Big Brother

Friday, September 8, 2000 by

Big Brother is shutting down, the carpets are being rolled up, the beds stripped, the caretaker is standing by the back door jangling his keys.

Ever since the show lost its momentum it’s been a matter of counting the days till the end. The transition from the hyperactive, unstable war zone of the recent past into the inert, rarefied, artificial peace of the present – which was always going to happen some point towards the show’s conclusion – has been managed very poorly by Channel 4. There’s simply no buzz of excitement at waiting for the title music to start up anymore.

With few opportunities to perform that gentle cross fade from an atmosphere of constant hostility to one of suffocating normality, C4 have been floundering for a replacement for the wild tantrums or eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations. The production team now seem to respond to periods of unrelenting tedium by magicking up a nasty insect to crawl over the contestants’ beds. “Quick! They’ve all gone back to sleep – release the spiders!”

These last few days have seen even the contestants closing up and switching onto standby. They only move when they really have to, and return in ever decreasing circles to their beds. It’s getting dark in the evenings now, but there’s no TV set for them to huddle around; it’s also colder, so no more sunbathing or even – yes! – no more Jacuzzi. All thoughts, all considerations, all conversation centres on the forthcoming final eviction, and beyond that, the end – and freedom.

But in the meantime there are the usual rituals and obligations to fulfill. This week’s task was another uninspired unimaginative choice. It was so lame and obvious that Anna even guessed what it would involve before they were told: juggling. They were charged with performing a suite of circus skills in suitable clown attire (cue the return of the orange wigs – C4 never one to come up with a new idea when old props can be re-used). This involved the ubiquitous juggling plus walking along a tiny tightrope and, worse of all, the unwelcome re-appearance of the unicycle, last seen nestling between Nichola’s thighs. The resultant reels of repetitive footage of the foursome trying to master some or all of these tricks made for stubbornly dull TV.

The feeling of desperation and pointlessness was compounded by the fact that everyone – the housemates, C4, the viewers – knew they weren’t going to succeed at the task; it was a foregone conclusion that not all of them would master the unicycle in a matter of days. So the contestants couldn’t be bothered; and surmised correctly that losing wasn’t a big deal anyway as there was only one more week to go, there was plenty of leftover food to eat, and they’d all be out in under a fortnight. Who cares?

There was the odd high point, particularly seeing the lazy quartet actually voice some anger and frustration at Big Brother instead of normally going out of their way to be groveling and compliant. They whinged like snubbed kids when leftover apparatus from the task, which had become their playthings, were taken away. Anna was particularly pointed in her unhappiness – “Don’t forget to add your happiness, your sense of humour, to the box” as Craig carried the crate of stuff back into the C4 lair. Big Brother was spiting them deliberately, and it was refreshing to see the housemates snarling and moaning back. Similarly, the promise of watching a video, only to then be faced with Bobby Davro (whose brilliant cameo appearance in Friday night’s traditional post-credits “evicted guinea-pig” sequence was this week’s comedy highlight), prompted another round of (muted) grumbling – though Craig and Darren doggedly persevered and watched all four episodes out of principle (or desperation?).

C4 would go out of their way to avoid a botched run-up to the big climax, so really the housemates could get away with a lot more at this late stage – if they could be bothered. How about a quasi-cold war between contestant and Big Brother? The housemates just break off all relations with their guardian, fail to go into the diary room when told, ignore the tasks set for them, and ultimately, triumphantly, refuse to leave the house when evicted.

Ever since the series began I’ve waited and watched for such sparks and flickers of opposition that might kick off a big showdown between master and servant. But it never comes, and undoubtedly never will, because the housemates aren’t capable of collective self-thought. Their ability to amuse themselves has been rendered completely non-existent; these people are so pathetic they actually crawl to their captor asking for things to do. Ironically this led to the most amusing moment of the week – having each individual dress up and assume the guise of another housemate, and remain in character for two hours. Much self-deprecating, knowing humour followed as each played up the worst and most pronounced traits of each other, uncannily lampooning both their own perceptions of themselves and that which C4 and the press has manufactured for them.

This show is now so utterly different from how it appeared back in July when 10 people were ushered into the house and left to get on with it and make good television. It’d be fascinating at this stage to see some of those first few programmes again and compare how C4 strived to present certain characters to us then and now. If anything, the picture we can form of these people at this stage is more rounded and has more depth simply because C4 has to show much more than just the superficial conversations and exchanges that infused the show during those first couple of weeks.

Now it is big news when another spider appears, or when a noise is heard behind one of the two-way mirrors, or when a voice is overheard backstage when somebody is in the diary room. The lame discussion topics the contestants were force-fed in the early days are no more; most of the updates are constructed around visual, practical incidents, not verbal or conversational ones. A shame, because for the first time ever the contestants are really talking to each other, and now we’re not getting to hear much of it.

Like last week, there was no surprise over the identity of who would be gone come Friday. The juvenile booing that echoed from the crowd every time her face appeared during last week’s programme was proof enough that if Mel was nominated she’d be almost certain to get kicked out at the first opportunity. Sure enough, after the biggest phone poll in British TV history, she walked – and was met with another tide of booing from the waiting crowds. This was the most ugly moment in the show for a very long time. The jeering was reminiscent of a lynch mob, baying for blood, akin to the sort of unsettling behaviour that prefaces the onset of a riot. It was unkind, never mind unfair. Even the families of Craig and Darren, the other nominees, seemed predisposed towards a bit of the same verbal – if not physical – abuse.

It will remain a mystery why Mel, like Tom and Andrew before her, was expelled over much more objectionable, loathsome alternatives. Surely the voters aren’t taking the tabloid spin to heart? That could never happen here, could it?! Tom was wheeled out for the post-eviction interview offsetting Mel’s wired demeanour with some much needed calm and level headedness. But once again, here was one of the most interesting and intriguing contestants left exiled rather than either of two of the most facile, one-dimensional characters to have played the game. Well, the public gets what the public wants.

Big Brother is closing down, and hopefully for good. A roll of excitement met the news that the phone lines were being reopened at the end of Friday night’s edition. We have one last ritual to perform. Throw that clod of earth onto the coffin and read the epitaph: “It Was Only a Game Show”.


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