Big Brother

Saturday, June 16, 2001 by

Really it was inevitable that the merits of Big Brother 2 would be regarded with suspicion. It is a general rule of thumb in television that second series of programmes tend quite simply to not be as effective as the originals. As the audience attains a greater familiarity with a programme’s central concepts and characterisations, its innovations are systemically blunted, their potency all but dissipated. A number of fictional antecedents (Widows, Queer as Folk) all spring readily to mind. Certainly, the recent chain of events in the Big Brother house – the departure of the undisputed star of the show (the winningly daffy Penny), the arrival of an 11th housemate and the re-emergence of the dreaded hot tub all engendered a vaguely depressing sense of formulaic déjà vu.

Despite the superficial shift from the stripped-down heightened aesthetic of the original series to the more stylised shag pad environment this summer, it seems that on the whole we’re quite happy to sit down to watch more of the same. Unlike other reviewers, I do work in an office with a water cooler and there at least Big Brother 2 has been a palpable hit. Brian, Narinder, Stuart, Amma and Bubble provoking just as much debate and controversy as Nick, Mel, Darren, Claire and Craig, and so far it has been enjoyable to trace the evolution from Sada, Caroline and Anna to the eccentric, exuberant Penny, feisty, forthright Narinder and calm, capable Elizabeth. Isn’t it intriguing that just like the first series, the women are so much more multifaceted and interesting than the blokes?

Much of Big Brother‘s potential is of course derived from its dramatis personae than its actual structural conventions. Round the clock web access and live E4 coverage is all very well but overall the onus is upon those lucky 11 to interact and upon the programme-makers to ensure those interactions make for arresting television. As noted during the first series, a key factor in Big Brother‘s success lies in its malleability. The 11 contestants are no longer three-dimensional individuals, but have become fuzzily defined editorial creations whose actions can be interpreted and adapted to suit the preferences of both viewers and editors. “Your bad points are noted, put away, brought out and accounted for on nomination day,” observed a distressed Narinder in the diary room, suggesting that she and her fellow inmates may in fact be somewhat less attuned to the programme’s format than one might have expected.

It must have seemed like a road to ratings gold therefore, when whilst cosily ensconced with Brian in the girls’ bedroom for a late-night gossip, Narinder figuratively fingered winking Stuart as a possibly “dangerous” contender out to eliminate his rivals. Since tried and trusted formulae do work, then why not use them again? Certainly the “arsehole” incident with Penny appeared to set alarm bells ringing in the heads of his housemates, securing his place on the nominations list. Having sat stony-faced observing his fellow contestants, he later sealed his fate in the jacuzzi, attempting to high-handedly excise Amma’s contributions to a conversation between the guys. In contrast to “more cunning than a pack of foxes” agent provocateur Nick however, Stuart has come across as a very straightforward individual, not genuinely given to underhand personal dealings, but with a rather off-putting authoritarian streak and propensity for alcohol-fuelled offensiveness, acting as an injured party when someone calls him on it. “I did not give you permission to speak to me like that,” he intoned somewhat piously to Penny. Clearly C4 were happy to give this spa-side spat exaggerated significance and build it up as “high drama” but as in all genuine human relationships, isolated moments such as this are no true reflection of what two people really think of each other. “I don’t want to be misrepresented,” insisted Stuart as he tried to make an admittedly facile and unpersuasive apology to Amma, being comforted in the den by Elizabeth and Dean. Sorry, mate, Channel 4′s editors seem to have done a pretty good job of that already.

Despite the C4 broadcasts also revealing Stuart’s flipside as a loving husband and father, it seemed this was not enough to stop an amazing 86% of the voting public (about 900,000 phone calls) chucking him out. In spite of wife Sian admitting to “having a giggle at home” at Elizabeth unsubtly flirting with her hubby, Stuart’s post-eviction interview was decidedly nonessential viewing. Certainly in comparison with Penny, he seemed rather cold, charmless and not especially deserving of the screen time lavished upon him here. You genuinely felt that you wanted to stay in the house to see how Brian, Narinder and Amma were reacting to the departure of their bete noire rather than listen to Davina McCall perfunctorily endeavouring to extract the good oil as the Big Brother machine grounded to a temporary halt.

With the departures of two live wires, it remains to be seen whether any further sparks will ignite and kick-start events in the house, which according to the brief five minute update at the end of the eviction interview, appeared to be reaching a relaxed equilibrium. In the end, it was probably in Penny’s own best interests to leave as life in the house seemed to be making her more highly strung with each day. With Stuart’s eviction, one could not help but wonder if a major catalyst for tension had been hastily nipped in the bud. If the Nasty Nick “plot” had developed as a compelling back story amidst the weekly rituals of tasks and nominations and followed through to a lovingly lingering gripping dénouement in the first series, then Big Brother 2 in contrast displays no genuine inclination to embrace the implications of its own “storylines” and “characterisations” to its ultimate detriment. (Though watching Amma’s genuine distress on Thursday night’s programme proved that voyeurism can only be taken so far.) Series two may very well turn out to have some hidden weapons in its arsenal – Josh has so far not delivered on his promises of “nudity, nocturnal activities and naughtiness” but might do so when he and Brian get it together, Narinder may enjoy some more claws-out, camp-as-Christmas bitching sessions with “Hilda” or Elizabeth could reveal her true colours as an arch schemer out for the £70K at all costs – but the disconcerting possibility that this time around Big Brother has shot off its bolts far too early remains all too prevalent.

On balance however, the past week’s Big Brother has ably provided some diverting if ultimately inconsequential viewing that highlights the genuine potential the series has to offer. Pressed under glass for us all to see this week was a microcosm of human emotion. We’ve seen friendship (Narinder and Brian’s often genuinely funny double act), conflict (Stuart and Amma locking verbal swords), trouble at the top (Dean and Elizabeth briefly bemoaning the burden of responsibility as Helen asks the latter if it is possible to bake biscuits in an ovenproof dish) and even glimpses of the grotesque from a cross-dressing Paul and cider-sodden Helen. The programme has once more demonstrated it does not function within any clearly defined idiom, rather reasserting its identity as a melting pot of genres from game show, psychological investigation (nice to see Confidence Lab‘s Dr Sandra Scott again) to pure soap opera, simultaneously reaffirming and subverting the values of each.

Big Brother may not be anything but a human zoo, but at least, to its credit, it doesn’t try to pretend the bars aren’t there.


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