Big Brother’s Big Brain

Jack Kibble-White on why we should take BB7 seriously

First published October 2006

In the summer of 2006, this very website bucked a trend that took hold two years earlier. Tellingly Big Brother fell off the OTT radar back in 2005, but this year one hardy correspondent provided reviews for the show’s entire 13-week run. These were not the kind of commentaries that found their way into the pages of the Star (which generally covered the series from the, “Aisleyne confesses to Richard she’s desperate for a shag” angle), nor the type penned by weekend columnists looking for an easy target for their invective of dark metaphors. No, these reviews were of the type that appeared during Big Brother‘s first couple of series; they actually took the programme seriously, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledged that as well as being a freak show and a platform for brainless and hedonistic behaviour, Big Brother is complex enough to withstand some genuine scrutiny.

In fact, Big Brother is arguably more sophisticated than the series that has supplanted it in the hearts of broadsheet columnists; namely The Apprentice. It will be interesting to see if that show can hold the commentators’ attention for a third year (particularly given its move to BBC1), but it’s difficult not to conclude that somehow there is a degree to which it (at least in its British guise) has succeeded in capturing the breathless previews in Radio Times and the write ups in the better television focused blogs because it’s been able to avoid the vague sense of intellectual self-loathing that inescapably seems to accompany protracted Big Brother viewing.

For sure Big Brother has lost its highbrow credentials, but is this the fault of the programme itself, or are there other factors at work? Could it be that the educated viewer has simply succumbed to an intellectual snobbery that cannot square the notion that the intrigues of a group of people far less intelligent than themselves could nevertheless contain nutritious entertainment? Yes, there’s not much that can be said in defence of the vitriolic baying mob that awaits each evicted housemate, and provides the most striking public representation of the average Big Brother viewer. But then that is only one side to the programme, and the fact it actually has more than one makes it worth taking seriously.

They are many reasons why Big Brother is no longer able to ignite intelligent debate from the public at large in the way it once could; but chief among them has to be the programme’s seemingly deliberate decision to move away from its original aspirations. If you take a look at the first series of Big Brother you’ll see that it’s a very different beast to the one which closed its doors behind a departing winner just weeks ago. Technically, it was a bit of a mess with microphones hanging down in the main living area, and housemates offering entries in a poorly-lit diary room. What’s more, whereas the modern eviction editions are built entirely on the foundations of whatever revelations and gossip the latest ejectee might offer up, in that first year these self-same shows saw fit to include such frippery as regular updates from the “Little Brother guinea pigs” (which if nothing else put a vaguely post-modern spin on the show as a whole, making it more palatable for the type of viewer who might otherwise feel a little ashamed tuning in).

Now while those technical limitations might tell us very little except that Big Brother has grown ever more accomplished over the years, the change in focus that has been visited upon the eviction shows is an indicator of the shift in the series’ intellectual standpoint. These days Fridays are all about the housemate coming face-to-face with the full force of our moral judgement. In fact those editions can only ever satisfy when we feel sure that the Sezers and Maxwells of the house end the post-eviction interview stripped of any lingering self belief that they are in anyway loveable rogues and not just horrible bullies. However, in year one the situation was completely different. As Sada, Andrew and Caroline each left the house, their interviews were akin to quizzing an astronaut about what it felt like to walk on the Moon. We weren’t so much interested in them as people, or indeed in passing judgement on their behaviour, instead we wanted to get an insight in how it felt to be inside this strange social experiment.

