Big Brother

Friday, June 1, 2001 by

And with these choice words – “Faarkin’ ‘ell!” – did the lukewarmly-anticipated sequel to Big Brother begin on Saturday. The apposite exclamation – which spoke for us all – came from Paul Ferguson, aka Bubble, first housemate through the door in a curiously staggered entry. He was as unprepared for the awfulness of the 2001 décor as we were. Gone was the “penal chic” of last year, replaced by a sort of hellish Ikea log cabin look. Faarkin’ ‘ell, indeed – “Am I going to have to sit on these tree trunks for nine weeks?”, the behatted 25-year-old single parent must have been thinking.

Within days, the hype-complicit tabloids had short-handed Bubble the “self-confessed former cocaine addict” (he’s banned from driving too, the rogue). Well, what better way to find redemption than to seek enforced exile in a locked chalet when his real-life existence looked in the introductory film to be pretty crap (sees the kiddy at weekends; sleeps alone in a “wicked” king-size bed; sits outside pubs convincing himself he still has the “Bubble Magic”). In a week awash with delicious TV parallels, we saw Bubble’s more likeable bricklaying doppelganger Peter fighting his own addictions on BBC2′s Inside Clouds: A Drink and Drugs Clinic. I was amazed at the willingness of these addicts to allow cameras into their private rehab – but then this is the 21st century and if a tree falls untelevised in the forest, has it really fallen?

Another addict, the gurning Davina McCall, claimed on Friday night’s all-singing, all-whooping Big Brother vote-off, “I am so hooked”. Of course you are – you’re being paid, woman. The £70,000 question remains: are we? Much play was made in the press of ITV’s big-budget Survivor losing the ratings war (down to 5.3 million viewers by Bank Holiday Monday, with BB closing at 3.4 million). Needless to say, that other TV popularity contest, the General Election, isn’t getting a look-in.

Voter apathy is rife. I don’t work in an office with a water cooler, but I’m not getting much of a “buzz” (sorry, BT Cellnet) from the people I talk to. Many are abstaining and only know about Bubble and Penny from the papers. I am unable to vibe them up. Unlike Davina, I’m not hooked yet. I’ve been tuned in all week – on both channels and the stupid web stream (“rebuffering 35.9 Kbps”) – and I had to look up the names of Dean and Stuart before writing this. That’s bad, isn’t it?

So what, apart from refurnishing the house with curvy tables and adding a shag-pad, have the makers of Big Brother done to jolly up the format? The vote-in is a new twist. All week we have been urged to choose a new housemate to replace next Friday’s first evictee. This mini cattle-market only had the effect of reminding us how the new 10 actually talked their way in out of the reported 50,000 hopefuls: by prostituting themselves shamelessly. My hopes were vainly pinned on fortysomething grandmother Anne, but the phone-consensus went the way of Josh, a strapping lad who promised “nudity and naughtiness”. (At least, like model Natasha, he didn’t claim “attitude” with a straight face.) The ulterior motive of Big Brother 2 is all too clear. They need sex this time. We’re already a series behind the Germans and the Dutch on this score, hence the tiresomely fruity nature of nearly all the 2001 contestants. One of them’s a table-dancer for heaven’s sake!

Penny – currently a schoolteacher, but not for long it seems – may be the other housemates’ joint least-favourite (five votes each for she and dozy Welsh girl Helen on Friday), but the public may well prefer her to stay put, since she seems to be the most hormonally charged: necking with Paul, dropping her towel live on daytime E4 (what happened to the face-saving delay?), and generally looking “most likely to”. Bubble thinks all women want his magic (“You so want me,” he said to Amma in a “private” moment). Paul, he told us, loves women. Only old-timers Thingy, 36 (married with three kids), and Whatsisname, 37 (engaged), let the male side down in terms of wanting it. Gay sex is obviously beyond the realms of ratings-grabbing decency – or else why would the production team so cruelly deny camp Brian anyone to play with? He – and we – can only hope Josh swings.

Sex cursed through the bloodstream of week one like Bubble’s former drug of choice. The sun helped, keeping clothes down to a minimum. I’ve just flicked over to the web feed (much more user-friendly this year) and a morning aerobics session caused high-kicking Helen to complain, “Bet my knickers are showing.” Hmmm. The horse has already bolted, I fear. It was Helen (“Hilda”) who gave it the full porn starlet when posing legs akimbo for the mucky calendar midweek – a task cynically designed to shed kit (God, even boring Elizabeth “got them out”). Why didn’t they just lace Helen’s birthday champagne with Spanish Fly and be done with it?

I don’t wish to appear prudish. It’s just that the original Big Brother, though clearly fabricated, seemed to have a more organic life than this one. Here, the narrative came ready-unfolded. A symptom of last year’s phenomenal overground success, it has inevitably coloured both production expectations and the attitude of the contestants. They seem more aware of the cameras and “the nation” watching. Narinder the Asian Geordie (so perversely sexualised in bikini, high heels and goggles with that axe for the calendar) wondered to every-girl’s-pal Brian if any celebrities might be watching her. He suggested Stevie Wonder. Our thoughts immediately turned to the compulsive Celebrity Big Brother, which was a lot more fun than this: the already-famous bidding for mundanity, rather than vice versa.

What sort of person would volunteer for this ordeal when they know that the “fame” it offers ranges from presenting Chained on E4 (the oh-so-principled Mel) to the total humiliation of seeing your single enter the charts at 73 (Nichola)? Perhaps some of the single housemates are looking for true love, à la Tom and Claire who have just announced they are having a baby. Maybe the self-conscious Penny simply wants out of her underpaid job (where they think she’s “a complete lunatic!”) Maybe Bubble just wants the 70 grand for his little daughter, to prove to his estranged girlfriend that he is not a loser. Such stories ought to make this appointment TV. It isn’t. Yet.

But then Bazal/Endemol are caught in a cleft stick. Are they running a straight franchise here like Last of the Summer Wine or Police Academy? Conventional wisdom has it that audiences fear change and prefer to know exactly what they’re going to get. And Big Brother didn’t look broke when 10 million tuned in and seven million phoned at the death last summer – so why fix it? The pressure is on to deliver Channel 4 – and their multiple commercial partners – another cultural-event-of-the-year. More of the same, in other words. But the bar has been raised by everything from Survivor and Boot Camp, to Surviving the Iron Age and the appalling Chained, and these people have their professional pride. You can imagine bosses Ruth Wrigley and Conrad Green saying, “Oh it’s totally different this time. The audience get to vote someone in! And the first eviction is going to be a day earlier than the housemates think!”

Big Brother 2 is more of the same, and so much less. The innocence is gone. The tabloids have hit the ground running this time to compensate for their Pearl Harbor-style lateness last year (both The Mirror and The Sun claim to be the “official Big Brother paper”), but their appetite for stories merely highlights the lack of anything worth writing about thus far. One “Fuck you, arsehole!”, one drink-driving conviction and a flash of muff.

On Wednesday, or so the desperate papers told us, the housemates were ordered inside when fireworks went off near the house. Shouldn’t they be going off indoors?

There’s every chance it’ll pick up. But Dean is no Tom, Brian is no Anna and Bubble is no Craig, despite what the producers must have desperately hoped. The promise of sex is not enough to keep me glued. Not when they’re eating live slugs and snuffing out symbolic flames on Survivor. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from reality TV, it’s that the further away it gets from reality the better. Last year, during the post-Nick lull, Big Brother turned into a bunch of people talking about being on Big Brother. This year it’s started out that way. Except their knickers are showing.


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