Big Brother

Friday, August 25, 2000 by

When Peter Bazalgette and Michael Jackson arrived at this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, a week or so after Big Brother delivered Channel 4 its second highest audience ever, it must have been an occasion on a par with the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday pageant: a gross spectacle, somewhat tasteless, with the subjects parading serenely in the glow of attention and adoration while thousands thronged about them seeking to pay homage at the court of the summer’s hit-makers. Such a response, probably not too far off the mark, would if true be reflective of the hysteria Big Brother has been generating since it began and which reached a deafening crescendo when one of the contestants (who shall remain nameless, having already received far too much undeserved sympathy and publicity) was kicked out for cheating.

The blanket coverage this received in all the papers, which persisted right through last weekend (and a godsend to those columnists desperate to fill their Sunday supplements), appears to have secured a credibility and legitimacy for Big Brother in quite literally everybody’s eyes. All the doubts and anxieties of the TV makers, the academics, the snooty newspaper reviewers, the society raconteurs (the show is exploitative! voyeuristic! boring! offensive!) feel like they’ve suddenly dissolved into a chorus of approval. No more cries of oh-how-vile-all-these-hungry-for-fame-characters-are; now we have warm accounts of how wonderful to see such a powerful display of sociological relations and class ties (landed gentry versus salt of t’earth) every night on telly.

Except of course we don’t anymore, having ditched the gentry, and just at the point C4 have found their faith in Big Brother bearing ratings fruit, the show’s got lost. It could only seem tame when compared with the goings-on of the previous seven days – but the worrying thing is it seems like C4 have actually contrived, albeit by accident rather than design, to render this week’s updates rather pedestrian – even boring.

Firstly, the weekly task set by the production team to generate some activity/tension/ useable footage was, this time, pathetic. All the privileged few had to do was simply note down the order in which 100 over-sized cardboard cutout heads of contestants past and present appeared over the garden fence, then commit that order to memory to repeat to the cameras at a later date. Which they did – easily. A dull and unimaginative storyline, offering no chance for any amusing or engaging scenes and shots. The principal behind the task – a test of recall – wasn’t even original either (we had that trait tested a few weeks back, and it’d made for distinctly tepid television then). After last week’s often hilarious insights into watching the gang tackle an assault course, even a reading comprehension exercise would’ve made for more diverting TV than this.

OK, so how do C4 then contrive to pad out the rest of the week’s updates ahead of the Friday night eviction? By making the eviction itself into something of a joke, rather than the tense confrontational dilemma it should’ve (and has already) been. There were a total of four contestants picked – an anomaly created by C4 restricting the choice of nominees to only those who’d been in the house from the beginning: i.e. the new replacement, the anodyne two-dimensional unlikable Claire, had to sit this week out, and the other five could only pick amongst themselves. So everyone voted for each other, the result being four nominees and far less tension and apprehension ahead of the moment of eviction; no poignant or outlandish scenes of emotional trauma or empathy. Instead, C4 showed reels upon reel of the group laughing, singing, bonding collectively, splashing like toddlers in their new luxury Jacuzzi (what a hard life, eh?), all the while chuckling over how funny it is that they all liked each other so much yet anyone one of them could be voted out nonetheless.

An air of desperation has also crept in – typified by the increase in nudity (the first frontal shots of people in the shower) and the tabloid-esque lame teasers before each break (“Coming Up: Deceit! Confrontation! Revelations! Confessions!”), while even the painfully dull monotone narration from Marcus Bentley (the worst voice-over for many a year) now comes peppered with half-hearted innuendoes shoehorned into his otherwise listless delivery.

The absolute nadir, however, was seeing Thomas evicted in spite of 70% of callers voting for somebody else. It was annoying to see the most endearing contestant kicked out in such obviously unfair circumstances – this was compounded by the fact that there was just 1% difference between the totals for him and Darren. So the week ended with Channel 4 not only having contrived to lose the plot, but also their most likable contestant, and the long term favourite to win. At this rate chances are the ultimate victor will end up being someone like the obnoxious Claire. As it was Tom took his departure in good spirits, but by this point I’d already lost interest and only half-watched the post-eviction interview which was, as usual, mishandled by Davina McCall.

Why still watch, if it has slipped so badly in these last few days? Because it’s the sort of show that necessarily passes through a tedious patch before suddenly sparking into life again. That’s been proven before. And for the prospect of seeing the remaining contestants, who seem to all actually like each other without fail, rationalising their behaviour each time the nominations come round, forcing themselves to discriminate and exercise prejudice. And for the likelihood of something extraordinary happening, something that realises the show’s true potential once more (as happened with a Certain Person’s forced departure), that re-affirms why the concept of the series, the root, core essence of Big Brother – “life-as-entertainment” 24 hours a day – is such a startling one.

And of course there’s the rub: it’s not C4′s concept, it’s not even Peter Bazalgette’s, despite the way his company’s name is plastered all over the credits. Both Jackson and himself owe whatever kingly reception they had in Edinburgh to a group of Dutch producers who licensed the format around the world and got rich on their own innovation and inspiration. Writing in the Guardian (21/08/00) Bazalgette tried to muddy the issue by glossing over the fact he simply bought the Big Brother format like a football manager wins a star player on a free transfer by reasoning: “In Holland (the) producers … were unconstrained by the petty deceits and intellectual pretensions that are the currency of the UK television industry.”

Biting the hand that feeds him is, as anyone who regularly reads his columns, one of Peter Bazalgette’s favourite pastimes. His anti-elitism and suspicion of anyone with ideas that might be based in theories or speculation rather than business and real life (the Ready Steady Cook doctrine) has levered him up into a position of huge influence and contemporary predominance. But Big Brother wouldn’t have worked, wouldn’t still be working, if it was simply, as he contests, pure “entertainment”. The evidence of this week’s programmes, and how it could’ve been a really gripping few days in the wake of the double departure of the Cheat and of Nichola (and didn’t the group suddenly look very small and exposed on Friday night, reduced down to five – half the original number?) is that it is C4′s perception of the show which is at fault – not anyone else’s, the press, the viewer, the public or the academic.

C4 have messed around with the programme so much, moving it all over the schedules, missing countless opportunities to create numerous flashpoints and generate exciting, informative television, that they might be in danger of torpedoing their own ratings success to pieces. Moving the updates to 10pm from now on is all very well now, but it’s something that should’ve been done weeks ago (and not when the show’s over half way through). Big Brother remains, to my mind, one of the best programmes of the year, but I want to be able to go on using (and believing in) such a description through to the end, not just in reference to what we saw during the first few weeks.

In truth C4 could have easily avoided making this week such an anti-climax on Big Brother; jumped-up expensive paddling pools are not the answer, Mr Bazalgette.


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