Big Brother

Friday, July 26, 2002 by

It’s perhaps a case or ironic confluence that a week prior to the debut of Big Brother 3, I was reading Ben Elton‘s book Dead Famous – the story of a reality TV show, House Arrest, where 10 people are confined together in a pressure cooker environment competing for prize money, all thinly disguised caricatures of contestants from Big Brother‘s first series. Throwing in a Ten Little Indians murder mystery storyline for good measure, this was Big Brother played out as macabre black farce, its conventions twisted to its tackiest and sleaziest extremes. Elton’s contempt for the entire set-up was palpable. The Big Brother format will always exude a certain perverse fascination but perhaps it’s a good move on Elton’s part to remind us what reprehensible stuff it all basically is. Indeed, over the past nine weeks, the prescience of his scabrous satire and the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt has been truly uncanny.

Big Brother is getting tougher this year!” announced a slightly jaded-looking Davina McCall at the outset, and one might have hoped for a return to the raw, urgent ethos of the first series as opposed to the more prefabricated and rather too easy-going (aside from the oleaginous Stuart and hyped-up, highly strung Penny) spectacle of last year. However Davina’s statement was immediately a little hard to square with the new flashy house set in the environs of Hertfordshire’s Elstree studios, complete with swimming pool and pebble duvet covers.

Big Brother stood out as an entity very much aware of itself and its viewers and as such the induction of the new group of guinea pigs and the ease in which they slotted into their predesignated roles seemed to connote a certain cynicism and the vague feeling that this time around the show was taking the piss – selecting contestants with little individuality who could be easily flattened out into banal archetypes. Kate was the love interest and unlike Mel, her audition tape had already covered the bases that she was a “girl’s girl” who appealed to the boys thus immediately signifying her as a strong candidate for the eventual winner. Spencer was the laconic alpha male, Jonny the comic relief, Alison the larger-than-life “character” à la Caggy or Bubble (thus ensuring her early eviction). Adele came across as another Anna in the making, astute, self-possessed and determined not to sell herself out to the cameras and upon viewing Jade’s audition video it was obvious that the producers were going for the Helen “dim but lovable” gambit once more. The fact that the two obvious mould-breakers – Sandy the dour Civvy Street personal shopper and Lynne, the mature student who transmogrified into a carping fishwife with a drink in her hand – were also the least likeable did not inspire confidence. Whilst the first week did offer some points of interest – Sunita being the first British contestant to leave the house of her own accord, a budding romance developing between Adele and Lee, and Jade’s hysteria upon realising that her housemates would be deliberating whether to boot out herself or Lynne was an uneasy taste of things to come – it was strangely devoid of the similar curtain-twitching appeal of its predecessors. Big Brother 3‘s initial defining quality was its ironed-out blandness.

Following on from Claire and Josh, Sunita’s replacement Sophie brought similar gravitas to the household, establishing herself as being basically “nice” but not much more than attractive sofa decoration. Nevertheless, the surprise dual departures did appear to kick-start events in the house. Male model Alex initiated a one-man crusade for cleanliness and proper hygiene, delivering a speech that most students would have heard when one of their new housemates turned out to be a complete control freak, and one which only served to alienate his fellow contestants. Effectively distanced from the others and finding solace in an oddly matched friendship with Sandy, the fastidious, pedantic Alex soon developed a bizarre comedic appeal in his clashes with the others. Fault-lines and cliquey relationships seemed to be forming in a similar manner to the initial boys vs girls divide early in the first series. Jonny and his band of happy campers (PJ, Kate, Spencer and Alison) on one side and a more cerebral faction (Sandy, Alex and Adele) on the other, with Lee and Jade floating in between as nominations preyed heavily on the housemates’ minds.

It was gratifying to see that instead of blithely booting out the most fascinating housemate up for eviction as had been done with Sada and Penny in previous years, the British populace exercising some savvy judgement and sacrificing Alison on the altar in order to exacerbate conflict in the house. Whilst it was sad to say goodbye to the jovial Alison, it was intriguing to witness the effect her departure had on the fractured community. Alex and Sandy gaining ground, and the realisation on the part of Spencer, Jonny and Kate that their clique might not be as popular as they thought.

