Celebrity Big Brother

Saturday, March 17, 2001 by and

At the end of the summer last year, as we considered the preceding 10 weeks of Big Brother, suddenly the high times seemed all too distant and we began to wonder just what it was we’d been buying into.

Questions about the quality of the actual content of the programme were, in some quarters, given voice. These were questions that couldn’t be addressed during the run of the series because then we were all too enmeshed in Big Brother culture: vote, speculate and watch. But afterwards, in that hangover period, there was a feeling of… distrust. The Big Brother experience had been akin to great saleman’s patois, whipping up enthusiasm, making us feel invigorated but leaving us uncertain about what we’d bought once it was over.

Big Brother Night at Christmas intensified this. Outside the game, the contestants were painfully normal. Tom, in particular proved a great disappointment, giggling inanely and in tow to a (presumably C4-appointed) agent, who himself appeared to be just 16, pushed into a Concept Man suit. Craig, meanwhile, expressed disbelief that not everyone wanted to be famous, and turned up handily fixing things on one of those daytime BBC1 lifestyle programmes that are not meant to be watched. Oh yes, we’d had good times with Big Brother but essentially hadn’t it sold us all a dummy?

The anticipation for Comic Relief’s Celebrity Big Brother quickly washed away this essence of hang-over, however, as once again we became compliant to the telly. Trailers on Channel 4 and BBC1 traded on the hidden identity of the contestants, with the publicity batting about names like Robert DeNiro, although we all knew it was more likely to be Roger DeCourcey. But that was okay. That was part of the joke. Instead we keenly waited to find out what it would do to us this time.

When the house roster was finally called, a tepid line-up of talent assembled. Here stood a possible guest list for It’s Only TV But I Like It: Keith Duffy (the boss-eyed one out of Boyzone) being perhaps the most credible coast-to-coast celeb.

So it all started again last Friday night on BBC1, with a strange hybrid of Comic Relief sap, and Big Brother brutality. At this stage, things were uninvolving, but that was to be expected – the peripheral business of Big Brother is nothing without the Game. Each contestant was profiled and a winsome tribute from family and friends followed. Incongruously, a “serious” Comic Relief report barged into proceedings; highlighting the uneasy union of a charity based on empowerment with a TV monolith geared to crush the weak. Still, as an aperitif it was quite successful (and an illustration that as the week progressed, BBC1 was only in for scraps, whilst C4 would gorge on the meat of the programme).

Once we were inside the house, of course, it all came flooding back. The irresistibility of the format is undeniable, and here it was intensified through the lens of (minor) celebrity. Far surpassing the vicarious thrill of looking in on other people’s mundane daily routines was the thrill of looking in on how Anthea Turner tackles her bed linen. Here was a real delight in seeing celebs doing ordinary things.

Almost from the off the customary cat and mouse game that seems to underpin Big Brother kicked in. As the rest of the group socialised, Chris Eubank could be found alone in the boy’s bedroom ostensibly speaking to a mirror, and from time to time holding up photographs to it. From our vantage point (we looked down from somewhere high across the other side of the room) this behaviour seemed utterly eccentric. Of course in his mind’s-eye, Eubank was delivering a piece straight to the camera behind the glass, and to the TV audience at home. Score one for Big Brother then, for using the footage but subverting it completely.

As the week unfolded, however, the regime did gamely concede a few moments, notably to Jack Dee who proved himself to be surprisingly ingenious. In making his last eviction nomination Dee selected Duffy citing that he hadn’t done a “number two” since entering the house. Later on that evening, Duffy announced to all that he had today succeeded in passing a solid. Almost to himself Dee muttered, “I wish you’d told me that before”: a great throw away gag that only worked because Big Brother elected to play along.

But let’s get back to the first few days. Watching the housemates bed in and size each other up made for great viewing and it was here we first got the chance to see exactly how the celebs would interact. Patently, for each of them there was a lot at stake, most particularly Jack Dee whose status as alternative turn (albeit made good) had to be maintained. As it was, he quickly seemed to side with Claire Sweeney and revealed that he’d done a little bit of swotting up on the situation with his informed comments about the house’s reaction to the continuing arguments between Vanessa Feltz and Chris Eubank.

The previous night, however (the first in the house) displayed an astonishing level of naïveté amongst a group of people one could have assumed would have a reasonable level of media savvy. As a drunken conversation about masturbation became more and more explicit a clearly uncomfortable Dee counselled caution, “Do you really want to be saying this?” he asked. Feltz shooed away any concern, blithely stating that “this is for Comic Relief, they won’t show this”. Of course, if anything such a comment ensured the inclusion of the conversation into the final cut.

