Big Brother

Friday, July 28, 2006 by

Big Brother is a daring old stick, it has to be said. A programme which exists purely for being live and unpredictable, and still it chucks innovations our way without any cast-iron proof that they would work.

Well, the latest twist, as teased by Davina McCall as she completed her interview with evictee Jayne last week, worked exceptionally well.

Firstly, it led to some dramatically real and yet often tender moments between housemates which the humanists among the audience could openly appreciate without feeling the need to protest.

Secondly, it got rid of Spiral.

“I’m not normally like this,” whined the sacrificial Dubliner in the Diary Room as he struggled to accept that the odd person in the BB house hadn’t taken kindly to him. Clearly he’d forgotten the insults, outbursts, furious rows, overreactions and misogyny which he had instigated over previous weeks.

He might have been unfortunate when one looks through the nomination process, but as much as the rules can be bent to suit a housemate’s own needs, BB can subvert those rules to put a less valid housemate through the boundary. Spiral only got one nomination, but is now out of the game.

After starting the week by waking the tenants with Queen’s unmemorable Friends Will Be Friends (to which only uptight Mancunian Michael knew the words), BB asked the 10 housemates to pair up with their “best friends” in the house. Spiral and Michael ended up together, largely because the instruction brought it home to them that they had struggled to cling on to the coat tails of any one individual since nipping through the Diary Room from next door. As they watched the others beetle around and pair up easily – Imogen and Susie, Glyn and Mikey, Pete and Richard, Aisleyne and Jennie – they were left with Hobson’s choice. Both seemed shruggingly content with each other, possibly due to a basic sense of solidarity since the Next Door project ended with Jonathan leaving via the front door and Spiral receiving a warm welcome from the main house as executioner Aisleyne fled in tears.

And it all ambled along very nicely. Each time music was played on the speakers (comradeship songs like You’ve Got a Friend or I’ll Be There For You) housemates were required to hug. The female duos and Pete and Richard had no problem with this; Glyn and Mikey preferred a type of hug which involved moving around at high speed doing a playground-esque Star Wars movement, mainly so they could avoid any jibes about homoeroticism from wind-up merchant Richard. Spiral looked uncomfortable at first but soon accepted that hugging a man, even a gay man, was not a compromising or dreadful thing to do on television. Sometimes the music would start during sleeping hours, leading to the oddly unwelcoming sight of people dancing unrhythmically in a state of undress, which allowed Richard an easy stab at the other men. All very sweet thus far.

A member of each couple had to write a song for the other which would then be performed, serenade-like, for the rest to watch and squeal at, with the aid of a random musical instrument. It proved that if the decorative but entirely uninvolved Imogen (unbelievably the last surviving female from the original seven) wanted a recording contract out of the BB experience, she wasn’t going to get one. Even under ironic terms would her musical dreams not be lived, so bad was she as she sang something gruesome at an embarrassed Susie. Spiral, who wrote his song for Michael with a kid’s xylophone and lots of cursing, proved that the description of himself as a rapper was pushing it at best. Later he confirmed it by trying to make up raps on his own about anything which had happened, as if attempting to showcase his talents, succeeding only in showcasing the fact that he is completely talentless.

Spiral, already coming across as graceless and awkward by now, killed any lingering sympathy from the public when Pete – already in a band in the real world – used a basic synthesiser to write a musical billet doux to Richard which was crude, funny and came with both a hook and scanning. It got wild applause. Richard loved it. Spiral had a face like a bashed crab while the others guffawed. Maybe he was angry at himself, but we could still add jealousy to his ever-expanding list of defects.

Later came the gifts. BB asked each housemate to suggest a gift or gifts at no more than £10 in total for their best friend to receive. While Susie enjoyed her pink frilly cowboy hat and hardline Welsh nationalist Glyn saw the joke in the England T-shirt, Spiral was distinctly underwhelmed when Pete’s gift to the predatory Richard was unveiled – a smiley picture of the Dubliner in a heart-shaped frame. Richard proceeded to wear it from the V of his zipped top for the rest of the week, and Spiral’s face fell further and more earth was scattered on his grave.

