Big Brother

Friday, September 15, 2000 by

Big Brother is all about mechanics – the mechanics of social interaction, the mechanics of popularity, and most importantly of all, the mechanics of television. This is, we are reminded, a television experiment. And yet, doesn’t there seem something obscene about the vast complicated machinery that has been employed to circle and provoke and record the tiny responses of the subject? Across the country it spreads, claiming to have adversely affected productivity in thousands of offices over Britain as it sprawls out onto the worldwide web, detailing the slight goings-on of a house in east London. The devices employed to create Big Brother, from the house itself to the mass of cameras and the clunky internet site, are, in all honesty, the spectacle here. The gaping difference between the scale of the operation and the content that’s been relayed shrinks down the housemates, the evictions and the tasks into essentially nothing.

But actually, nothing is extremely compelling. The last four weeks of Big Brother in particular have brought us nothing really – bar the promise of something. And so we’ve watched based on that promise.

In relief to the glare of the epic closing Friday night edition the preceding four days of television now seem indistinct and dull. Big Brother has always been about the now and defies us to see anything much in retrospect other than those highest of peaks. Tellingly, aside from bobbing about within the tabloids’ line of fire, it’s notable how quickly the rest of us forget about each evictee once the joy or sadness of their leaving has subsided. In every instance it hasn’t mattered how likable (Tom) or annoying (Caroline) the departed housemate has been, once they are gone from our field of vision, they’re gone from our concern. In fact, during those unlucky times when we find ourselves suddenly reintroduced to Caggy (I’m thinking particularly here of her appearance on the risible C4 late night top-shelf programme, Frontal) it’s something of shock. Oh God, she was awful, wasn’t she? This week, more than any other, has highlighted how meaningless Big Brother can be. Shorn of the eviction process, and with nothing really at stake vis-à-vis the completion of their weekly task, the housemates understandably made every effort to dispatch each day as quickly and simply as possible. It seems that every night this week all were in bed before midnight, keen to underscore that day and move on to the next one. Tellingly our nightly incursions into the house were met with little of note. The task, to care for a simulated baby for 24 hours, perform a fitness test and commit the Highway Code to memory, saw Anna, Craig and Darren ostensibly competing against each other for the first time. No one seemed to rise to the challenge with much vigour, however. Even Craig’s attempts at sabotage (attempting to “wake” the baby whilst it was under Darren’s care) were half-hearted and meant to amuse rather than spoil his rival’s chances. With no real consequence left, it became a matter of waiting for the Big Brother machine to complete it’s revolutions and finally spit out the contestants.

Friday, then, had to fulfill those promises that something would happen. Although unspoken, as we settled in to watch the programme self-destruct we were looking for Big Brother to come good on its side of the bargain. We wanted to see the third place contestant advised, interviewed and then put aside as quickly as possible. We wanted to be teased with the identity of the ultimate winner, and then finally watch that person leave the house and meet the world. We needed closure. And more or less, the programme met its obligations.

It was pleasing to see the previous contestants reassembled on stage, and helped give the whole programme a feeling of completeness. It was interesting to note how unfamiliar they all seem now; the programme has prompted some sort of evolution in them which feels a little ugly somehow. To see Mel on the periphery of the stage, “working” the crowd and embracing the persona that has been created for her was an odd sight. After their lap of honour they were rightly packed back off into the sidelines (where they truly belong) to lay open the ground for the coming of the final three. Of course, it was no surprise to see Darren leave the house as Craig and Anna swallowed hard in fear of the future they could now hear rumbling. As expected, in post mortem Darren remained as effusive and basically likable as ever, however there was little in the way of any insight into his experience. He did, however, cope with the 2000 strong crowd with some dignity.

Come the second programme of the Friday night double, and here was where Big Brother was finally to pay up. Flitting between OBs, the usual baying crowd and the enjoyable silliness of the Little Brother guinea pigs we finally settled upon the resolution of the Big Brother story, and it was done with some style; Davina McCall allowing a pause of quite outrageous proportions to stretch between her preamble and that final golden name. When it came (“Craig”) it also brought relief. We’d done it! We had reached the end! Well, not quite … there were still some rituals that had to be performed before we could all let Big Brother go.

Anna’s departure from the house gave us our first real glimpse tonight of that tension that sparks when the dictates of television clash with genuine human response. Making that famous walk towards her loved ones, an instruction could clearly be heard allowing Anna’s partner, Tanya, to break ranks and meet her half way. Other family members, however, were firmly told not to follow. Every week it’s always been a slightly uncomfortable spectacle watching Davina cajole the evictee towards the Big Brother studio for their interview, when it is patently obvious that their desire is to be with those they’ve missed. Things got worse, however, upon Craig’s exit from the house. As a viewer, watching him being reunited with his family should have been a joyful experience. Instead, we just felt anxious, mindful that he had to get from A to B within a prescribed time as stipulated by the programme, and as such his needy, hugging relations – and even his friend suffering from Downs Syndrome, to whom he was going to donate his prize money – were simply obstacles to the smooth realisation of the programme. Upon reaching the main stage the most blatant, example of TV vs the humans occurred as Davina was forced to audibly evict a young girl (“Would you please get off?”) All in all, it left a bitter taste, devaluing the very people who had taken part in Big Brother. And despite the tribute paid to the housemates as the programme finished up, we had already been forcibly reminded that in reality all were subservient to it.

However – returning to Anna’s eviction – it was gratifying to see her apparently unfazed in the studio. Truly she has been the most together, and thus the most calculating contestant. How would Craig fare up? As the coordination of the live event finally proved to be a bridge too far for Big Brother (cameras packing in, Davina overshooting the stage and pressing on her earpiece whilst being prompted by the production gallery – “what?” she shouted at them from within the chaos) Craig was commendably calm and personable. So on-the-ball was he, in fact, that he was able to joke about Davina’s nervousness. Unlike all of the other ex-tenants of the Big Brother house (barring Nick, of course), when removed from that environment Craig remained undiminished. So for those of us who perhaps didn’t vote for him, we had to concede that actually, here was a worthy winner.

To trample upon that turf normally churned up the Big Brother psychologists for a moment, let’s ask: why did Craig win? Craig was – in a word – sound. We could understand him. Unlike Darren he wasn’t overly sensitive, unlike Nichola he remained emotionally stable, unlike Sada his concerns were with only the physical, unlike Nick he was stoically working-class, unlike Mel he didn’t intellectualize his responses (thereby appearing notionally more “honest”) and unlike Caroline he was relatively unprovocative. Blue collar, salt of the earth, a good bloke, an ordinary guy – Craig fulfilled all of these clichéd criteria that denote an average ordinary person. Ultimately he was the simplest character-type in the house, a recognisable and unthreatening archetype, and therefore he won. More than any other of the housemates, he represented Us.

The programme ended with a myriad of aerial crowd shots and then we cut to the Big Brother house. One by one the lights went out, eventually tipping us into darkness. A genuine moment of melancholy, and then the realisation: So … what do we do now?

Big Brother will get back to you…


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