Arguably those first set of housemates were better positioned to provide a coherent answer to that question than any of the groups that have followed. Of course, the odd brainbox has slipped in over the preceding years (Shell, Jon Tickle, Dean, Dan and Richard are all very “Big Brother 1″ somehow), however that original 10 were plucked from a subtly different strata of society than the 22 who entered the house this year. While we recognised that Andy, Nichola and Caggy all enjoyed a night on the town, they professed to be about something more than just rampant hedonism and demonstrated a level of understanding about the world around them roughly comparable to your average Guardian reader. By contrast, someone like Lisa from BB7 appears to be defined only by the amount of partying and fighting she can wrack up in one session. As a result it’s difficult to imagine her penning a regular column for Marie Claire (as Mel did after leaving the house), or even hosting her own Louis Theroux style television series (Anna Nolan’s Anna in Wonderland). Furthermore while George Michael felt sufficiently moved to contact the Big Brother production team to invite Caggy out for a drink, it seems inconceivable today that the slightly self-important, neatly bearded world famous artiste would publicly acknowledge that he even knows who Lea (surely the BB7 equivalent of Caroline) is, let alone offer to buy her a pint.

By all accounts the tipping point for Big Brother was series four. After the excesses of a house inhabited by the likes of Jade and PJ, that fourth year demonstrated what looked to be a conscious reining in of the format and an attempt to win back some of the broadsheet respectability lost the previous year. However as history will attest, Cameron, Scott, Nush, Gos and Steph were all pretty dull, and any attempt to make the concept itself the main focus of the show once again were doomed to fail given that interest in the “social experiment” had been exhausted by the end of the second series (by which time we’d been able to observe how “ordinary” people fared in the house, how celebrities dealt with it and how ordinary people already familiar with the format behaved). Crucially then, series five – still the most extreme run to date – recognised that any attempts to maintain a relationship with broadsheet columnists would only hamper the programme’s development. As a statement of intent it was telling that in 2004, for the first time ever, the production team drafted a criminologist onto their panel of experts. Now the fun could really begin.

For those who’ve stuck with Big Brother since then, there have undoubtedly been some gripping moments of television, but have post-Tickle editions delivered anything worthy of our critical attention? For those who’ve been watching closely enough, then clearly it has. In fact one of Big Brother‘s greatest achievements was only possible as a result of the show moving away from its original, more civilised, model. Germaine Greer recently argued that Big Brother is nothing more than a bully. Well that might be the case, but there’s no denying the programme has produced a number of excellent examinations into the issue of bullying. Arguably the most complex and intriguing example occurred during the most recent Celebrity Big Brother. Herein we were able to witness how a specious attempt to adopt the moral high ground could act as justification for some really nasty acts of intimidation. George Galloway and Michael Barrymore ripping Jodi Marsh apart was an illuminating piece of television, not least because the two protagonists clearly believed they were acting in an acceptable way.

In fact watching Galloway exert himself as a conviction politician was fascinating, particularly as the other housemates tried to (in the main unconsciously) wrestle with the contradiction of him appearing to demonstrate all of the characteristics of someone on the side of the righteous, while all the time employing pretty distasteful tactics in order to enforce his various beliefs. This sense of confusion afforded him the upper hand for most of his time in the house, and it was only when Preston and some of the others (including of, course, one-time Galloway foil Barrymore) found some clarity in their own minds that the politician’s intimidating behaviour was finally exposed. In terms of television’s portrayals of bullies it was as multi-faceted as they come, and as a narrative it was completely absorbing.

Then of course there was Shahbaz in this year’s Big Brother. He proved impossible to live with, but the extent to which he left his fellow housemates with little choice but to actively ostracize him, leant a different complexion to the programme’s portrayal of bullying. Who were the bullies, the housemates for shunning Shahbaz, or Shahbaz for effectively forcing the others into that behaviour? It’s probably not surprising that less than a week or so after the self proclaimed “Paki Poof”‘s departure, Richard (one of the more self-aware members of that household) found himself in a state of distress as he was forced to question whether or not his own actions (in this case the way in which he treated Imogen) constituted bullying or not. The beauty of Big Brother of course, is that there are no obvious answers, but the audience is allowed to exert judgement anyway – every eviction night.