If a primary concern of the second series was to entice the housemates into having sex hence the presence of the “den” (brilliantly parodied in Dead Famous, where the contestants are assigned the task of building their own Indian sweatbox), then this time Big Brother moved to sow seeds of conflict between the group, unveiling the most striking innovation of the third series. Derived from the American version of Big Brother, the “divide” split the house into two separate “poor” and “rich” areas, where one group would make to do with outside washing and cooking facilities as well as basic rations, and the other would live in comparative luxury on a £400 shopping budget. Despite the somewhat arbitrary nature of the selection process (the first five housemates to throw a ball through a basketball net – followed by games of darts and musical chairs), here at last was the gruelling test in group dynamics so sorely lacking from the second series, splitting up the established cliques and forcing the housemates to form new alliances as they survived the week.

A few weeks down the line, Big Brother‘s offer to remove the divide by setting the group a task of answering trivia questions was another well-intentioned conceit, obliging the housemates to actually work to achieve their objectives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the inmates on the poor side who came across the best, being united in adversity and obliged to pool their resources. Certainly, the bandana-clad Alex appeared to be in his element during his “poor” week preparing chickpeas and tending to the outside stove. Sandy, however, was singularly underwhelmed at being stuck on the rich side with his enemies Jonny and Kate. Increasingly disillusioned with the banality of his housemates and the whole Big Brother experience, he took to the house roof and made his great escape. Despite being a forthright presence in the house, nothing quite became Sandy as much as his exit. Either a brilliantly conceived stunt or sheer shallow attention seeking, Sandy’s escape duly highlighted the largely unexciting events in the house so far, reaching a nadir when Jade drunkenly pleasured PJ under the covers in the “poor” bedroom. Compare and contrast with Paul and Helen’s more gentle, credible and palatable flirtations during the previous series. With allegations across the tabloids that the great taboo of sexual relations had finally been broken in the third series, it was a further depressing sign of Big Brother pandering to the lowest common denominator.

With Sandy’s flight and the ejection of Lee (easily the most nondescript housemate), BB3‘s assortment of dramatis personae was further extended by the arrival of the speciously upper class Tim. A genuine product of the Thatcher generation, no sooner had Tim had his feet under the table than the British public had found another figure to love to hate. As Tim sat in the diary room delivering his party political broadcasts to the nation, he came across as self-deluded and petulant. Here indeed was a housemate we could legitimately dislike purely due to his personality rather than behaviour amplified by the editing team. If BB2‘s Stuart had at least been a loving family man, then Tim lacked any such redeeming qualities. The fourth week was mainly focused on the rival elements in the house, as the “rich” and “poor” schism came to a head. The “champions” of each side, Spencer and Alex, faced eviction and fingers were poised on mobiles for the hottest head-to-head since Amma and Paul. Spencer, who had curried favour with his sly sense of humour and rebellious streak (being the first housemate to receive a disciplinary “strike” from Big Brother), was the one to go. True to the semi-iconoclastic status constructed for him during his time in the house, he proved to be an endearingly uncooperative, monosyllabic interviewee for Davina. However, with the clash of the titans now over, there seemed to be little point in continuing to watch as Alex now appeared to have a clear run. Events in the house were however to take a darker, shocking turn.

The unprecedented faction-led bitchiness of series three came to a height during the fifth week with Adele and Jade forming an unholy trinity with Tim and singling out Sophie for some horrifically petty nastiness. Coming into the house at a later stage had immediately put Sophie at a disadvantage with no discernible game plan. Never properly accepted into the community as a whole, she had instead formed individual relationships, predominantly with Lee, which had clearly alienated Adele. After Lee’s eviction, Sophie was an isolated figure in the group with no clear friends to cement her position but some definite enemies. Having previously regarded Sophie from a viewing perspective as “the dull one who came in after Sunita”, it was genuinely chastening and sobering to realise that this was in fact a real human being with real feelings who had committed no offence other than to be herself in a game show and who deserved so much better than living in this unpleasant environment.