During these early days it was Chris Eubank who proved to be the most entertaining character. His discourses on the nature of celebrity proved to be superbly pompous, causing the group to corpse behind his back. And of course there was the intrigue of his previous encounter with Keith Duffy, bringing the currency of BB (gossip) into the house itself. Upon learning the results of the eviction nomination, which placed Anthea Turner and himself in jeopardy, Eubank was characteristically ebullient. Turner, meanwhile, seemed pale and a little wretched – we looked closer.

Again, Big Brother was quick in delivering the goods; aside from observing the celebrities at rest we had also been lured to the programme to watch them under pressure. Turner became a little quieter and contemplative, the threat of eviction obviously quite affecting. Better was to come, though.

And so we came upon the evictions, and it was only here that Celebrity Big Brother seemed lacking. When considering the nature of the contestants, it is wholly acceptable they should be spared the walk of shame that previously characterised the eviction process, but it did rather neuter this aspect of the programme. Previously there was an immediacy to the culling of the housemates, which felt like a direct response to your phone call. Celebrity Big Brother instead presented this aspect in retrospect, as a fait accompli. In fact, so underplayed were the evictions Channel 4 even trailed the edition which saw Feltz ousted from the house with the assumption the viewer already knew she was gone (a perhaps realistic nod towards the coverage the programme was receiving, but something of a betrayal of the BB narrative). It would probably be a safe assertion to state that this, above anything else, was the reason for the relatively low turnout in the phone polls throughout the week.

So Eubank was gone with little ceremony, and Dee was stepping up his amusing campaign to subvert the maxims of Big Brother (staging a break-out). The roller coaster rattled on, with the group having to adjust to the loss of one of its own, and finger the next housemate for eviction all within a matter of hours. The required truncation of the format was actually a great benefit, heightening those manufactured moments of tension.

Now it was Dee and Feltz up for eviction. This section probably represented the high point in the week of programmes, with Feltz’s much-celebrated break-down, as she scrawled phrases of despair on the kitchen table and told Big Brother to “fuck off”. It’s great fun to play the amateur psychologist, and even greater to do so based upon the actions of someone off the telly. But as it happens, Feltz was all too keen to take on this role herself.

Perhaps the best single sequence in Celebrity Big Brother occurred later in the episode as she clumsily tried to look for emotional support from Dee, offloading upon the clearly uncomfortable comedian her own muddled diagnosis of her distraught reaction. This was a fascinating collision of worlds, with Feltz genuinely in distress, yet overstepping a distinct boundary by foisting her emotions upon Dee. In turn he was left looking a little standoffish, asking (rather pathetically) “Do you think you’ve learnt anything from being in here?” when patently what his housemate wanted was a hug.

Acquiescing further to the emotionally charged atmosphere Dee began to make a telling admission – “I know I’m an oppressive presence…” – to be undercut by an announcement from Big Brother rousing the housemates to complete their day’s challenge. Here was the best ever encapsulation of what Big Brother is really about, as the machinery continued rolling, regardless of the personal dramas being played out within.

With Feltz on the wane, our focus turned more upon the characters of Keith Duffy and Claire Sweeney. Both entered the house with relatively little baggage as far as we were concerned, whereas Feltz, Turner and Eubank each trailed in with a load of negative publicity and Dee with a level of anticipation as to how he would react.

Duffy and Sweeney, it transpired, both gave a good account of themselves; both highly likeable and pleasant with a great sense of humour. Sweeney’s puerile cockatoo gag (at Turner’s expense) proved an early highlight while Duffy proved to be a continuing amusing presence in the house, regularly eliciting laughs from Dee with his foul language and good-natured jokes.

On the outside, an evicted Feltz expressed her puzzlement at Dee’s conduct, citing her theory he was operating to a hidden agenda within the house. This was probably true, as he rarely let up from his performance as a crotchety and hopeless loser, desperately trying to find a way out. It could have been a high-risk strategy, with the level of affectation required possibly bordering on the irritating for the viewer, but as confirmed by the final results in the Celebrity Big Brother experience, it paid off marvellously. The constant appearance of Dee at each eviction in flat-cap and coat was a joy.