Then Monday arrived. Nomination day.

BB hadn’t mentioned nominations and although the natural inquisitors like Mikey and Richard had wondered out loud whether the “best friends” outlook would include nominations in some way, nothing had been explained by the time Aisleyne and Jennie were called from the garden (not via the ritual method of formally gathering everyone in the lounge beforehand) and told in the Diary Room that they were now to nominate one housemate and could discuss and decide together there and then.

They plumped for Spiral as Jennie’s reasons for disliking him (a real tension and obvious mutual ignorance) was harsher a reason than Aisleyne’s desire to pick Michael, although Spiral’s inability to accept that Aisleyne was not sexually interested in him made this choice easier for her to take. Ultimately, the newfangled nomination laws would make this specific decision immaterial, but immediately Spiral’s goose had been cooked. Glyn and Mikey chose Susie for old-hat reasons of bossiness and mumsyish tendencies; Imogen and Susie chose Michael on hygiene grounds; Michael and Spiral themselves aimed at Richard because of Michael’s clear disquiet at the Canadian waiter’s attitude towards him (although again Spiral had good reason to elect Richard too, though didn’t want to come across as a bad sport by saying so); and Pete and Richard went Michael’s way, almost exclusively at Richard’s behest (“He’s got a fat ass you could serve dinner for eight on”).

All done with some difficulty (except with Pete and Richard, who have never taken themselves too seriously and therefore loved the idea) and the results were announced straightaway with BB making it plain that the nominees would be put up for eviction along with their best friends, and one pairing would be dumped by the public together. The announcements were made of three couples affected and suddenly it dawned on some of them that they’d nominated their closest allies. Mikey was back in the Diary Room quickly, expressing his sadness that he’d been tricked into nominating Imogen, his occasional bed partner, while Glyn’s face similarly made it clear he didn’t like the idea of prompting the departure of his “big sister”. Similarly, Spiral and Michael were horrified at the thought of losing Pete through their choice of Richard, though it’s long dawned on the housemates that Pete is pretty much invincible. For their part, Pete and Richard seemed to like the idea, even though it gave Richard – whose unpopularity within the house (only Susie, Pete and Aisleyne have no issues with him) is greatly contrasted by his clearly large following among the voting public – a massive fifth exposure before the lions’ den. He had expressed a desire to be free of nomination this week, although it was obvious he’d worked out that for as long as he was paired with Pete, he was going nowhere.

BB did this extremely well. The public knew what was happening from the start, although from my viewpoint I didn’t realise the pairings were going to nominate individuals rather than other pairings, and I had wondered how on Earth each duo would be able to agree on a pairing when so many had close relations with one and had declared war on the other. The expressions of disbelief, anger and sadness were immaculately captured as the results and final twists were announced, and Spiral hindered his cause further by looking really forlorn at the prospect of nomination. Honestly, you wonder sometimes whether these wannabes read the rule book. It isn’t a holiday. It’s a game. And as the Irish xylophonist-in-waiting mooched to the bathroom, ignoring the reassurances from best friend Michael and the ever-candid Mikey, he then shuffled to the Diary Room to show once and for all that he cannot take the prospect of people not liking him.

Of course, only one duo nominated him and this is where the real injustice, if there was ever one, truly lay. Michael had his issues with others but they were largely superficial by comparison with Spiral’s fierce temper and lecherous efforts towards a vastly disinterested Aisleyne. Yet it was Michael, because of bad underpants and bad karma, who got the lion’s share. Had he changed his pants and answered Richard back a bit more, he wouldn’t have been nominated. He made mistakes in practice; Spiral made mistakes in character, and that was why ultimately they were both in the forefront of three sets of minds when the nominations came round.

