Channel 5's first attempt to stage Big Brother ends on Friday, an event that is sure to be of mild interest to the several dozen people still watching. As I'm one of those die-hards I suppose I should comment, especially in the light of my not-very-enlightened article I wrote before the series started in which I predicted that not much would change from Channel 4's version. In some ways I was right: the music is the same, the logo is still an eye, professional Geordie Marcus Bentley still narrates, and every big twist fails badly. Most importantly it's still about a bunch of people living together, but curiously a lot has changed because now it is just about a bunch of people living together. I'll explain that comment later.
12 weeks ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, the celebrity version started to a collective cry from the audience of: who are these people? This used to happen every year, but somehow the celebrity bar was lowered to such an extent that the only person I recognized was an actor who got two lines in episode 3, series 8 of New Tricks. After 3 weeks of watching these stars, I'm hard pushed to remember who actually won. Thankfully after those non-entities had departed, the non-celebrity version started with a group of people who were slightly more well-known, including various models, reality tv stars, dancers, wrestlers, musicians, and an actress who died horribly in a popular horror movie franchise.
For the last 9 weeks these characters have done their best to rekindle the old Big Brother magic with the usual arguments over the shopping budget while in fancy dress, pretend romances, and contrived drama over hair straighteners. At its best it has provided moments that explore issues realistically in a way drama never can such as the glorious moment when housemate Aaron found out what his girlfriend's mum thought of him. She nominated him for eviction because he was messing around with her daughter, an uncomfortable scene with repercussions that only the most worthwhile reality tv show of them all could provide. Sadly excellent drama like this was in short supply and I reckon there are several obvious reasons why the show isn't as compelling as it was during its long run on the bigger station :
New host Brian Dowling's tight suits. As a housemate Brian was caustic and entertainingly camp, but as a host he isn't quick-witted or comfortable enough for live tv, although at least he isn't Davina.
The gormless editing. The show is now edited so a six-year-old can understand with constant repetition and explanations for the hard of thinking. I long for the old, deadpan style of '2.44pm, the housemates are in the garden eating jaffa cakes' rather than the new over-informative 'Jay is angry with a jaffa cake and this montage of last night's show set to music will show you why' style.
The lack of live feed. The decision not to show events 24 hours a day was inevitable as these days the OFCOM generation watch programs just so they can complain about minor things such as people taking dumps in freezers. But that's left the editors free to provide one-dimensional views of the characters and something vital has been lost. So Harry was comedy gold for 7 weeks until he came out and acted like an idiot, while Faye appeared an emotional wreck for 8 weeks until she came out and acted calmly.
Demographic targeting. An age limit of 30 was imposed on housemates with the intention of attracting young folk, thereby alienating half the audience. The lack of variety in life goals combined with people without any life experience has limited the scope of the show.
Lack of intellectual stimulus. The show used to have a fascinating psychological aspect with spin-off shows devoted to reading body language and the subtle aspects of character and language. Now the spin off shows feature swearing, rudeness and idiots.
Too media savvy. Even in 2000, some of the housemates knew what was required of them to further their media careers. Now everyone has been media trained and housemates are so self-aware of how they'll be perceived that you have to doubt everyone, especially the ones who aren’t self-aware.
They are no longer a number. The show borrowed its ideas from Orwell and The Prisoner with people challenging and being challenged by an authoritative Big Brother character. Big Brother always won and after 3 months people would emerge from the prison experience looking and sounding like a gibbering wreck, but hopefully having learnt something about themselves. Now the little media darlings get parties every night and soothing words every day, and they come out of the hotel as content as they went in to read a statement from their PR agent having learnt nothing about themselves.
I could list more issues that I hope they'll address later, but the biggest reason for the show being less absorbing now is one I don’t think they'll change as it involves a statement of intent made by Channel 5's program director Jeff Ford. He reckoned Channel 4's problem was that their version always had to be about something. His version would be freed of that constraint so that it could be just about a bunch of people living together.