Upon the final eviction process, three names were up: Dee, Duffy and Turner. This time round Turner was relatively unmoved upon hearing her name come up. It seemed as though she had proved something to herself and was now happy to meet her fate. Out of all the housemates it’s arguably Turner and Dee who have benefited most from the experience in terms of public profile. Over the week she came across as slightly obsessive, but open and pleasant. As Dee questioned her about her (apparently) Cadbury sponsored wedding, she seemed genuinely frail and elicited real sympathy for the way in which the media had treated her. Whether this was justifiable or not is another story.

Come the climax of Celebrity Big Brother and BBC1 returned to get the final scoop. As part of the overarching Comic Relief night, however, it all seemed a little lost. On an evening that saw continual links to different OBs, and a myriad of celebrities pushed into unfamiliar roles,Celebrity Big Brother was unavoidably diminished. As mealy-mouthed viewers plagued the BBC with calls querying how much the climactic fireworks display cost (and couldn’t the money have instead been donated to the charity?) Dee walked out the ultimate winner. However there was little time for reflection, or even celebration as he was pushed into a fast car and the machinery ground on.

And indeed, it was back to Channel 4 the following night for our last helping of Celebrity Big Brother.One might question the morals of showing a special compilation without there being an associated mechanism to generate more money for Comic Relief. This slight bitter taste aside, the final edition continued the trend of surpassing expectations by including almost all-new footage. Whilst the previous programmes had been preoccupied with telling the stories of challenges nominations and evictions, here we were able to prod and poke our famous folk just a little bit more.

Within a loose framework acknowledging just briefly the usual Big Brother day-to-day mechanics we were able to enjoy Jack Dee’s further attempts at anarchy (throwing a chocolate cake at a camera, playing around with fire extinguishers and – finally – climbing onto the roof of the Big Brother house), pick up on a few more of Duffy’s quips and hear Dee ask Vanessa if she was undergoing counselling. The best of these extra snippets though was eavesdropping on Claire Sweeney and Jack Dee talking in their sleep. Banal as it seems, this was a fantastic moment of television, capturing at once the omnipotence and intrusiveness of the viewer’s position. Even unconscious housemates are fair game for our entertainment in Big Brother.

Little in the way of incident was added throughout most of this programme, yet it was in the depiction of details such as this that the final edition sought to achieve an appropriately satisfying conclusion.

In terms of the Big Brother story though, this final edition usefully sketched in the events of the final day (passed over during the Comic Relief broadcasts). Unfortunately, this (as with the first series proper) was the most disinteresting part of the programme. The programme makers need to recognise that throwing a party for three people does not make for good television. Perhaps they feel the pangs of homesickness and nervous tension will be juxtapose nicely with a good shindig, or perhaps they feel that music and streamers will re-invigorate the – by now – jaded trio. Whatever, Sweeney, Duffy and Dee may be fascinating company within an ordinary context, but – like their three predecessors from series one – they make for boring party guests. Big Brother has always been more interesting when the participants have to use their ingenuity to concoct their own fun.

One such example followed as we saw Dee strategically place two fire extinguishers on the kitchen sideboard. He was, he told us, going to set them off when he was finally allowed to depart the Big Brother house and walk down that little pathway with a spurting extinguisher in each hand (one suspects an unseen reprimand from Big Brother put paid to this act of disobedience).

Keeping to BB tradition the final day’s evictions were shown in this last compilation purely from the perspective of those inside the house. The mix of the sound allowed us to pick up more clearly final conversations of each of the evictees, yet in the process revealed that curiously Davina’s crowd of avid fans sounded a lot smaller than it had on the previous night’s live broadcast.

Undeniably this has been the highest profile Comic Relief for many years, and it would be hard to dispute that a lot of the attention has been due to the extraordinary broadcasts from that house in Bow. At the time we revelled in cheap delight at the deterioration of Vanessa, now though we can recognise the enormous cash value of her dining room table scribblings. She – and her five fellow housemates undeniably brought the viewing public to Comic Relief in their droves. This was a programme that took us all by surprise with its unflinching representation of its contestants (apparently some of the inhabitant’s agents applied considerable pressure to force Channel 4 to tone down the broadcasts after being shocked by the first couple of transmissions), yet the concept of Big Brother has always been an “oppressive force” and to fail to appreciate that is to miss the point of the game.

Within its own context it was a marvellous piece of television, but one afflicted with an anticlimactic finale: there was no real prize for the winner and so the final result could only remain pretty pointless. Yet I am sure that Jack Dee (who has a new series starting on BBC1 shortly) will have found the experience hugely profitable – Comic Relief certainly did.


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