Big Brother Night

Saturday, December 23, 2000 by

“It’s only a game show” chanted the Bow house contestants as the nine weeks rolled by. Yet in terms of its sheer scale, ambition and seeming ubiquity, Big Brother was the television (and internet) phenomenon of 2000. Watching this inconsistent epic was by turns a dull experience and a richly enjoyable odyssey through the myriad facets of human behaviour and the negotiation of group dynamics. The concept and conceits may hark back to the macabre fascination of Victorian visitors to Bedlam, and yet as an exercise in aesthetics and manipulation of media and audience, Big Brother touched a populist pulse that was uniquely contemporary. Three months later, we’ve read the book, we’ve watched the video and it’s all pretty much over. It is perhaps understandable then, that Channel 4 should have one last stab at milking the lucrative cow of mainstream success with an evening of memories devoted to Craig, Anna, Nick, Caroline et al before they are consigned to the realms of television nostalgia.

Big Brother: How Was It For You? takes its cue from the other major high profile show of the summer I Love the Seventies. This was a slight but enjoyable, well-intentioned effort combining archive footage and punditry from celebs such as Davina McCall, Graham Norton, Jon Snow, Times columnist Matthew Parris and Coronation Street actors Julie Hesmondhalgh and Tina O’Brien, as well as representatives of the Great British Public. Discussing the events in the house as they occurred in chronological order, the programme reasserted one of the most positive aspects of Big Brother. The fact that the series had brought people together, it was a case of television actually living up to its hype – unlike EastEnders, everybody was indeed talking about it. There was some welcome revisionism present in the interviewees’ perceptions of the housemates, now divorced from the editorialised slant of most of the updates and tabloid copy (“I liked Sada. I was sorry to see her go because she brought an element to it. I would rather have seen most of the men evicted before I voted Sada out.”) and some of the more unpopular contestants, Nick and Mel, now received praise for their contributions to the series. Overall, it was the clips of life in the house that elicited the most pleasure from this viewer – the exploits of Sada the mosquito-exterminating Buddhist, the fabulous, ill-tempered showdown between Craig and Caroline, the machinations and eventual comeuppance of Nick and Anna’s development from wallflower to comedienne in search of an audience.

The evening continued with What Happened to the Housemates? – our chance to catch up with the activities of the contestants as they discussed the impact that their participation in Big Brother has had on their lives. Yet there was very little actual analysis, no sense of the contestants offering much insight into their life-changing experiences as most (especially Nick and Craig) took their contribution to the programme as an opportunity to flaunt their new-found celebrity status. Unfortunately, the good-natured, nostalgic feel of the previous programme was all but dissipated here by the all-pervasive melancholia of this documentary. Sada managed to dampen the atmosphere very early on by bemoaning the press intrusion into her everyday life since leaving the house while Melanie complained (albeit with some justification) about the media’s tendency to reduce genuine three-dimensional people into accessible, inappropriate stereotypes.

Watching the ex-housemates on our television screens, turning up on The Priory, TFI Friday and Celebrity Ready Steady Cook has been an awkward, bewildering sight. Now out of the artificial environment of the Big Brother house, they are no longer our guinea pigs; there appears to be have been a fundamental change in these “ordinary people” as they now exploit their status for the purposes of self-promotion and self-gratification (rubbing shoulders with Brad Pitt, Boyzone and Ainsley Harriot) that feels unpalatable somehow. However, for those wishing to follow the current activities of the 11, the programme delivered on its promises. Nick, having released his tie-in book and video and filmed his own game show, Trust Me, was reluctant to unveil his next bid for world domination but remained quietly confident of future deals to come. Craig has clinched an album deal and now intends to close down his building business to concentrate on a recording career. We saw clips of Melanie filming her own game show Chained, Tom starting out as a club DJ, Claire appearing in Jack and the Beanstalk at Windsor and Caroline taking a break from recording her album to switch on the Christmas lights at Wolverhampton. There is a definite sense of the contestants merely swapping one rarefied cocoon for another as they move from hotel to hotel, traveling by limousine accompanied by bodyguards and publicists. It no longer seemed to matter how they had behaved during their time in the house, their personalities now lost within the Big Brother publicity machine. The series may have provided compulsive viewing, but it also appears to have precipitated some of the most inexplicable, unworthy career resurrections since Joan Collins shagged Oliver Tobias in a lift in The Stud.

Given the revenue that Channel 4 and Bazal Productions have attained from the success of the show, one can hardly blame any of the contestants for their subsequent opportunism and yet there was little evidence of celebrity being utilised in a positive manner. Gratifyingly, Darren appeared intent on traveling to promote AIDS awareness in Jamaica, Andrew planning to travel and work abroad, while Anna seemed unaltered by her fame, remaining just as engaging – and enigmatic – as ever, even though she too appeared to have reservations about her participation in the show (“It was a good experience. It was a funny experience. It was something that I’d never do again and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”) Ironically, it was Nichola, previously one of the most emotionally inconsistent of the participants, now living in London and concentrating on her clothing designs, who seemed the most well adjusted of all. Refreshingly unfazed by the limited success of her single The Game and utterly philosophical and candid about her experience of Big Brother (“I think all this celebrity stuff is just a load of bollocks”), she emerged as a reassuringly upbeat and very likeable figure.

Ultimately, this was a somewhat sobering reading of the aftermath of Big Brother (so much so that I did not feel inclined to watch the highlights of the final week in the house or the viewers’ favourite episode scheduled after a Graham Norton special) – but a programme that should be essential viewing for anyone applying to take part in the second series. How Was It For You? and What Happened to the Housemates? were both nevertheless appropriate tributes to disparate aspects of Big Brother, and eminently watchable footnotes to the most caustically compelling television of the year.


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