I kept thinking about that statement while watching, wondering what Big Brother used to be about if it wasn't just about a bunch of people living together. 12 weeks of the new version that isn’t about anything has helped me to realize that the main selling point of the old Big Brother was that it was a wry commentary on the state of celebrity obsessed Britain. It used to display all the worst excesses of celebrity, with faded stars hoping to rekindle their careers and normal people doing anything to get their few moments of fame. But it let celebrity obsessed viewers get their fix of shallowness, while at the same time it let discerning viewers distance themselves from the unsavoury antics on screen because the format invited us to be cynical.
So we could enjoy watching Michael Barrymore end his comeback with one non-pc comic routine, or George Galloway destroy his political career with a cat impersonation. And we could delight in watching Katreya's comic cookie monster persona crumble over 3 months and enjoy seeing her evicted in her nightgown to a baying mob revelling in her distress.
It was cruel; it was cynical; it was a freak show. But it was unique and it was about something. It put up a mirror to society and that reflection was often an uncomfortable sight when it forced us to consider our opinions on race, gender, class, disability. Now that element has gone leaving something that's not vastly different to most of the other shows that celebrate the vacuous and promote the inane in the name of selling magazines. You can still find interesting insights into human behaviour, but you have to look hard because the cynicism has gone, and now we're supposed to be impressed by celebrities and the desire to be famous no matter how little talent you have.
So this year the five people who are left in the house all dream of being a celebrity despite having no talent and, like most years, they're all repellent in their own ways. In my view the least likely to win is Tom, who followed the classic under the radar approach and so who has done nothing for 9 weeks other than grin. He could be the most instantly forgettable housemate ever.
Next out will be Louise, who ploughed the tedious furrow that most glamour models have trodden post Imogen, BB7 of keeping your head down, have a pretend romance with the stupidest bloke in the house, and then when you come out bag a footballer or nine. She could well be the dimmest housemate they've ever had and she has only gone to prove that the housemates who act dim are acting because when people are really dim, they are just plain dull.
Next out will be Jay, who I had pegged for the winner on opening night, something that's irritated me ever since. Jay went for the classic warts 'n all approach in the hope of proving he was an ordinary working class bloke from Up North. His warts have provided most of the jaw dropping moments including his tales of his romantic exploits in Thailand and his bizarre obsession with bodily functions, bodily secretions, electrical appliances, and courtship rituals usually only seen on nature programs. His chances were probably ruined by his decision to use a mug in a manner it wasn't designed for (I missed that episode, thankfully), to use a freezer in a manner it wasn't designed for (the alleged dump was edited out to stop OFCOM going into meltdown), to use a pillow in a manner it wasn't designed for (I wish they'd edited out his revolutionary new bottom wiping technique), and to use Louise in a manner she had been designed for but which nobody other than Louise's agent would have expected her to tolerate for the sake of securing a magazine deal and a potential advertising contract with Andrex.
With those out of the way, it'll come down to a battle between Alex and Aaron, who are both keen students on the art of winning Big Brother and who have both employed perfect winning game plans. Alex has used a combination of several previous housemates' methods. From Sophie, BB10 she's gone for pretending you're not a glamour model by dressing in chunky sweaters, telling everyone you're not a glamour model and never will be one, and befriending the gay one. From the twins, BB8 she's pretended to like Barbie and from most winners she's pretended to be so terminally stupid she can't move and talk at the same time. This has provided some unintentionally amusing moments such as her discussion with Harry about post-renaissance Dutch painters until she remembered her character wouldn't know about such things.
Viewers love dumb blondes and they'll probably vote for her to stop Aaron winning. He's the only one who has shown vulnerability and been tested by the challenge. In fact he's probably the first housemate to show some complexity of character on the show in the last decade and without him I'd have stopped watching on launch night the moment the housemates started forgetting how their characters were supposed to behave. After 9 weeks I still don’t know what to make of him, his sweaters, his interest in boy bands, his mood swings, his long silences, his bad dancing, but for the simple fact that I don't understand him, I hope he wins. He won’t though.
After that, it's a long 8 week wait until the next celebrity version starts and I can wrestle again with the probably unanswerable question of: why on earth do I keep watching this nonsense?