Although the show’s diet majors on drama, and in particular confrontation, there is something indefinably wholesome about how it makes us care about minutiae; be it trying to fathom the reason why Ahmed continuously prowls around the garden or gaining genuine pleasure out of watching Glyn boil an egg. Such moments are not confined to Big Brother (James Dreyfuss constantly trying and failing to make an edible risotto in the first series of Hell’s Kitchen also springs to mind), but with its extended television exposure and analytical forums in the shape of Big Brother’s Little Brother, Big Brother’s Big Brain and Big Brother’s Big Mouth, such topics are often explored in detail. These whimsical distractions arguably help shape the characters into something more than wannabe celebrity ciphers. In fact, the time given over to showing Jason obsessively completing his exercise regime betrays an appetite to flesh out these characters in a manner that would now be considered quite audacious in the realms of television drama. But more than that, it suggests the production team recognise the viewer’s role in Big Brother is far from passive and that given enough “pieces of evidence”, we can construct our own views on which housemates we like and which we hate.

In fact it’s probably pretty fair to say that the average Big Brother viewer is more actively engaged with the programme than their soap opera-watching counterpart. Each on-screen exchange is interrogated closely with intonation and body language all scrutinised for a hint of motivation. This has to be the way when you watch Big Brother, as unlike Coronation Street the “characters”‘ true intentions are not made explicit to the viewer through a deliberate frown over someone’s shoulder to denote deception, or a decimation of sideboard crockery to express inner rage.

Writer Steven Johnson points out in his book Everything Bad is Good For You that the average reality TV watcher needs to have a well developed AQ (autism quotient) to be able to keep up with the programmes’ “cognitive demands.” He goes on to add that AQ is “too often ignored when critics evaluate the medium’s carrying capacity for thoughtful content”, and when you think about it, he has a point. Because the intellectual demands of Big Brother are less obvious than say an edition of Balderdash and Piffle we tend to ignore them completely. Yet whereas the latter programme might leave us with a quantifiably increased amount of etymological information, the better editions of Big Brother provide us with an enhanced understanding of human behaviour. But often this feels no more tangible than a vague sense that something about the episode you’ve just seen has caused your brain to whirr into activity.

The other great thing about the whole issue of seeing genuine emotions and motivations being played out on screen is that Big Brother demonstrates that people’s personalities can provoke inconsistent reactions within us. Walt Whitman probably wouldn’t have said that Nikki is “large, she contains multitudes”, primarily because she doesn’t, but Big Brother is one of the few television programmes in which your opinion of its “characters” can change drastically from day to day while the “characters” themselves actually remain pretty consistent. In this respect the series is capturing an element of real life that is rarely portrayed on screen. Television drama has taught us that if we switch from admiring Fitz in Cracker to despising him and then back again that must be because he is a complicated person. From this we can determine that it’s probably fair to say that in the main, programme makers (be it on fictional or factual television) present characters as pretty rigid and unchanging people (certainly with regard to personal morality).

Conversely, Big Brother reveals that in the real world, it is actually pretty normal for us to hold a constantly changing opinion of someone, and that vacillating between thinking Mikey is a sound geezer and deciding he’s a boorish thug doesn’t suggest in any way that he is a multi-faceted, complex individual. Perhaps this is why we find it hard to recognise the housemates in the weeks after they leave the house. It’s not because they are necessarily behaving any differently from how they did when they were on Big Brother, it’s just that they have now been afforded a static personality by the media in order to make them easier to commoditise – meaning that the Glyn we saw on our screens for 13 weeks has subtly transformed into the accident-prone and endearing character now appearing on the pages of Heat magazine.

But of course to suggest Big Brother is a programme that exists solely to provide the masses with food for thought on matters pertaining to social interaction would be ridiculous. It’s worth pointing out too that those editions that major on covering the housemates’ foibles are probably made, not because the producers’ feel strongly inclined to broadcast an intimate character study of Jason or Glyn, but because nothing noteworthy has happened in the house that day. Channel 4′s agenda in making Big Brother is clear and has been ever since the fifth series. But just because the programme’s main driver is now no more complex than a desire to see what happens when you put a number of extreme personalities into a confined space, does not mean the end product in itself is inherently brainless.

To disapprove of Big Brother is one thing, but to assume that just because you disapprove of it, it must therefore be completely without value is a conclusion that is worthy only of the most ignorant Big Brother contestant.