Big Brother

Friday, June 20, 2003 by

The basic idea for the Big Brother vehicle is simple. Take a number of disparate individuals, bung them in a house with hundreds of cameras poking their lenses into every orifice and corner, let them live their lives by a small set of rules and see who the public finds the most watchable.

Those who make the programme know this; the housemates know this; the critics know this. So why do a sizeable chunk of the BB audience find this so hard to grasp?

It’s not a tough concept to take aboard. After all, the housemates themselves know that likeability alone isn’t and should never be enough for them to win the £70,000 on offer. The reasoned viewer will want more than affable nature or sporting behaviour. They want character and personality; they want individuality and rebelliousness; they want non-conformity and entertainment. Smiling sweetly, flossing regularly and obeying orders while being easy on the eye should never be enough.

Which makes the public’s decision to kick out by far the most fascinating brace of housemates from BB4 at the end of the first month all the more frustrating. The two in question, never outcasts within the walls of the house but gratuitously standing out to Joe Public as the most debatable, got their marching orders with the usual sense of despair and resignation which has blighted so many crucial weeks of past Big Brother series’.

As with Penny in BB2 and Adele in BB3, the ejection of Jon and Federico at this stage of the game lent itself to a serious act of delusion from the voting public, with the third housemate facing the lion’s den, Cameron, surviving for what seems a typically British motive of fair play for a man who had done no wrong. This might work in the law courts, but in the tense, competitive plasterwork of the Big Brother house, the nice guys will only go the distance if there is more to their character than their own inoffensiveness – see Brian, Jonny and Alex for that.

Big Brother‘s masters didn’t help the cause at all by introducing the contentious double-eviction policy in the first place. In doing so, the law of averages suggested, along with the frequency of the two martyrs’ previous nominations, that at least one would fall unworthy victim to a change in the rules which was as much needless as anything else. Certainly the presence of Federico, an occasionally indecent but eminently intriguing boyish figure within the house, was on borrowed time in any event, and his expected nomination would have been enough for the public to vote him out without a moment’s pause. His instant eviction on the night, with the other two made to sweat it out for another two hours before learning their fate, came as no great surprise.

The public aren’t fully to blame, of course, and few housemates have learnt down the years that their own appeal outside the house needs to be countered by the same appeal indoors. Every housemate would much prefer to escape nomination in the first place rather than constantly survive eviction week on week. Federico’s sanity was rarely troubled by such constant nomination – three in four weeks – but mainly because he was a largely assorted figure in the first place and winning the affection of anyone wasn’t his game. Jon, however, was visibly shaken each time his name boomed through the tannoy, though his mental strength and his determination to not act perturbed that he quickly reverted his mood.

Looking at the two in more detail, it remains a constant annoyance to Big Brother viewers that the housemates don’t consider for a moment what their failed nominations mean. Each time Jon faced the axe for the first three weeks, he escaped. The second week was particularly telling, when the immensely bland Justine (who has become a world champion ligger on repatriation into public life) was sacrificed instead of the Norfolk systems analyst, and the only thought of the four remaining girls was to bitch in their bedroom about the injustice of it all. Their own insecurity was far-reaching, hell bent as they were on a theory of gender prejudice, yet none of them had the astuteness to realise that Jon was a towering presence to a third party viewer as he was a regimented, highbrow and condescending pain at first hand. They didn’t realise, even then, that Jon was an outside star. They concentrated more on how Justine had done nothing wrong, when the truth really was that she had done nothing right, and by definition therefore, she had done everything wrong.

As Jon’s grip inside and outside the house took hold, the other housemates kept up the mental anguish by putting him up for a third time, only for Sissy to be unceremoniously dumped instead. By the time his fourth nomination was announced, Jon seemed to realise his luck would not run forever.

A gifted man, with wit, savagery, his own sense of purpose and an eccentricity which was both beloved and traditional, Jon tragically made one fatal error when he found himself up yet again, this time in a triumvirate which also incorporated Federico and Cameron. He should have realised, with his intelligence quotient considerably further up the ladder than his flatmates, that he was massively popular, and therefore should have gone against his principles for one week and hammed up his oddity status to create the headlines in order to stay on course for his undisputed title of the most deserving case to stay in. However, he went the opposite way – casually walking up to Federico in the boys’ bedroom and calmly saying: “We’re out this week. Neither of us will beat Cameron.” Similar thoughts were expressed in the Diary Room and his fate was sealed.