Once again, BB3 had demonstrated that there are limits to viable voyeurism and Sophie confessing her unhappiness to Jonny in the garden was easily the most distressing moment in the entire run of Big Brother. As Kate nobly stepped in to sort out matters and Sophie and Jade appeared to resolve their differences, it was heartening that Sophie so effectively managed to break the mould of previous intruder housemates and complete her time in the house as a genuinely engaging participant who inadvertently changed the course of the entire third series, precipitating a wave of antipathy towards Jade, Adele and Tim. Although being voted out when up against Jonny, Sophie emerged butterfly-like from the Big Brother cocoon, coming across as pleasant, demure and elegant and her post-eviction interview was one of the best ever. For once, the crowd’s cries of “Get Jade Out!” which, brilliantly, was overheard by the housemates, seemed genuinely righteous.

Before we move on, a few words about Jade Goody. Did she slip through the psych-check net, or was she caught? Jade’s early demeanour and conduct, treading a taut line between endearing immaturity and being plainly aggravating, had failed to win the affection of the viewers leading to her facing the housemates’ vote alongside Lynne. Her subsequent histrionics was the first disturbing warning sign that BB3 would be a bumpy ride. Why had the producers selected a contestant who was rather obviously insufficiently equipped to deal with the trauma of eviction? In the heightened atmosphere of the Big Brother house, Jade has of course been somewhat demonised. Her alcohol-fuelled antics would not look out of place inside any nightclub. Her sustained spiteful diatribes against Sophie, egged on by Alex and Adele’s laughter, appeared to establish Jade as anxious for acceptance by her peers and essentially too childish and dumb to be taken seriously as a force for malevolence.

Jade’s coarseness could be pinned down to an alleged background only glimpsed at in Mike Leigh films, and her overall outlook hinted at a side of British culture best glossed over, but her overall unpalatable personality was thoroughly eclipsed by tabloid journalists out for easy point scoring. The Sun’s Dominic Mohan’s scornful highlighting of Jade’s “porcine” visage duly provoked many broadsheet counter-meditations on the unacceptable face of voyeurism. A walking mass of contradictions and extremities, Jade was stupid but shrewd, pretty but grotesque, overweight yet comfortable with her body shape, ignorant but often surprisingly thoughtful, vocal but never acknowledged, good and bad. In a rare moment of reflection in the diary room, Jade eschewed the use of “tictacs” but instead maintained that she has presented all aspects of her personality and people could either like her or not. In a strictly qualified way, Jade’s “game plan” apparently paid dividends, being greeted by cheers and a hug from Davina on her final night eviction. Whether or not she will look back through the videos and learn anything worthwhile from the experience remains to be seen. Jade bestrides BB3 and will remain rightly or wrongly its most multi-dimensional and perversely charismatic contestant.

With concerns over the baptism of fire Jade might face upon eviction, it was interesting to see the media backtrack and switch its attention to Adele. Attentive viewers would have noted her sounding out her housemates’ opinions of each other and then whispering into the ears of her “minions” Alex and Jade. Dubbed “the black widow” on Internet forums, it is difficult to decide whether Adele was genuinely playing a spider’s stratagem or honestly vacillating between contradictory feelings regarding her housemates. Yet she had already accrued sufficient unpopularity to guarantee her eviction when she was nominated. With the possibility that there may be no other chance to evict Adele before the final week, the public got what the public wanted.

Almost like a Christian thrown to the lions, she stepped out of the house that Friday to be greeted by a hate-filled chorus of opprobrium. Another desperately uncomfortable moment to relegate Big Brother to the status of a sick pantomime, it should however be noted that, unlike Mel and Elizabeth in previous years, the contempt shown for Adele’s magnified in-house conduct was not entirely without foundation. Undeniably, the jeering was totally out of proportion and Adele’s evictee status was chiefly as Jade’s scapegoat, but still her role in the bullying of Sophie should not be forgotten. It should also be remembered that during her fracas with the “minging”, varucca-stricken Jade, she was the first housemate to explicitly threaten (sincerely or otherwise) physical violence – “I’ll fuckin’ deck her!” – upon another. You reap what you sow. It was nevertheless a relief to watch Adele apparently unfazed by it all during her interview, conducting herself with dignity. Easily the most calculating (and therefore the most interesting) participant, Adele’s major failing would seem to have been a Nick-like overestimation of her own cleverness – her alleged game plan would’ve been sound enough, if only BB was not being televised. Certainly, in view of the public perception of her, the sight of Adele discussing Othello’s Iago with Alex shortly prior to getting the boot was pleasingly ironic.

