Celebrity Big Brother

Friday, November 22, 2002 by

It’s unfortunate that the return of Celebrity Big Brother has coincided with the peak of this year’s obsession with unmasking personalities as “real people”. Whether by placing them in genuinely alien and hostile locations (I’m A Celebrity …) or, conversely, attempting to capture them in their own native environments (The Entertainers), the business of unravelling the enigmas in which contemporary celebrities wrap themselves has moved on from last time the doors of the Big Brother house were swung open. As such it’s almost not enough anymore to simply watch the great and the good fool around trying to bake bread or do their own laundry.

The weather’s not exactly on side either. There’s little that appeals less than drawing the curtains on a cold, rainy autumnal night, switching on the TV, and finding a group of people standing around peering through the curtains at a cold, rainy autumnal night. Placing the show in late November has meant the bulk of the action happens indoors with only rare forays outside to a setting where the image of folk doing nothing takes on a slightly more poetic and substantial aspect.

Indeed, so much of the coverage so far has been framed solely by the four-walled forensic-lab styled d├ęcor of the house as to render it painfully boring to look at. The experience is similar in some way to when the “divide” was installed during Big Brother 3 and the visual scope of the programme was immediately undermined. This time, however, the whole spectacle may as well have been sited within a large, isolated sound stage, given the pointlessness of rigging up multiple cameras round a garden where the only notable thing going to happen is that the vegetables die of ground frost.

When the line-up of personalities slated to participate in the first Celebrity Big Brother was revealed to the world, the rather tawdry standing of some of the distinctly non-credible names seemed at first to suggest that nothing but a desperate salute to yesteryear would be in order. In fact, mixing a former member of a boy band with an ex-breakfast television presenter, a glamour-chasing starlet, a TV funny man, a self-consciously stylish “street” icon plus, well, someone else proved to be dynamite. So why doesn’t it feel like it’s working this time round?

There’s a few things that seem to be at fault. Firstly, the nagging sense that everyone is just going through the motions, and of doing the bare minimum to ensure the finished product is recognisably the Big Brother “brand”. So we’ve the trademark cutaways to show someone sniggering while someone else is making an arse of themselves; sequences of personalities alone with their thoughts, like that’s supposed to mean something; plus the way the camera repeatedly and patronisingly picks on a couple of contestants (so far Anne Diamond and Les Dennis) and decides to dwell on them at length as if to prove something significant – i.e. oh, look at them, because they’re older than the rest of the group they must be having a bad time of it.

Underpinning Big Brother‘s veneer of the unrehearsed has always been the creaky monolith of the minutely pre-planned and contrived; but this used to be well disguised by the shock of the new and the innovative. The manner in which the camera and editing orchestrated tension during the early years of Big Brother was pioneering and exciting; now it’s just stale and ineffectual. The programme really needs to shake itself up every 12 months or so to stay fresh and relevant.

This ties in with another flaw: the way the show is choked up with so many rituals and conventions. For instance, where’s the logic that dictates Big Brother must now kick off with a jamboree of hysteria whipped up to accompany six people walking through a door? Nobody cares about watching the celebrities “entering” the house, certainly not enough to justify a whole hour’s television. We want to see them inside and staking out their turf. Yet this boring preamble, forever distinguished by Davina McCall’s inability to present live television out of doors, seems to have become an unnecessary staple element of the Big Brother package.

The idea of having “live” tasks has also been maintained, and once again screws up the show’s pace by turning proceedings into a sequence of sudden bursts of activity rather than a rolling exercise of mounting suspense. Seeing the nominations live remains a bit of a novelty, but this too was botched by the decision to tell the house the names of the potential evictees a matter of seconds later, denying us the chance to see how the contestants dealt with not knowing who was facing the chop. Meanwhile the fact that a big deal is still made about how the house has only got one hour of hot water a day is a joke; if it’s supposed to make us feel intimidated or impressed or awestruck, it just doesn’t register anymore. And enough with the blasted chickens, they were barely amusing three years ago.

Then there’s the celebrities themselves, whose participation has prompted Davina to indulge in more of her patented pointless “off the cuff” outbursts – such as this, just after the conclusion of the nominations on Friday night: “Actually, out of this group, they’re all brilliant, and it’s a shame that anyone has to go – but they do, that’s Big Brother!” Last year the stars seemed more than willing to make the show work for them, be it for some unsubtle career maintenance (Claire Sweeney), exorcising personal demons (Vanessa Feltz) or a superb game of double bluff (Jack Dee). This year, so far at any rate, no-one’s been bothered to attempt anything remotely similar. Nobody’s tried to hijack proceedings, no-one’s got on their soapbox, and worse of all, nobody’s talking back to Big Brother.

In fact, the nearest we’ve come to seeing any kind of life and energy in the house has been courtesy of Mark Owen. The first instance was during the opening night when, on the receipt of some written instructions, he quipped he couldn’t read; secondly, and best of all, was during the live nominations when he quizzed Big Brother over whether his nominations were, in their eyes, suitable. His actions suddenly threw the spotlight onto the production team, who twice were accidentally heard frantically trying to cope with their subject shifting the viewer’s attention away from himself and onto the programme’s mechanics. It was good stuff.

Perhaps the most nagging aspect, though, is the Big Brother‘s context. Right from the start there’s always been a necessary trade-off between artifice and spontaneity, which if done with enough panache the viewer can acknowledge as well as enjoy and join in with. Disrupt that trade-off and things go all awry. Shorn of the overarching spectacle of Comic Relief, which was of course the whole point of the first Celebrity Big Brother and which helped turned it into a national event, there’s too much room this time round to speculate over motive and machinations.

The money from our telephone calls is going to a range of charities but these are rarely mentioned and when they are their names blur into one another. Worse, because the “winner” doesn’t win anything other than the title “Celebrity Big Brother Winner”, it doesn’t feel like the show’s building towards any single definable moment of closure, or a point where the entire effort immediately becomes justified and the viewer gets some payback for all the time (and money) they’ve invested. All that’ll happen is another celebrity will clatter down the ridiculously overlong metal staircase and that will be that.

Hopefully all of this will be proved wrong. Hopefully something absolutely extraordinary will happen between now and next Friday that will turn Celebrity Big Brother into a defining moment of TV in 2002. On present form, however, the entire cavalcade seems set to be remembered only for being another missed opportunity to exploit the notion of having half a dozen famous people locked up in one place and their every move captured on tape. The fact footage was included of Anne Diamond extolling the house for being, of all things, a “holiday camp”, reveals how far the format has come from its humble origins. If that’s how it’s to be from now on then you might as well toss Alan Whicker in as nose-rubbing narrator and be done with it.


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