Although one could personally wish for the departure of Susie and the desperately listless Imogen due to active and passive reasons of boredom, there was little chance that a spot of toilet-roll hoarding and librarian-esque muteness (and saying the word “babes” in every sentence) was going to spoil the viewers’ party. Spiral and Michael were runaway favourites for the chop the moment their names came out of the lounge speakers, and four days later out they came.

The reception was tremendous. Neither housemate chose to hide behind the other, and Michael – in symbolic pink T-shirt – chose to take along his manky feline toy Scruples to accept some of the adulation. We didn’t get much extra interview time to allow for there being two of them, but Davina got to work nonetheless, concentrating on the respective difficulty Spiral had with Aisleyne and Michael with Richard (whom he described as “rude, vile and objectionable”). Although Davina was on fine form throughout the eviction airtime, and a simultaneous departure from the house for two people was a first, ultimately the pair of exiting housemates didn’t matter enough to the overall fabric and progress of the show, and they won’t be missed. Spiral especially so.

Although the flaws in both Spiral and Michael brought out the best in Richard’s goading personality, their exodus also won’t affect the Canuck on a personal level so much. He has the intelligence, courage and now a sense of the public backing which will allow him to continue his sly digs, unsubtle innuendoes and general faux-sleaziness which has made him such a fun watch in recent weeks, although his only realistic target for them now is Mikey, who backpedals from Richard’s teasing and reacts with thorniness but has never been afraid to answer back or start a battle when absolutely necessary. The early days saw Richard in more of a protective, patriarchal role, especially prior to Susie’s arrival, as he grappled verbally with the cocky Sezer – and won – and previously talked down the ludicrous Shahbaz – and won there as well. And once he was given a prison officer’s uniform with shocking pink trim and tie for this week’s eventful shopping task, he was in his element – telling fellow officer Michael how good he looked, prior to instructing prisoner Spiral to bend down and tie his shoelaces while renaming him “Hot Stuff”.

It was a terrific task, taking housemates to troughs and peaks in quick succession. Next Door had been converted from Aisleyne’s home-from-home (or yard-from-yard, maybe) into a prison – bars, hard mattresses, uniforms, the lot – and each of the Best Friends had to decide who would be prisoner and who would be officer. Aisleyne, Glyn, Imogen, Pete and Spiral all became convicts and their other halves donned the garish uniforms, sorted out rotas and plonked themselves in front of the security monitor. The prisoners’ despair and forced tearfulness from a task of peeling a thousand onions in three hours was soon alleviated by a splendid, Crystal Maze-esque challenge of finding instructions and a map in a huge cake (although foodie Glyn was more interested in the actual cake) and quickly the cons were tunnelling from behind one of the beds into a luxury secret hideaway complete with jacuzzi, robes, rich chocolates, cigars and various beauty products. They had to remain quiet but found it very hard, skipping about in glee while cheering in whispers and having to shush each other in case those in black ‘n’ pink heard what was going on. Back on the watch, the prison officers were trying to work out why the security monitor was only on prior to a planned “inspection”, although not even the conspiratorial Mikey could guess there was a shrouded den of hedonism for the recidivists to exploit, including what looked like the world’s largest lollipop which Glyn’s tongue promptly got to work on.

“Prison life ain’t so bad,” quipped Pete, undoubtedly apeing the middle class viewer’s opinion that proper institutions were pretty much like this anyway. The quintet found a beach and cocktail bar in the outside area – previously the Next Door garden – and set about enjoying the wares while taking it turns to keep watch back in the cell for when the Diary Room phone rang to warn of an inspection. Meanwhile, a bouncing, gleeful Glyn – whom we have watched grow from a petrified country boy into an energetic and thoroughly decent young man before our very eyes – told the Diary Room it had become his favourite week in the house. His respect for his family – which exuded through his well-chosen words throughout his time in the chair – meant he was doubly determined to win the task, just like when, on a week of basic rations, he took himself through the pain barrier during the walking task on the promise of a proper feed at the end of it. For all the approval which the viewer had for Glyn’s sentiments, this highlighted the problem which BB had brought upon itself – the reward. It spoilt this particular innovation.