Sadly, with the focused and intriguing Adele gone, BB3 had lost any kind of dramatic impetus. The divide was arbitrarily removed the day after Adele left, resulting in an utter loss of import in the housemates’ activities. The task where two housemates agreed to be up for eviction (decided by the drawing of straws) in exchange a video message from their loved ones was utterly pathetic, given that they would shortly be seeing their families anyway and came across as a gimmicky stay of execution for Jade. It was hard to really care as PJ was the next contestant to be spat out of the Big Brother machinery since the aspiring solicitor had made precious little genuine contribution. His sharpness with Jade was later overshadowed by Alex’s drunken vindictiveness and the assertion that he had “rumbled” Adele, being the first to nominate her, was spurious. It was in fact Alison who had first posited the possibility of a duplicitous Adele in her eviction interview. With Jonny now running the show with drinking games, his habit of manhandling the two women in the house disquietingly suggested a closet misogyny that went far beyond a joke. If anything, his mordant bleakness whilst interned on the poor side had been rather more amusing. Alex and Kate were chiefly content to Follow The Van and Jade was now relegated to a faintly grating background noise, comprehensively ridiculed by her housemates. As in previous years, the final few weeks were characterised by a perfunctory, disengaged air. The sole entertaining aspect of waiting for it all to end was to see Tim pontificating in the diary room knowing he would shortly get his comeuppance. When Tim was finally evicted however, his apparent ability to laugh at himself when presented with chest-shaving footage and his hollow bravado facing the booing crowd did merit at least some grudging respect.

It was a welcome relief as the final night finally arrived as it had all become frankly tedious. Whilst one might have expected Alex to have attracted the “girlie” vote that previously secured victories for Craig and Brian, the identity of the winner had, in retrospect, been well signposted. Whereas Alex, Jonny and Jade had all experienced difficulties in the house that influenced their outside popularity, Kate had remained stable throughout, coping with being on the poor side for three weeks with good humour, winning respect for being willing to sacrifice her place on the rich side to reunite the group and becoming a progressively stronger candidate. Her presence in the house somewhat analogous to that of a female Craig, the £70K once more went to the most easily accessible, least ambiguous housemate. Sadly, no one in the third series has truly matched the charisma of previous leading players such as Nick, Anna, Brian, Helen or even second division contenders like Sada, Tom, Narinder or Dean. It seems overall that on the basis of personal appeal, the real winners of BB3 would have to be the likes of Alison, Sophie (who both emerged from the house with good reputations intact) and of course Sunita, who had the good sense to wise up and get out fast.

It would no doubt be ridiculous to compare this run of Big Brother to say, the rotten to the core sensibility of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous film Salo – 120 Days of Sodom, which pushes boundaries of good taste and challenges through alleged allegory issues of audience complicity and voyeurism played out in a confined setting. Yet in its own circumscribed way, BB3 has provided thoroughly shallow, queasy viewing, trading almost exclusively on the grim spectacle of friction and full throttle misanthropy. Amidst the glitter and histrionics of the tawdry final night, it’s too easy to forget the sight of Sophie reduced to tears by in-house bitching, an inebriated Jade being tricked into stripping naked by her housemates and the unsavoury undercurrent of Jonny’s drunken horseplay. This series has indeed offered precious little moments of genuine psychological insight beyond fuelling the fire of media manipulation and misrepresentation, highlighting the nasty underbelly of “reality” TV. The fact that this review ultimately constitutes more of a chronological overview as opposed to being genuinely analytical is telling in itself.

It is impossible to deny that Big Brother has been a magnificent achievement for Channel 4. If the first series was about setting out the stall, benefiting hugely from its comparative freshness, then that’s not to say that the follow-ups didn’t offer anything of merit. The second series showcased the virtues of generally positive collectivity and the third depicted the pretence of community amidst thinly disguised tension and nastiness. It’s difficult to conjecture what a fourth run would genuinely bring to the format. All angles and possible trajectories for a community of housemates have now been comprehensively explored. Davina is allegedly thinking of moving on to new projects. Let’s hope they have the sense to quit while they’re ahead.


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