Big Brother

Friday, June 27, 2003 by

Desperation or a masterly piece of innovation? The jury would appear to be still deliberating, and it’s perhaps a bit soon to decide conclusively upon the effect of the “housemate swap” which occurred in Big Brother at the very end of the fourth week, but there’s no doubt it has re-wagged the tongues.

Audiences for Channel 4′s darling have been catastrophic since the opening fortnight was complete, with viewers pointing out, rightly, that they are not stupid when it comes to accepting gimmick disguised as originality, although their lack of brains when evicting the only two truly compelling housemates over the previous weekend would suggest that Big Brother feel they can get away with any old rubbish if their staple audience consists predominantly of idiots.

But was it rubbish? There is little doubt that a swarm of viewers who decided to give BB a miss after the appalling ejections of Federico and Jon may have been prompted into a change of mind when they read in the tabloids the next day that another housemate was going to be whisked away to an equivalent show in a foreign clime, in a BB version of the school exchange trip.

The idea could have been really awful had each house’s most half-hearted, undistinguished tenant made the switch. Though not able to comment on the traits of the housemates who stayed put in South Africa (as it turned out to be), certainly the interloper who wandered into the UK house via the reward room on the Monday morning was hell bent on making an impact.

Gaetano, a Ugandan law student, ended up providing a great fillip for BB Elstree during his short stay. Jovial, carefree and genuinely unwilling to acknowledge the existence of cameras, he wandered into the huge abyss after Gos (just dressed) and Steph (midway through cleaning her teeth) opened the reward room door in response to an innocuous tannoy announcement stating it was accessible. As the reward room was strictly out of bounds except on Saturday nights, and knowing that one of their own housemates had gone in there the day before but having no clue why, they headed straight for it, and the semi-horrified surprise in the voice of Gos as he said “hello” to the stranger who greeted him actually smacked of real drama, though the smile of Gaetano and the embarrassed nature of Steph, toothbrush in mouth, quickly reverted the scene back to a playful semi-farce.

Research was quickly carried out on the South Africa show and it turned out that Gaetano had already been involved in a sexual frisson with one of the female housemates during his spell there. Although he was picked in a “proper” manner to come to the UK by winning a task, you could almost hear the BB staff’s cheers of joy when they realised what sort of character had come in to provide the shake-up, even if they didn’t necessarily feel that they needed any sort of clumsy fumble to trigger it.

Big Brother 4 badly needed a character, of any sort. They had one with Jon and they had one with Federico, but despite multiple nominations, neither of them had behavioural idiosyncrasies of the type which would make any other housemate dislike them, never mind despise or despair of. In comparison with the tension and knife-throwing within BB3 (Adele and Jonny; Tim and Sophie; Sandy and just about everyone), BB4 had been all too clean and sporting thus far. Of course, there is no suggestion that Gaetano was specifically given instructions to be controversial, even though he had nothing to lose – he couldn’t be nominated or evicted from either house as a reward for winning the task – but cause a rumpus is exactly what he did.

The housemates welcomed him warmly and after settling in and unpacking his hand luggage, he informed them of the situation, thereby finally bringing the six remaining Brits out of the dark – he was here for a few days in exchange for one of their housemates, who at the same time was informing a gaggle of Africans (of varying nationalities – BB is continental there) of the self-same scenario. As the penny dropped, five housemates voiced their surprise, while one, crucially, voiced her disquiet.

Instantly Gaetano had made an impact, albeit an unwitting one. He was parroting a BB script in order to bring his new comrades up to speed, but the reaction of the increasingly volatile chain-smoker Tania to the news that the UK housemate who had taken part in the swap deal was now exempt from being nominated (but could still make their own nominations via phone) was almost an entire hissy fit. This was clearly a natural reaction from a guard-dropping young woman, but also a costly one.

The housemate who had benefited was Cameron, whose survival from eviction less than 48 hours prior to his frantic bag-packing session made for one of the most hectic periods of excitement, involvement and engagement which any BB contestant had gone through, especially when you consider that in between these two major occurrences, he had also won the Saturday night game (sticking pins into countries on a world-map) and had to choose all bar one of the others to join him for an 8-course meal. Now, as he hotfooted it to South Africa, one of his housemates was incandescent with rage and hugely envious of this new adventure he was experiencing.

Whether Tania had just seen personal plans to nominate Cameron scuppered or not we may never know, but certainly Gaetano was wide-eyed at her juvenile reaction and the viewers had another reason to hope for her nomination that week, along with her general lethargy, fondness for preening to camera, her penchant for over-tarting herself, and her loud-mouthed, histrionic actions at the dinner table the previous night. Despite the 24-hour gap between nominations being made and their being publicised, when Tania’s name was announced (along with the two other females), it was hardly a bombshell revelation and the bookmakers swiftly quoted odds which suggested that Tania was toast.

