Heroes and Hate Figures

David Agnew on Big Brother and representation

First published September 2000

“There is no love except love of Big Brother.
All competing pleasures we will destroy.”

All television is defined by a simultaneously naturalist and illusionist aesthetic. Documentaries all commonly aspire to reflect the “real” picture, to be a supposedly neutral mirror of the world around us. Yet it is always a mere artificial replication of reality in the way it is edited and put together and sometimes a genuinely insidious distortion. It was the goddess Sada who was the first of the participants whose fates were placed in the hands of such programme-makers to raise the issue of misrepresentation in Big Brother – the most talked about television show of the summer. Speaking on the subject of reality soaps at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, she opined: “I found them (Channel 4) to be very cutting, highly destructive to my personality and I felt very betrayed.” But of course we know that in her case they got it right.

Or did they? The rationale for the selection process for Big Brother prioritised diversity – finding a rich mix of contestants with a wide variety of backgrounds and preoccupations. The result was 11 disparate individuals who between them embodied several old sociological chestnuts. People who represented differentials in class (Nick and Sada vis-à-vis Craig and Tom), race (Darren and Mel) and sexuality (Anna) left to sink or swim by virtue of their own personalities incarcerated together in an environment where even the most trivial emotional response is heightened and amplified. We visited this human zoo and got a show that drew us into intimate proximity with these people but still allowed us to retain our privileged position as spectators. We got television which appealed to our base, judgmental instincts, which gave us an illusionary sense of power by being able to decide which contestants stayed in the house and which were evicted. We got to reflect on the fine line between diplomacy and duplicity as we watched the subjects being nice to each others’ faces, yet bitch about them when their backs were turned. And we got to follow a number of ongoing narratives: The machinations of a Machiavellian mastermind preying on his unsuspecting victims; Doomed romance between Andy and Mel, Tom and Mel, Craig and Claire; Factionalism – the boys vs. the girls; Heroes to cheer on (Anna, Tom and Claire, along with Nick, now have websites devoted to them) and hate figures ripe for proletarian opprobrium – “Nasty” Nick, Sada the “witch” and latterly the maligned Melanie; We got 11 people distilled into readily accessible personality “types”, into easy points for audience identification, into manageable proportions. We got soap opera – event-oriented television just as constructed and as forcibly directed as its fictional counterparts.

It’s subjective. It’s judgmental. It’s cruel. It’s crude. But let’s do it anyway. Let’s get right to the meat of the matter, let’s play the Big Brother game with a few quotes from the Big Brother eGroups mailing list to help. Who was the most intriguing? Who did we most enjoy watching (for various reasons)? Who did we like? Who did we hate?

“Everything about her makes my skin crawl.”

Instantly unpopular with just about everyone, presumably on account of her declarations that “I just can’t live with these people” (rather odd stance considering her advocacy of alternative lifestyles and beliefs). Her attack of head girl syndrome and conviction that one of the “emotionally infantile” guys should be voted out was hardly likely to endear her to many. Let’s not even start on her singing tripe such as “Returning to the mother goddess, like a drop of rain …” However, is it possible that her dignified conduct upon being evicted as her housemates cheered at her downfall might encourage at least a scintilla of sympathy? No. The first major catalyst for tension in the house, Sada was enormously entertaining, and not around to wind up the others for nearly long enough.

“Scheming, spiteful, smarmy, arrogant.”

The brazenly self-confident marketing man, Andy was notable for two reasons. The tacky self-aggrandisement of his confession that he had participated in a live sex show in the Philippines and That Kiss with Mel. Initially thought to be the one who would provide some titillation for the audience, and therefore a ratings winner for the show, the public evidently did not agree.

“If you can get over the dreadful laugh, the hair and the obsession with tea, she’s probably quite a nice person.”

A colourful (pineapple-hued) character indeed – loud, gregarious and never afraid to stand her ground. Being nominated for eviction three times gave Caggy genuine scope for high drama, but viewers inevitably found her tears tiresome and voted to get rid of her in favour of histrionics they found more diverting. Thoroughly wearing to spend any great length of time with and a terrifying prospect to cross, but excellent value for money. Her inebriated antics along with Nichola at the recent TV Quick awards effortlessly exposed these affairs for the dull, perfunctory, self-congratulatory shams they truly are. Their piss-up raised the tone of the evening.

