Big Brother

Friday, May 31, 2002 by and

Reaching around for the most unsuitable hook upon which to hang the launch of Big Brother 3, Channel 4 excelled itself by settling on a format that conveniently reminded viewers of all the worst aspects of the show’s history on British screens. Extreme technical incompetence, quite unbelievable presentational ineptitude and an all-too evident desperation on the part of the production team formed a gloomy trio of motifs that resonated throughout the opening 60 minutes. All suggested an absence of confidence on the part of the programme makers, and an obsessive tinkering with rules and regulations born not of constructive experimentation but wide-eyed desperation.

For no immediately obvious reason, the location of the house, the number of housemates, and crucially our means of introduction to them were all changed from the previous two series. So rather than meet the contestants several days into confinement, and via a neatly edited package of highlights, the centrepiece of the opening show was to be nothing less than the housemates’ arrival in the Big Brother premises. One by one. At a painfully slow pace. Followed by 15-odd minutes’ protracted and extremely tedious exchange of pleasantries.

Reflecting on these events as the debut programme hobbled to a conclusion, it was pertinent to note how the mixture of hyperbole, enthusiasm and silliness – most of it from Davina and the crowd, which has decorated each series of Big Brother – had this time been rendered all the more unpalatable and contrived minus the genuine excitement and intrigue of also being presented with a fully-functioning, ready-made community of housemates. Meeting the contestants as individuals rather than already within their mini-society ensured the occasion began on the dullest and most inconsequential note possible. Out of the entire hour’s broadcast, half of it was filler material – pure padding. For an event hyped up left, right and centre, this resembled a major blunder, which the predictable technological blunders (in many respects the only thing genuinely interesting about this edition) and missed cues just amplified all the more.

Davina had got off to a flying start by bungling the revelation of BB‘s first “big surprise”. A notably jumbled link had implied viewers were to be given the chance to vote out one of the housemates that very night. Had this been true, the perversity of having to evict somebody we’d only seen on camera for half an hour or so might have ended up somewhat entertaining – an exercise in shameless subjectivity and the formulation of first impressions. Thankfully on her second go Davina found the plot and explained how the first person would be leaving in one week’s time. She then proceeded to read out a list of 12 telephone numbers in the most indifferent and disinterested tone of voice imaginable. Unfortunately this would continue to render the end of every ensuing edition of Big Brother to date a massive anti-climax and sabotage any attempt at a melodramatic cliffhanger. A hint of a liaison; an insinuation of affection; even an indication of animosity – all were compromised instantly by the requisite read-through of 12 boring phone numbers.

Only a few days old, and you already began to feel the strain of it all. Viewing figures documented record numbers of people tuning in, but it was hard to square this with firstly what was being broadcast, and secondly how it was reaching our screens. Both content and presentation left you feeling little in the way of any sympathy or concern for the contestants. It was difficult to muster any enthusiasm about the group of housemates on display. Not only was there little of interest in their behaviour, but the group composition and demographic made it hard to particularly associate readily with any of them. More so than before, they all appeared on screen totally stereotypical and one-dimensional. Little was shown that suggested they possessed or were allowed to possess any real character or depth.

Yet the degree to which they were playing to the cameras was amusingly contrasted with those all-too familiar sound dropouts, and which still render the business of watching the live feed (on either E4 or, more significantly, late nights on Channel 4) frustrating and ultimately pretty meaningless. Sunita’s decision to leave was, as far as the viewer was concerned, the first real development of any kind in the house. Perhaps it could have been predicted from the pantomime-like feel to proceedings, which kept making you want to shout out “She’s behind you!” Yet the very fact that Sunita couldn’t stand it, and she was in the thick of it, might either imply that perhaps such a pantomime-like set-up is about come to an end – or that we could see things become steadily worse in the days and weeks to come.

When the long-awaited eviction finally showed up, with callers expressing a preference for either Jade or Lynne to leave, there was a decided lack of drama about the subsequent rather hasty, shambolic sentence passed upon Lynne, with coverage switching erratically between the nominees sequestered in the boys’ bedroom and the rest holding court outside. The cumulative effect was a total lack of any real drama or suspense – far more engaging would have been a sequence framed with each housemate trooping one by one through the diary room to cast their vote, give their reasons, then retire. Ultimately there was honestly no sense of relish at justice being done – just relief, maybe, at seeing one of the really irritating contestants out of the picture, someone who’d demanded so much of our time and attention.

As it is, off the back of the first week’s coverage it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm and commitment for the rest of the series. In so many ways the entire programme could and should have been better conceived, packaged and structured by Channel 4. Maybe things will improve once the number of housemates falls into single figures; at the moment, however, the overwhelming feeling is to leave them all to it, and just like Sunita slip out the back door.


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