Beyond the shopping task (prisoners passing job-related tests, officers correctly carrying out inspections), the prisoners were further required to hide the secret hideaway’s existence from the officers and, on successfully doing so, would each receive a letter from home. A relevant prize to prison life maybe, but this is a game and BB is not prison. I remember thinking that some shark jumping had gone on when PJ and Kate got video messages from relatives in BB3 as a reward for something or other; and later the same series Tim was allowed a 30-second Diary Room telephone call from his mother. It goes against the very principles of Big Brother to have contact with the outside world, and BB is never afraid to tell us and the housemates so. They can vet the contents of the letters, of course, but this would then defeat the object of receiving them.

BB is entitled to make and change the laws of the game, but every housemate was put before the public when Jayne said too much about the outside world, and Nikki got the boot. A fortnight later, and suddenly contact is deemed passable under BB’s own terms. This kind of inconsistency does the show no favours, although one suspects Jayne and Nikki, who suffered from BB‘s previous tough stance on breaking the third wall, are too busy with proud daughter and new E4 show respectively to give a toss.

That said, for all the sense of disapproval I felt on principle for the reward, it couldn’t be denied that it served as a timely reminder to baying crowds and loathsome tabloid critics that these people are real. They’re human. They have families, they have issues and they have emotions. No more stark was this forget-thee-not than when Spiral began reading Richard’s letter to him (BB stipulated that all letters should be read out loud by another housemate) and was unable to continue after realising that the word he had struggled to pronounce in relation to Richard’s mother was “chemo”. The tears welled up in Spiral’s eyes as much as they did in Richard’s, and Aisleyne had to finish it for him.

In the main house, the five prison officers watched the readership take place, with Michael’s religious streak giving him a beating for not being more forgiving of his nemesis Richard over previous weeks, and Pete showing obvious despondence that his heartfelt but manic request for parole had denied him the right to his own letter. Pete had reminded us why he was so respected from all angles, as he emphasised his dislike of segregation and conflict by announcing his wish to return to the main house, sacrificing the luxury surroundings of the BB prison’s hideout. BB responded by offering one prisoner, to be chosen by the officers, parole and a return to the main house, and the rest acted their way through half-hearted attempts at pleading prior to Pete doing a stunning Billy Whizz-style effort around the Diary Room which had the watching prison officers in tears of laughter.

Pete got their vote, but the twist then came when Richard, his “best friend”, was called to the Diary Room to collect him – and was told instead he would be replacing him, much to the disgust of Imogen and discomfort of Spiral. The man-hungry Richard’s BB profile included the nugget that his ideal day would be spent in prison. Now he was there, kind of.

In truth, he wasn’t there for long enough to make a difference or create some incarcerated mischief. There was, apparently, a task which involved sewing mailbags (so dull that it didn’t make the edit) prior to the announcements the housemates had incurred the four fails which meant next week the shopping budget would be basic, but the convicts had passed their task of keeping the hideout under wraps, and so their letters had been delivered. Pete was distraught, hiding his tears in the Diary Room as BB informed him his parole had eradicated his right to some mail.

As the envelopes were opened, it all came flooding out. The other four letters were largely expressions of pride and luck, with Glyn offered the role of godfather to a new family arrival, but Richard’s letter – which he wasn’t ever going to get until his unwitting swap with Pete – stole the thunder entirely.

It’s obvious to state straightaway that one can only express huge sympathy and goodwill to Richard and his mother. That’s the priority point. But what of the BB audience? Richard, thankfully, is already a well-rounded and secure housemate with a huge block vote and a guarantee of a place in the final week, barring him going up against the two other obvious big hitters. But what if this had been one of the less likeable housemates, such as Spiral or Imogen? Had their star changed as a consequence, then critics could have justifiably said they had been a success not because of their conduct in the house, but of the conduct of BB and those waiting for them outside the house. If that ever happens on future BBs after a reward like this, then all credibility has gone. Nobody would dare wish Richard’s family plight on anyone, and therefore any task which threatens to reveal a family secret – sympathetic or otherwise – which could dramatically alter the standing of that housemate through no direct action of their own, needs to be avoided at all costs.