“A pantomime villain of epic proportions.”

For many weeks, the prime mover and shaker in Big Brother and to be honest the only contestant astute enough to play the game on his own terms. Other commentators have posited a more moderate overview of the “most hated man in Britain”, hinting at an underlying stunted emotional growth and social ineptitude. His high intelligence was indeed in many ways matched only by his low common-sense. The extraordinary conceit in thinking he would really get away with cheating on that scale on national television; and his specious attempts to justify his actions by citing his privileged boarding school education and the pressures of his very well-paid job. Irresponsibly demonised by the media indeed, Nick has however consciously embraced and even parodied his dastardly image for his own ends following his eviction. There is a certain (pernicious) grandeur and charisma to genuinely motivated (fictional, distanced) villainy. However, Nick was never a villain, nor is he intrinsically nasty, nor is he remotely charismatic – he ultimately emerges as a somewhat tragic figure utterly ignorant towards those around him.

“No more talented than 99% of the aspiring art students out there.”

With a tendency to strip naked and destroy others’ property for the sake of her art, Nichola was easily the most outspoken and unpredictable of the lot. She was however ultimately too inconsistent and belligerent (screaming at Darren and then confessing that she fancied him) to be a real contender. Her commendable loyalty towards her pal Caggy, her distress at Sada’s eviction and righteous indignation towards Nick’s nefarious activities led one to suspect that underneath that volatile exterior was a very sensitive soul. And it was this perhaps that brought out both the best and worst in her during her time in the house.

“Being dull is clearly not without its advantages.”

The public responded favourably to this fundamentally decent, self-deprecating, eminently motherable young man. Refreshingly lacking in the more idiosyncratic personality traits of many of the others, Tom gradually ascended to key player status with his exposure of Nick as two-faced schemer and apparently unrequited love for Mel, only to be disgracefully voted out by a mere 1%. Never putting a foot wrong, Tom was perhaps not as fun to watch as Nick, Caggy et al, but definitely the house’s most sympathetic inhabitant.

“I don’t think she’s had one intelligent thing to say since she arrived.”

Upon arriving in the house five weeks into the “experiment”, Claire instantly manoeuvred herself onto the centre stage, trying hard (rather too hard) to fit in with the group. Her straightforward good time gal image and flirtatious banter and horseplay with Craig definitely won favour from the public, but not universal admiration from the housemates – Anna commented in the diary room that she had been verbally treading on eggshells due to a new person being in the house. Claire however had no such scruples, advising the group after Tom’s departure “It’s not as if you’ve lost a kidney.” It has been suggested that Claire’s outside knowledge of the set-up gave her an unfair advantage, but her eviction was a certainty before she even arrived. Never shedding her status as an intruder, the whole concept of a replacement for Nick was fundamentally ill-conceived from the outset.

“Exactly the sort of girl whom other girls seem to hate.”

Without doubt the most gross misrepresentation (or misinterpretation) of anyone on the show. Was there ever any implicit instruction to dislike Melanie simply because she was attractive and pretty smart? Her dalliances with first Andy and then Tom saw her portrayed in the press as an opportunistic, manipulative minx. The first kiss with Andy saw Mel at a particularly vulnerable moment, facing up to the possibility of losing her only real friend in the house. Her interaction with Tom was, surely, little more than the acceleration of a close friendship inevitable in the enforced intimacy of that environment. Her waspishness towards Claire (seemingly a key factor in her latter unpopularity) did not seem to lie in being usurped as the girl in with the lads, but rather in Mel’s entirely justified irritation at the new housemate’s not infrequent displays of crass insensitivity (see above). Witnessing the insular, highly strung herd mentality of the studio audience and the outside crowds in the live broadcasts jeering whenever she appeared on screen and cheering at her departure from the house made for some genuinely disturbing viewing.

“Next time he’s up for eviction, we’ll remember how much he misses his kids.”

