Big Brother

Friday, August 11, 2000 by

“It’s only a game show” they trilled to each other, as one by one the contestants trooped before the camera to reveal who they wanted out this week.

When Big Brother is good, it’s very very good – one of the best TV programmes this year even. The reason to keep watching it, even during those moments when it seems to be losing its appeal and spark, is not so much to do with what you know is going to happen (another task, another eviction); it’s to do with what might happen – the potential for conflict, for betrayal, for trauma and for conspiracy.

There’s now a clear shape to the way each week’s goings-on are presented to us on television: a dramatic arc that climaxes each Friday evening with the evictions, but one that has to pass through a period of treading water (the Monday update – a scramble through the events of the weekend) before the cycle begins anew. These Monday editions have so far been very unsatisfactory. The programme’s not long enough, trying as it does to tidy up loose ends from the Friday eviction, catch up on the whole weekend since, and still involve these annoying psychologists with their over-eager comments and arrogant posturing. The army of shrinks adds to the time-wasting thanks to the selection of even older clips that accompany their pseudisms. The solution would be to have regular daily programmes and lose the doctors – do the production team go on holiday over the weekend, or what?

Yeah, so it’s “only a game show.” Why are they all playing it? Sada said on leaving the house that she’d never wanted to win the money anyway. Neither does Anna, apparently, who confessed to camera that she was only in it for the “experience”. C4 hasn’t properly explored each contestant’s agenda, leaving us to try and make up our own conclusions as to who’s there for which ends. That Mel attached herself so quickly to Thomas (detaching herself from Andrew, her supposed love interest, just as rapidly) sheds more light on her waspish agenda (warning Darren off Nick one night, cosying up to the wretch the day after). But how come it’s still so easy to divide up the contestants into those with complete, three-dimensional personalities (Nick, Anna, Caroline, Mel – mostly the females) and those with flat, even dull, two-dimensional ones (Craig, Darren, Thomas – the blokes)?

Andrew’s departure, unlike that of his predecessor, had a revealing impact on the nature of what we’re shown of life in the house. For one thing, inevitably as the number of contestants decreases, there are less people to split the updates between and it’s therefore easier to get involved with more individuals and their plight. But losing someone who was dominating the action to Andrew’s extent – Channel 4 seeming to think they’d hit jackpot with the “doomed romance” between him and Mel – led to major shifts in the house. Essentially this community is built on a series of fault lines, along which tensions build and subside each week; but these fault lines are now shifting, reconfiguring and reforming faster than at any point in the show’s history. Alliances change constantly hour by hour, while others have been thrown more into the spotlight. How convenient for C4 that on the Big Brother equivalent of a slow news day (the period between the last eviction and the next round of nominations) Anna decided to go through a mini-crisis and announce her intention to leave.

Thomas was spot on when he muttered, after being nominated, “Well, it means I’ll be on telly this week.” The way he behaved since learning he’d been picked, in contrast to that of Andrew last week, spoke volumes about the range of personalities inside the house. Thomas initially adopted a no-nonsense, functional, well-that’s-how-the-show-works attitude, chatting about the situation with the now thrice-nominated Caroline, and doing so in a manner Andrew could and would never do. Later on in the week we saw him being manipulated by Nick into composing a heartfelt soliloquy to deliver to Big Brother asking the viewers to let him stay in the house because it was helping him become a better person. In the event this stunt was probably unnecessary as, by two-to-one, the viewers voted to remove Caroline. The impression had been given that her stay in the house was turning her into more of an unstable, emotional wreck by the hour. In the end she deserved to leave as the multiple scenes of her weeping simply became boring. This week’s eviction programmes were the best so far; Caroline’s shock at discovering the extent of Nick’s treachery was a joy to watch. Much of her bitchiness and ill-tempered me-me-me behaviour was, however, skated over by Davina McCall who seemed more interested in lecturing Caroline on how her lips have become a “national icon”. Still, Caroline was the first to really deliver the goods in this post-eviction interrogation. Her efforts compounded by a telegram read out from no less than George Michael thanking her, Anna and Mel for their spirited defence of him earlier in the week. There was even a surprise reappearance of the “goddess” herself, the unloved Sada – with Andrew in tow.

But how come Thomas, ostensibly the nation’s favourite, was picked in the first place? Events are making a mockery of any attempt to formulate a carefully assembled prediction of who is to be leaving the house and when; the gap between how we the viewer are being allowed to perceive the contestants, and how they perceive each other, grows wider by the day. The nomination process is, like all electoral systems where majority rules, flawed. It’s possible for someone to scrape through each week just shy of the cut-off point above which they’re nominated – and thereby remain a deeply unpopular person in the house, and end up winning £70,000. This also has resulted in the flummoxing situation of why Nick continues to receive absolutely no nominations and remain the show’s resident bad guy.

As each day passes Nick has become more and more objectionable and abhorrent. Is this because he’s just playing the game so well? It really doesn’t matter whether he’s a plant, whether he went into the house with an agenda to cause trouble, or whether it’s all C4′s fault for dressing him up as the maggot. No other contestant has gone about the show with more brazen devil-may-care bravado as regards being caught on camera as Nick; only now he’s shown to be turning more self-aware – but the damage’s been done weeks ago, mate. If Friday’s mass chant of “Nick out!” (shielded from the housemates by loud, piped-in music) is any indication, the Big Brother Alan B’Stard has a lot of work to do to reverse public opinion. The fact you want to punch his face each time he appears on screen just reaffirms how well C4 have dressed up this man as uber-bastard and how even The Sun have got on board. Never one to miss a populist bandwagon, their attempt to infiltrate the house via a kind of aerial bombardment with a remote control helicopter again gave C4 something else to fill up another update.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show continues to be watching how the contestants are becoming more upfront and wise to the set-up of the whole enterprise: seeing if they can spot cameramen through the glass, pretending to plan a trip out to a local bar as if they weren’t prisoners at all, just to see if there’s any reaction.

Imagine what would happen if one of the contestants was spotted in a high street in, say, Camden tomorrow afternoon, and the whole thing then turned out to be a complete fraud – how it’d been filmed earlier this year, with all the scenes carefully scripted, everything on the web pre-recorded, and all the nominations and voting results fixed from the start. It’s all possible given how great a trust the viewer ends up placing in C4 that what we see on screen and on the web is real and, more importantly, spontaneous and un-contrived.

Big Brother needs to be harder on these chosen few. They live a life of idle luxury – a mob of lazy oafs spending most of the week sunbathing or sitting around yakking and moaning, in-between easily disposing of more Krypton Factor style tasks (this week, another test of recall: semaphore). Why did Big Brother give them a chance, for instance, of regaining access to the store cupboard on Tuesday even though they’d earlier slept through the allotted time for entry? They should have had to face up to their actions and go without fresh food for 24 hours.

Orwell’s Big Brother wasn’t a passive observer and recorder – it was an active and reactive network designed to manipulate and control via coercion, not co-operation. Make these pampered goons work for their £70,000 for God’s sake – it’s not an exercise in learning about lifestyles, anyway; it is, as the contestants themselves never ceased to remind us this week, “only a game show.”


Comments are closed.