. 2 saw Brian win on the strength of making people laugh. 3 saw Kate the fun ladette win and 4 gave us Cameron the principled man from Orkney. 5 brought the first sob story with Nadia the transsexual and 6 Anthony the poseur who won because he was too dim to notice that bunny-boiler Craig fancied him. 7 brought us Pete, who most definitely didn’t win because he was a cross-dressing crusty with tourettes. 8 gave us Brian and his dim Essex boy act and 9 gave us Rachel who was so nice she actually had a job.

So every year has been a comfort. The nice have triumphed over the horrid, those who went in for a laugh and have absolutely no interest in a media career (as if!) have won over the blatant attention-seekers, the nice girls have defeated the glamour models. There's something strangely comforting in seeing people who represent everything that is wrong with society being booed (even if they go on to sell their stories) and those with decent values getting cheered (even if you never see them again).

The format works. The good guys get together, they spot the bad guys, they nominate them, the public vote them out until finally the best good guy triumphs. It's fiction masquerading as reality because that is what stories are about: the triumph of the good guys in the face of adversity. Nobody wants to watch a version of The Magnificent Seven in which seven battered heroes get together to take on the bandits. Then they all get shot up after half an hour and the rest of the film is taken up with the bandits chortling over their success. But increasingly that story has become more likely because in reality tv the good guys come over as a bit dull and the bad guys provide the water-cooler moments. So every year the balance between the good and the bad has been shifted more and more towards the bad.

Last year seemed to have gone as far as they could. 2/3rds of the housemates were awful people, but somehow the good banded together and removed Luke and Bex and Dale and Stuart and Kat and all the other people who should never be on our tv screens. This year they went further still and shifted the balance so much that there were only a handful of decent people in the house, people you would actually like to spend time with in the real world. And so this year the inevitable happened. The bandits got their act together and shot up the Magnificent Seven and so we're left with watching the bandits gloat over their control of the house.

In some ways I reckon it's therefore appropriate that in the week in which the show was cancelled, viewers must choose a winner from amongst a group of people who represent all the worst aspects of modern life. We have:

Siavash: Style over substance man: The only one left I can accept winning, but that's only because the others are so awful. He's spent 3 months struggling to complete a sentence. He's devoted all his time to game-playing while saying he hates the competition. He announced last week that he'll give his money to charity if he wins, but nobody believed him. He loves dressing up and looking at himself in mirrors. He loves himself more than the girlfriend he dumped or the woman he failed to woo. Made me smile in week 3 though when he was dressed up in a barrel.

Lisa - Compensation culture woman: She contributes nothing, expects everything. She's always first in line with a hand out to get what she reckons she's due, but always outside at the bus stop whining about other people who do get off their butts when there's something needing done. She's spent three months in the house and most of it has been spent smoking fags, spending all the food budget on fags, not smoking the free fags she was given as she's saving them for when she comes out, and explaining why she doesn’t like to work to earn the money to buy herself more fags. Made me smile last week when dressed up as an alien.

David - Stupid and proud of it man: talks non-stop very loudly but never actually says anything other than a constant stream of 'you know what I mean' clich├ęs. Utterly proud of all his achievements in the house, although it's hard to think of any, and says he will walk out with his head held high for having sat at a bus stop whining with Lisa for 7 weeks. Hates new thoughts and experiences, but makes a virtue of ignorance. Does know where the cameras are though and will repeat anything inane he says three times from various angles in case the cameras missed it. Made me smile last week when dressed up as an alien.

Sophie - Heat magazine girl: anyone looking for evidence of the kind of adults that will be produced after spending their childhood exposed to vacuous celebrity culture need only look at her and her enormous balloons. Claims she can't find the UK on a map and she isn't sure who King Obama is, but she can calculate instantly the money she can make from being photographed at any given celebrity bash. She'll probably win for two big reasons (ooh, er missus): She's ticked all the boxes her press agent told her to fill with her fake breasts, fake hair, fake tan, fake drunk act, frank dumb act, fake romance and fake break-up. And she's very popular with young girls who have got fed up with having Jordan as their role model for everything they don’t want to achieve in life. Made me smile in week 4 when Freddie hit her in the face with a paint bomb and she didn’t notice.

Rodrigo - Self-absorbed man: personification of the cult of me, me, me. Has no interest in anything that goes on outside his own body. Will scream complaints for hours after being asked to be quiet, but has no qualms about screaming at others to do the same. Will have a tantrum about others getting angry. Will deride people for being disrespectful at the top of his voice while trashing the bedroom, throwing water over Charlie and screaming the house down like Violet Elizabeth Bott after too many sugary drinks. Probably thinks irony is like goldy and brassy but made out of iron, and presents conclusive proof that if you're male and pretty you can get away with anything. Rod could never make me smile.

Charlie - I haven't done nothing wrong man: utterly convinced he's a decent bloke, a funny bloke, a popular bloke even though we can see the unattractive sweat of desperation on his brow. He didn’t burn down the school, he was just having a laugh and playing with matches. He didn't mug the granny, he was just holding a broken bottle for a friend and didn’t mean nothing by it. He didn't knife someone, he was just enjoying himself and anyhow the dead man started it. I never done nothing, me... The sad thing is he believes it even as his list of crimes against humanity grows, the most annoying being he has yet to be filmed for more than thirty seconds without sticking his hands down his pants. He's utterly convinced he'll win on account of the fake romance he's had with Rodrigo and his hilarious comedy routines in which he brought in comedy props to entertain the housemates for hours on end. His comedy is so poor it hasn’t been shown on tv yet for fear of giving his young fans nightmares as it involves dressing up as his alter-ego Nana, who looks and acts like Norman Bates' mum. Nana is the most disturbing thing I've ever seen and I watched that live autopsy show. Has yet to make me smile, but I live in hope of some humour when he fails to win and goes out sulking and snarling with his hands down his pants.

So there we have it. Who wins? Who cares? Not me. Big Brother 2001-2009. The contract ends next year so it'll be back for one more year apparently, but somehow I doubt they'll bother. There's nowhere left to go. The inmates won.


andrea said...

Hi Ian

I love Big Brother. I've been an avid fan since the beginning, like you. I want Siavash to win, cos I reckon he is a genuinely nice guy, even if he is a game player.

I was devastated when my brother phoned up with glee to tell me BB had been cancelled. But apparently, it's only been cancelled by Channel 4. Another channel will probably take it over, like one of the Sky channels, someone who will have more money and interest to redevelop it's potential. I hope they do. IT wouldn't be summer without BB on now!!

I.J. Parnham said...

Sorry to bring even more bad news, Andrea, but the latest word on the street is that it's very unlikely any Tv station will pick it up. They may just be posturing to negotiate the price down, but even so there's certainly not a frantic scrum of tv stations who want to give the show a new start.

The only small hope appears to be the rumours that Endemol now have the clout to start thinking of developing their own tv station, but that would probably be subscription only and Internet only.

zuroph said...

Very nice article! Sums it up pretty perfectly. Thanks for an entertaining read.