Aside from the comedic mileage derived from his initial phobia towards chickens and subsequent love for Marjorie, Darren had no agenda and therefore no real chance of winning. Whilst acquitting himself with some credit during the Nick debacle, his ill-considered reasoning for nominating others gradually became wearisome; but whether he was out to placate the audience or was just genuinely such a nice guy that he couldn’t bring himself to admit he disliked someone is open to conjecture. However, his willingness to help Craig with mechanised baby Juanita, whilst being guilelessly unaware of Craig’s real opinion of him was really quite endearing.

“Not as nice as she seems. Everything about her just rings false.”

The press response to Anna has unfortunately focused mainly on her sexuality reaching its nadir as the Daily Star, straining for a headline, ran the story “Big Brother Anna Begs Mel For Gay Sex”. In truth, Anna jokingly asked Melanie “Fancy a shag?” as the two confessed their frustrations during one of their late-nights confabs in the girls’ bedroom. At first Anna successfully blended into the wall, reluctant to engage in house disputes and in emotional outbursts, sensibly going into the diary room to vent her spleen as opposed to taking it out on the others. Since contemplating leaving the house of her own accord, she steadily emerged as a strong team player, and in the wake of Tom’s eviction, she inherited his mantle as a “nice person”, a good listener, humorous and quietly principled (“You’re very strange, Nick”). Possibly the most ambiguous figure in the house, Nick, Andy and Tom have speculated on Anna’s implicit deviousness but she played her cards so cleverly throughout there’s no telling whether this nice Anna was the genuine article or utter artifice.

“Lives up to every working-class Liverpudlian stereotype in the most unpleasant way.”

At first, the blue collar builder and sporty Scouser Craig was happy to live up to his reputation as “the Incredible Sleeping Man”, thereby arousing the ire of Caroline. It was his dignified conduct during the confrontation with Nick – the downfall of a toff secured by one of Us – that saw the first galvanising of popular support for our Craig. Over the past nine weeks, we have seen a man who has never been afraid to stand up to his critics but willing to accept constructive criticism and prepared to overcome personal difficulties (his dyslexia) to complete the mostly puerile tasks set for the group. The working-class lad triumphs, and the £70,000 goes to an admirable cause indeed – but lest we forget, this is the man who wipes his bottom on other people’s pillowcases.

So there you have it – my own flawed, biased take on the inhabitants of the Big Brother house. The people I’ve most enjoyed watching (for various reasons) were Anna, Nick, Sada, Caroline and Mel. The people I’ve been most intrigued by were Anna and Nick, and the ones I found most readily likeable were Tom, Mel and – yes – Anna. Throughout the past nine weeks, I’ve taken sides, defended those I liked, attacked those I disliked. I’ve treated the contestants of Big Brother much as I would the characters of a soap opera, making arbitrary, all too simplistic value judgements about a group of real people I’ve never even met. Was that the point of the exercise?

What indeed was the point to it all? That is the unanswered question I’m left with now that Big Brother has finished. The series has never properly delineated its aims and objectives nor given any real insight into the agendas of the participants. It thus leaves our screens as an ambiguous queasy amalgam of socio/psychological experimentation, game show/event TV aesthetics and voyeuristic sensationalism. Yet for all its propensity to simplify and stereotype, Big Brother has been an unqualified success in activating an emotional response from its audience as yet unprecedented in the generic lineage of the docusoap, a degree of investment as yet untouched by Airport, Hotel or Health Farm. The more voyeuristic moments – its frank (anthropological?) nudity – worlds apart from the prurient Pleasure Island (which, scheduled after Bad Girls, gave ITV viewers the chance to watch two tawdry explorations of human detritus in one evening). If there is anything that Big Brother has taught us, it has reaffirmed what should have been patently obvious from the start: that objective realism is unobtainable in television, that any attempts to achieve naturalism are, by their very nature, doomed to mediocrity. A truly accurate description of any one of the above people would have to be endless, just as the television updates showed only arrested movements chosen according to the bias of the director.

Nevertheless, as we say farewell to Davina and her guinea pigs, we wish them all well for providing nine weeks of variable but certainly engrossing viewing. We look forward to seeing them again in the next Channel 4 anthology show (TV Heaven or Hell?) and to be amused in their attempts to cope with their new found fame (or notoriety) or to exploit their transient popularity and remain in the public eye.

Who goes? Who stays? You decide.