Wednesday, 14 August 2013
The Fall and Rise of Big Brother
In a few days the 14th series of Big Brother will limp to an end with the crowning of its latest champion. As usual, the winner will be the least offensive out of the group of housemates who were too boring to be evicted. To my surprise, this year has been entertaining, although in fairness my expectations were low.
The show’s glory days are a long way in the past, although opinions differ as to when the decline started. Some say the show died as a social experiment half-way through year 1 when Nasty Nick wrote on a sheet of paper, some think it died in year 5 on fight night, but for me it died in year 8 when Brian Belo pretended he’d never heard of Shakespeare. After that it was diminishing returns until after series 11 Channel 4 axed the show on the basis nobody was watching any more.
Channel 5 brought the show back from the dead and for a while few people thanked them. Their take on the celebrity version featured something called Jedward, which involved two ignorant kids running around screaming. While the traditional version featured young and beautiful models who were slightly more inane and slightly more famous than the celebrities. The show was edited in the most annoying manner possible with musical montages, unfunny commentary, and production techniques designed to disguise the fact that nothing interesting was happening. I was set to finally do what I’d been threatening to do for the previous 5 years and give up on the show, but then something unexpected happened: the show got better.
The improvements started with the celebrity version with the simple process of recruiting some people I’d heard of such as Julian Clary and that woman who was married to Tim Healy. Best of all, Michael Madsen went in the house and he turned out to be just as amusing as you’d expect. The moment when he accidentally cut his ear while shaving probably saved the show for me, although the moment was slightly tarnished by the commentary pointing out this was an ironic shaving injury.
Building on this success, this year’s traditional version finally started to work out what makes the show tick. The presenter changed to someone who can present, the musical montages were reduced, the commentary became more deadpan, the editing started letting us understand events and best of all, the producers accepted that the show lives or dies on having interesting housemates. Admittedly, they are all awful examples of humankind, but many of them were different to anything we’ve seen before and so they were worth watching.
We had a new age hippy lesbian who talked to animals and communed with nature, and who showed how harmonious she was by spitting everywhere and arguing with everyone. We had every tabloid’s dream housemate of the gay copper who’d worked on the Jimmy Savile case, who accurately worked out every twist the show could throw at the housemates, usually just after Big Brother revealed the twist. I miss his cries of, ‘I knew it!’ We had older housemates who had fun until the effect of living with young and stupid people wore them down. We had the nicest bloke in the world, who was so nice to everyone he turned the whole house against him. And we had several housemates with more words tattooed on their bodies than were in their vocabulary. Sadly the voting public removed all of them for the crime of being interesting and the ones who are left are the usual mob.
We have Sam, who is a low-rent version of Pete, BB7 in that he stays out of trouble, has a disability, and has had anything dubious he’s done edited out. He’s the current favourite. We have Gina, who’s a low-rent version of Kat, BB9 in that she’s invented a reality character to play, in this case the posh bitch. Like Kat she was the favourite, but the cumulative effect of her over-confidence and the growing feeling that she’s only pretending to like Ferrero Rochers and other classy things means she’ll probably go out to boos. Dexter is a low-rent version of Rex, BB9 except Rex really was an arrogant game-player whereas Dexter is a sad creep pretending to be an arrogant game-player. He’ll probably win.
Making up the rest are the twins, who are a low-rent version of the twins, BB8, except they don’t need subtitles. As a Will Hay fan I wanted to like them as they look like Will’s sidekick Graham Moffatt, and accordingly they’ve rehearsed dozens of comic routines to entertain us with. The effect of a twins comic routine is something like watching Keith Lemon and Ricky Gervais on a loop for 3 months, while having root canal work without an anaesthetic. Then there’s Sophie, who was billed as a low-rent version of Jade, BB3, presumably in the hope she’d make racist comments and become inexplicably popular, but it’s turned out she’s a low-rent version of Sophie, BB10 in that she’s playing the stupid bottle-blonde card. The previous Sophie pretended to be so stupid she didn't know how to spell her own name and won; this one won’t.
That leaves Charlie, who is a not a low-rent version of anyone and is something we’ve never seen before on Big Brother, which in her case is not a good thing. She’s hopelessly self-absorbed, has endless reserves of self-pity, can talk for ever about her favourite subject of Charlie while never actually saying anything, and is so tactless she’d probably shock Prince Phillip with her faux pas. She could well be the wettest housemate ever. She’ll probably go out to boos on Friday, after which she’ll write to everyone in the audience thanking them for being rude to her because she deserves it.
This mixing of the old style of housemate with the new is also the policy for the production of the show. One of the reasons for the show’s decline is that reality tv has moved on. When Big Brother started it was exciting watching a dozen people sitting around in a house for three months, but slowly it dawned on viewers that the show was just a dozen people sitting around in a house for three months. They wanted more and so scripted reality shows became the norm and took over, while Big Brother with its organic reality started to look dull. So this year stage managed most of the reality and that ensured a steady diet of conflict, but not so much that it lost the reality, and the reason for that is a simple one.
The thing about Big Brother is that a show that was seemingly about watching a dozen people sitting in a house for three months was never really about that. The people being watched weren't the housemates; it was us. The show throws up a mirror to society and by our reactions to the events in the house, we learn something about ourselves. This was most obvious in the Daley and Hazel saga, which grew into the most controversial incident since the Race Row.
The previous two Channel 5 series avoided controversy for fear of inciting the wroth of the complaining generation who watch Big Brother in the hope they’ll be offended and so keep OFCOM on speed dial. In BB12 someone apparently took a dump in a freezer, but this and all discussion about it was edited out. Now, I have no desire to see someone use a domestic appliance as a toilet, but if it does happen, I’d like to watch and judge and perhaps learn something about human nature. BB13 appeared, allegedly, to have some housemates being, shall we say, less than nice to another housemate who happened to be a different colour, but most of this conflict was edited out. I have no idea what the root cause of this situation was, but I’d like to watch and judge and perhaps learn something about human nature.
BB14 didn’t shy away from controversy, perhaps because this year provided a limited live feed ensuring the producers couldn’t stop reality intruding when viewers had already seen too much. So, after stage managing a situation where two horny people who fancied each other were locked in a room for several days with an unlimited supply of liquor and a limited supply of clothes, the show sat back to see what happened. It didn’t go according to plan. The female housemate flirted with the male housemate and in return the male housemate grabbed the female housemate by the throat and, allegedly, threatened her with physical violence. He was promptly evicted.
Presented with that situation, the reaction of the majority of the viewing public was fascinating as it was the opposite to what it ought to be. The male got sympathy for his plight and the female was blamed because she was a flirt, because she was asking for it, because, well, she was a woman. In the end, she was evicted to the loudest boos since the days of ‘Get Grace out.’ For that incident alone the show regained some of its credentials as a social experiment, because despite all the efforts of the producers to stage reality, sometimes real reality creeps in through the cracks and that reality can be an unsavoury one.