That said, it was only a margin of one per cent which kept Cameron afloat and sunk Jon, but the roaring reception he got from the crowd as he emerged from the house was magnificent to hear. Despite the anti-climactic nature of all the evictions so far, mainly due to the unwelcome, distracting presence of two burly guards to glide open the double doors (point of order: what was wrong with having one at the top of the steps and letting the housemate peek round the corner of a single door? It made Alex memorably blush last year) the crescendo which greeted Jon when he emerged, free and acquitted, from the BB house was a genuine eye-opener for the other housemates – or, at least, it would have been had they been able to hear it behind the sliding doors at the foot of the exit staircase.

Jon’s time in the house was summed up when his twin brother Phil rushed up to him as he left the metal staircase, hugged him tightly and said: “You are the most famous bloke in Britain. And the most popular.” While the Beckhams of this world might raise an eyebrow, few could dispute this sentiment. Jon’s impact as a gallant loser yet unruffled, spiritual winner instantly raised his status as one of the top five best Big Brother contestants ever – and this on a BB series which has been poorly received, riddled with indecision and crammed with largely average contestants. He is certainly up there with the likes of Tim as one of the best not to reach the last week, though the nature of Jon’s memorability will do him nothing but good, as opposed to Tim.

The interview between Jon and Davina was also explicitly good television, with the much-maligned post eviction process, for once, getting it right – but the production team can only thank the interviewee for that. Davina asked the right questions, but Jon’s answers, staggeringly calm and thoughtful despite the reception he’d just received, epitomised the whole reason why large sections of the media had labelled him as the saviour of BB4. Waxing lyrical about his revolutionary time-delayed toaster once more got the crowd doing fake yawns of appreciation, while his comments after seeing a pro-Jon montage of media soundbites and clippings (“I can’t believe I now owe Graham Norton a favour”) brought the house down. The man was a star from beginning to end and there was a genuine feeling of emptiness when the credits rolled and fanatics flicked back to E4 to see seven dozy, shellshocked and unenterprising tenants making dreary smalltalk. The only downside to the chat was the presence of Justine, smiling and waving to Jon from the front row of the stage, when she had spent her week on post-eviction “talking head” duty doing nothing but sourly slagging him off.

Federico’s fate had been sealed the moment his name was announced. His ineptitude for tasks, sleep marathons, loner status (except when on a roll of wits with Scott) and clearly planted but still unworthy comments of considerable causticity were more than enough to guarantee his sympathy-free eviction when nominated. The game plan, if it was one, had the right hallmarks of an Alex-like nature – being free-thinking and controversial in one’s views worked in BB3 for the Essex model because he topped them off with serious charm, something which the cocky Federico plainly lacked. When his name expectedly came up first on eviction night, Federico patently was unsurprised and allowed his swaggering nature to hide any gut-feeling of underachievement which he, like many of his followers, must have been experiencing underneath. Indeed, his mic was kept on as he left the house, waltzed down the stairs to a mixture of boos and screams and chewed gum incessantly while giving thoughtful but disinterested answers to Davina. Federico saved himself at that moment by being candid, professional and prolonged in his responses when quite clearly he wanted out of being interviewed at all, and that did him a great credit.

And that left Cameron, a man whose fascination and appeal came from his in-built traits, rather than anything specific he had done, said or achieved on BB territory. He has been labelled with many iniquitous characteristics – prudish, moralistic, introverted, preachy – yet this is because he has not (yet – but don’t hold your breath) got drunk, kissed another housemate for a dare, uttered a swear word or raised his voice. The fish trader is a fish out of water, so maybe this is why his stay has been extended at the expense of the two guys in the self-satisfied comfort zone. To say he stayed because he is “nice” is too easy and too misguided. He wasn’t very nice when he agreed privately with Jon over a contentious food issue and then refused to back Jon up when he confronted the other housemates about it. And despite a total inability to dislike him, there is an overwhelming feeling that his gentlemanly nature is more of an act than the public believe. While expressing occasional disquiet at some of the drunken, profanity-filled antics and expressions of the others (most of whom are a good deal younger and worldly-wise than him) he has essentially, smiled, shut up, done as he’s told and survived a major gossiping campaign because of his naïveté and his willingness to work with a team. He’ll probably make it to the last week, by fair means or fishy, but after one radical rule-change ripped the soul out of the boys’ bedroom by removing Jon and Federico, it may take another one to rip the heart – Cameron – out of it.