If Tania then felt she needed to alter her demeanour in order to increase her chances of staying (though in the Diary Room, she’s always claimed ambivalence with regard to her ultimate destiny in the house), she didn’t show it, as proved with the onset of the most newsworthy bit of headline-throttling dialogue of BB4 since Jon’s sci-fi monologue in the first week.

Noticing that Tania liked her food, Gaetano said she was like “a piggy”. He later explained that this was not a major insult within his culture, but also accepted that to a not unusually vain, self-conscious ex-model who watched her figure resolutely that this was perhaps a bit of a faux-pas. Certainly Tania’s distraught reaction to a comment that was meant to be harmless and not detrimental was one to please the slightly more sadistic viewer, and the effect of the comment rather than the comment itself prompted many a sub-editorial scream in the media. After all, had Tania laughed off the remark, it would have gone barely noticed.

This occurred after the nominations had been made and announced, and as Tania bawled her eyes out in the girls’ bedroom and stated she wanted to leave, it was now absolutely cut and dried that her wish would be granted on the coming Friday. The last nail had been hammered. While Tania could never have known that the comment was in a light-hearted context in Gaetano’s culture of linguistics, one still had to feel a little sympathetic for her, especially as she is in no way physically unattractive and possesses an hourglass figure which most of the spiteful girls who then voted for her to be dumped would kill to own.

Tania’s problems were with attitude, lack of humour, limited alcohol capacity (always the first to do or say something foolish in drink) and her obviously unnecessary narcissism, with the multiple daily applications of blusher providing many a talking point in homes, offices, pubs and on Big Brother’s Little Brother (thereby showing how few inspirational events had actually taken place in the five weeks for Dermot to chew over). She latterly became a neo-Jade – undisciplined, irritable, mouthy, overreactive and dim. Jade, however, didn’t benefit from good looks, but did evoke viewer sympathy within a much more edgy and ego-filled abode, and was consequently fortunate to have less likeable people competing against her (Lynne, Adele) each time she was nominated, enabling her to stay the course, work on her character and emerge a star. One must bear in mind Tania’s age and apparent lack of rounded life experiences (humping Peter Andre is not such) but her BB stay ended up as a hellish one after a fairly functional start. Also, while Tania’s tantrums and insecurities raised her status as the house’s most watchable and interesting dweller following the top two’s dismissal, the balance has to be struck between tolerable and intolerable voyeurism, and to keep her in to endure further torment and dig deeper holes in the name of entertainment would have been far too cruel. Do, however, expect her to get a lorryload of modeling work.

Tania polled 72% of the vote, screamed with real delight when Davina McCall announced her name and couldn’t wait to get out. Smiling above a mild chorus of catcalls, she emerged through those impact-choking, guarded sliding doors in a glam top and jeans and looked fantastic. Notably but unsurprisingly, her nemeses Sissy and Federico stayed away from the eviction programme, though unlucky Anouska, unpleasant Justine and incomparable Jon all turned out to give their support. She turned out to be an honest interviewee, although the shallow emphasis on her slap, smoking, swearing and sobbing during the chat suggested that the question setting department felt she would be too overawed (not to mention too incapable) of going deeper into the psychological and analytical aspects of her life in the BB house in the same way that Federico and Jon had so articulately managed the previous week.

While the passing gatecrasher sealed Tania’s fate, the other housemates warmed greatly to Gaetano, and his short stay certainly opened the way for BB4 to become semi-watchable again. Meanwhile, Cameron’s status has also been greatly increased, not least because he is immune to nomination for a further week as a result of his impromptu excursion. From what we saw of the South African BB, he settled in quickly, got an identical whooping reaction when he explained what had happened to Gaetano and was treated with a slight element of novelty value and heroism during his tenure. Bearing in mind he also has a novelty value in the UK house, due to his reclusive home and emotional structure, this came as no surprise.

Yet such a complicated and experimental switch in BB practice which led to Cameron and Gaetano hastily packing their bags was done, in the UK at least, with such subtlety and minimalism that it was legitimately touching and enthralling television. Cameron, this unassuming, slightly mollycoddled chap from such a remote neighbourhood, already having to deal with being thrust on to the nation’s stage, only got the gig ahead of anyone else because he responded first to a generic call from Big Brother for “someone” to come to the Diary Room. Although the housemates had been informed that the announcement of their weekly task’s nature would be delayed for 24 hours, they did say that one person would have to undertake an individual challenge. So, mid-morning on Sunday, with most of the house still in bed having consumed considerable quantities of champagne and wine in the reward room the night before, BB asked for that “someone”. Cameron, on his way out of the bathroom, sauntered helpfully in and was then asked whether he would therefore be the one taking the individual challenge. Gasping and self-remonstrating (“I’d forgotten about that!”) he shrugged and concurred, and as the nature of the task was related out loud to him, his facial expressions (which he does so well) ranged from the mildly surprised to the utterly dumbfounded. Mouth opened, eyes popping out, hands covering face and that Scottish accent (which, bizarrely, sometimes sounds more like Welsh) exclaiming his disbelief over and over again. Surprising the viewer as equally as the housemate (after all, you’re always told never to believe what you read in the papers), this turned into touching, classy television, though the fact that the sensitive, thoughtful Cameron was the recipient rather than the belligerent Ray or irresolute Nush made it extra special.

