Celebrity Big Brother

Friday, November 29, 2002 by

In the end it wasn’t anything particularly remarkable or extraordinary that lifted Celebrity Big Brother out of the humdrum; it was a handful of unexpectedly human and subdued scenes that slipped through and caught you unawares.

The turning point was a day or so after Goldie had left. His absence seemed to give the other contestants more room to explore and exploit their circumstances, and in turn become a bit more aware of the game they were playing. The marathon quilting session had already helped create a situation conducive to late night confessions and one on one revelations; now these became more commonplace, further encouraging a sense that at last we were watching something quirky and unusual rather than merely a joyless parade of comedy wigs.

And so at last the programme took on more of an identity, distinguishable from previous Big Brother efforts. Somewhere along the way it was almost as if everyone’s dogged insistence in adhering to a set of unspoken rules and conventions momentarily lapsed. Maybe it was the aftermath of the first eviction, arguably always something of a watershed moment, that did the trick and shook up everyone’s concentration. Certainly the fact it was Goldie who left played a major factor in tipping the course of events away from the precocious and contrived and towards one of an uneasy resolve. From that point on, the mood in the house became stoically chipper, where the desire to bottle everything up was always being overwhelmed by the need to be handwringingly tearful and honest. Out of that came the endless, earnest theorising and analysing from Les Dennis and Sue Perkins, laid on in full for us at home, flipping between the engrossing to the irritating and back again.

It was during the quilting task that we were also able to glimpse more of Anne Diamond’s personality, in particular her attitude towards herself and her very pronounced public reputation. To hear this high-profile figure with almost 20 years exposure in the national spotlight – plus an unending barrage of media criticism and sniping – speaking candidly about her campaign against cot deaths was a genuinely absorbing moment.

Was she aware of the cameras or not? Was it unprompted, or had she been waiting for the right time to raise the topic? Whatever, the fact her responses sounded utterly sincere and self-effacing found a resonance within the otherwise largely sterile feel to the show. From then onwards, Anne became easily the most interesting person in the house, and her eviction at such an early stage was a terrible shame. To have her lose out to Sue, who seemed to spend the majority of her time on screen exaggerating her sassy, neurotic wisecracking credentials, was even more of a disappointment. The following programmes became obsessed with Sue and her mounting dislike of Les, a trend that became rather tiresome, so that eventually you found your sympathies shifting over to Melinda Messenger and Mark Owen. After all, they knew when to shut up, seemed most sensitive to the group as a whole, and accordingly were able to win this viewer’s trust and respect.

But just as various commendable and exciting elements emerged over the course of Celebrity Big Brother‘s final days, so too did more irritations. The obsession with repeating both what we already knew and had already seen became more extreme than ever before. As such huge leaps had to be made whenever we returned to real time, often requiring Davina to sum up a more recent, unaired task and its consequences in three seconds. What we’d witnessed live the night before was fussily recapitulated the night after, and so on to the extent that out of an hour’s worth of nightly screen time only half really merited tuning in for. The result was a sprinkling of choice clips undermined by an overdose of tedium, and the amount of energy invested in going over old ground might have put off as many returning viewers as it did pull in new ones.

This feeling of watching a kind of aimless meander through bits of footage pulled in from all over the place was in stark contrast to the neat and effective reels of “best bits” assembled to pay homage to each latest evictee. Loads of stuff in these montages were from scenes and incidents never ever shown during the main programmes, and they often looked a hell of a lot more fun and intriguing. There were occasional chances to glimpse a bit of it during the shoestring Celebrity Big Brother’s Little Brother, the companion E4 show valiantly held together by Dermot O’Leary who deserves much better than interviewing dream experts. As it was it seemed to be the curse that the high points of the main C4 shows were always flashed past in seconds (riding mattresses down the stairs) while the worst dragged out for minute upon minute (Sue Perkins’ pontificating, Les Dennis’ moaning).

Overall, though, the thing that most saved Celebrity Big Brother from becoming quite the missed opportunity this reviewer so confidently predicted last Friday wasn’t any sudden change of mood or emphasis, or a switch in presentation by the programme makers, or even a toning down of some of the more obvious and predictable elements of the format. It was just that, at the end of the day, and maybe in spite of rather than because of the footage we were shown, those personalities playing the game found the means and recourse to deliver us a half dozen or so moments of truly compelling telly.

They were moments of substance and clarity that will stick in the memory a fair while; they added to our understanding of those people and their celebrity world instead of just confirming our own preconceptions and prejudices. Those scenes in question may have been brief, businesslike or even throwaway – but this just seemed to add to their punch and their power.

So something did come of the programme. Mark Owen climbing into the pool wearing a giant cow head, Les Dennis’ morbid anecdotes about outliving not just Dustin Gee but the duo’s entire coterie of supporting musicians and compères – here at last were the raw materials for those crucial morning after debates and conversations. There may only have been half a dozen moments, but that was enough; and besides, they were certainly half a dozen more than either Big Brother 2 and 3 could offer.


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