Jon has tipped Cameron as the winner, but what of the others? Jon gallantly also predicted high things for Scott (“Everyone should have a best friend like Scott” he said, of a man who nominated him week after week) but Scott’s disillusionment at the departure of Federico seemingly goes beyond that of losing a mate. When together, the two had a rip-roaring time as young lads with young lads’ interests – girls and drinking. But Scott was happy to encourage Federico’s sledgehammer-like, shameless views to be expressed, knowing that harm to him for laughing at them wouldn’t compare to the harm Federico would suffer for holding them. With the ejection of Federico, the change in Scott’s demeanour and status became immediately plain for all to observe. Still a strong contender, but as the Wise to the Scots-Italian waiter’s Morecambe, he’s now lost his meal ticket, and we all know how much work Ernie got when Eric left.

The retiring Gos, whose infrequent trips to the Diary Room, total incompetence at nominations and general hanger-on status, has been safe as houses thus far, not receiving a single vote from the others. But tellingly, he has not made a single headline on the outside and was the last candidate to get analysed on Big Brother’s Little Brother. It’s as if he is providing the backbone to guide the more volatile characters through each week and, like the strongest respondee on The Weakest Link often discovers, finds himself dispensable to the other contestants and the public just before proceedings reach the business end. With the exception of Tania, the pouty, attractive but incredibly dim and uninspired eye candy on the girls’ side, Gos can be considered a cast-iron certainty for dismissal the moment he is nominated.

The other two girls are coming more into their own. Steph’s habit of manually cleaning the carpets every other day, including one of the most surreal Diary Room moments ever (“Mind if I do in here? It’s looking a bit grubby”) has endeared her as potentially eccentric, not of Jon proportions, but certainly to provide a real contender on the ladies’ side for potential timebomb status. While not as self-deprecative or amusing as Kate, ruthless as Adele or gratingly likeable as Jade, the Redditch girl’s careful, sensitive approach to BB is starting to be noticed and appreciated outside the house a lot more.

Meanwhile, the ambiguous Nush is still an unturned stone, laughing as much as the rest, having her share of tantrums and keeping her head above water, and therefore may also have the wherewithal to emerge sturdily as a front-runner, even in the event of her inevitable nomination. The wholly unlikeable Ray, whose lack of nominations so far has been a constant source of irritation to some, will maintain the shallow “girlie” vote until he does something obtuse, which judging by his unashamed masturbation in the communal toilet (and, worse still, his announcement of it in the boys’ bedroom beforehand) and scaring of the sleeping girls in the darkened rooms, he has already managed. He, like Scott will make it to the last week unless the two go head to head in the interim, but he remains the least deserving case in the house by far.

Whatever else occurs in BB, and the innovations ahead are at the same time teasing and predictable, it seems that the whole concept of the show has failed, for once, to stir any real emotion or warmth amongst its loyal viewers, many of whom complained at once via text message on E4 that the spark died when Federico and Jon got the boot that fateful night (“Here’s to two weeks of tennis, then”, said one cutting remark). The most important aspect of BB has to be the housemates themselves, but the lingering housemates after one month simply do not have the required charisma in their natures to keep the show alive in the eyes of those who commission it. Having seen one meaningless experiment fall short spectacularly with the expulsion of the house’s two most charismatic housemates, it’s up to BB, not the blissfully unaware remainder tenants, to rectify the situation. But that means more new trials and rule-changes, thereby rendering the whole concept of Big Brother a failure this time round. One day, hopefully, Big Brother will get back to you.


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