Richard, who to his credit never mentioned his outside difficulties (save for a quiet chat with Susie which I can’t recall ever being in an edit), will not have his place in the public’s pecking order greatly altered by the wave of sympathy now aimed his way. His enemies in the house who have no backbone might refrain from nominating him this week, and still they exist despite the double eviction thanks to the continuing presence of Mikey and Imogen. However, with the other two market leaders as I see them – Pete and Glyn – unlikely to face a housemate-prompted public vote again, any further efforts to dump Richard will be in vain. One hopes that Mikey and Imogen maintain private sympathy for him but continue to air their grievances and keep their principles in the Diary Room. It’s still a game, and it’s starting to get to the ruthless bit.

As Glyn’s journey via the cameras from boyhood to manhood was discussed by that plonker Russell Brand and his audience on Big Brother’s Big Mouth, there were claims that Glyn was closing in on Pete as a bona fide contender for the big prize. But, before the week was out, Pete’s conduct re-established his own high quality seemliness and integrity, as he returned to the main house. His swap, unwitting though it was, with Richard made little difference in the end, although Richard was truly enthralled by the hideout and Pete reveled in his renewed access to the vast BB garden, summoning all his nervous energy which couldn’t be used in the confines of the prison to race around with a few gymnastic movements and Tourette’s tics thrown in. He became happy again for a while, and in ignorance gained more ground through being honest, sacrificial and pious. How on earth can even Glyn match this man?

So Michael and Spiral took the bullets, and then there were eight. I haven’t checked the listings, but my guess is we have a month or so to go, assuming BB returns to a policy of booting out one per week until a traditional quartet remains for the raucous final night. Predictions are coming in thick and fast, but I’m absolutely convinced, beyond anyone’s ability to articulate doubt, that Pete, Glyn and Richard are there until the end, barring a mutual eviction contest in the meantime.

The remaining quintet need to wisen up – their own experiences of these three housemates might not tell the whole outside story, but certainly the magnetism and humility of Pete, plus Richard’s exceptional record at avoiding eviction, should provide a clue that these guys are highly regarded outdoors and therefore, in a game situation, need to be elbowed. Few BB contestants in the genre’s history have ever had the guts to sacrifice their mates in favour of winning a stack of cash, and one simply cannot see Pete going before the public through housemates’ voting alone. The likes of Mikey, Aisleyne, Jennie and Imogen don’t appear to have the bottle or intelligence to sit in the Diary Room and say “I’m nominating Pete, because I want to win and he’s the reason I won’t.”

As for Glyn, he is the dark horse on the inside, as his occasional lapses (usually in drink) and lack of real eviction danger since the first week (when he was nominated by default with Bonnie over non-membership of the Brotherhood, and not through Diary Room submissions) has made it tough for the rest to assess where he really stands on the outside. Plus he too is now universally popular, despite Susie’s odd bout of sniffiness over his teenage hi-jinks and Richard’s concerns about his temper. He certainly has fierce defenders in Mikey and Jennie, who will assist him until they’re no longer there, and the maturing he has done before our eyes has also vastly benefited his cause, as has the sheer joy of some of his antics and his background, which will guarantee that North Wales will come out in force as one for him when it matters.

All that said, he has had some touchy comments aimed his way in the big chair – Richard and Susie have nominated him in the past – and therefore maybe he needs to survive a proper eviction contest against an also-ran for the housemates to take him as seriously as the public does. If that happens, then it might even become a proper two-horse race, with Pete’s followers looking nervously towards the small town of Blaenau Ffestiniog for a challenger.


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