Within half an hour, Cameron had dressed, packed a small bag and headed for the reward room (now decked out like an airport departure lounge) until the fire exit was opened and he wandered out, not to be seen or heard in the UK again for what turned out to be five days. Just before he got his silent beckoning, in a supremely emotive moment akin to that of Alex tightly hugging his confidante Adele immediately after her name had been announced, he picked up the room’s phone (acting as a one-to-one contact between he and BB, so that other housemates couldn’t hear) and while pointing out he wasn’t “a pessimistic person”, asked to pass on his love to his family in the event of a tragic and sudden end to his flight.

It has brought out the best in Cameron and, as a result of this unexpected mission across the hemispheres, he has started to gain ground as an authentic – and deserved – candidate for victory. His survival against Jon and Federico reflected badly on him because by comparison to the two evictees, he had been nothing more than a stoic, sideshow-based interest in the house. This development in BB may lead to the development of Cameron as the lasting presence and image of BB4, especially as, with half of the show now over, there isn’t a lot to hope for from the others in terms of singling themselves out to the public as worthy winners.

Time is still on their side, of course, and the swap deal has grabbed so much of their attention that only Tania went beyond the goggle-eyed astonishment image which Gaetano’s brief presence supplied. In effect, the week has only been about Cameron and Tania, with one ending up out of the house for good, the other ending up out and then in again. The rest were essentially extras.

Having said that, Ray got a formal warning from BB for his over-exuberance, and his tormenting of the girls got far beyond the acceptable at times. There has been a comparison between Ray’s actions and those of Jonny’s with Kate and Jade in the death throes of BB3 last year, but Jonny never set out to offend, demean or unsettle – indeed, his drinking antics with those two were totally asexual and always consensual. Ray’s general temperament is questionable enough to suggest that something will occur which will decide his fate there and then – either as a winner or as a sore failure. In the event of him straightening up his act, he’ll continue to vie with Scott for the doe-eyed endorsements of the physique-fixated female voter.

If the cross-globe advance were to help the ratings for Big Brother, then it will certainly be a remarkable achievement bearing in mind the total apathy of the viewers who were previously ensconced within the screening of a largely piteous collection of bashful, self-aware housemates which ended with potential for disaster, as the two who rose above the surface got their inexplicable marching orders. Yet while the value of the swap deal may have booted BB up the backside, the subsequent antics of Gaetano with Tania, guaranteeing an exit which was already almost certain even before he issued her with the “piggy” label, may have provided a crucial backfiring factor. Tania is now part of BB history, and one can only hope, at this stage, that Cameron has the faculties to benefit and flower from his experiences abroad. With the majority of the rest still resolutely and tediously playing the cautious card, and Ray seemingly hell bent on a forced ejection, Cameron now has become an all-compassing, vital presence within the house, something which looked less than likely and less than attractive a mere week earlier. And maybe his further exemption from nomination could get the backs up of the others, which would be a surefire way of restoking Big Brother‘s fire. Whether it needs it or not, it should do the sister BB a service too, as Gaetano went back to his proper housemates and wildly bragged to them that he twice slept with Nush. He didn’t.

As she closed the eviction show, Davina also informed us that a new person would be entering the house shortly, with expectations that it will a BB veteran from days of yore, which if true, will throw up all sorts of concerns, particularly if the returning hero or heroine goes in as a bona fide contestant with nominating and winning rights equal to the others. If this is the case, it will be someone who was a) popular first time round; b) in need of the exposure; and c) still on good terms with BB and the format thereof. The main objection will be on the basis of experience in playing the game, though many will just claim rounded unfairness and desperation on BB‘s part. Let’s wait.

As week five got closer to becoming week six, the housemates saw Tania safely to the stairs, cracked open two South African bottles of wine (a “spiritual” gift from BB on behalf of Cameron, who obviously couldn’t nip down the offy at the airport) and had a major heart-to-heart about life in the cocoon so far with half of their cohabitants now gone. One hopes that with double evictions and trips abroad already launched without warning upon them, that they stay on their toes for BB‘s next attempt to throw them off course and re-arouse all of those viewers still trying to decipher which tenant possesses the personality.


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