Don’t See it that Way

Jack Kibble-White on Big Brother and narrative

First published September 2000

Imagine how disarming it would be. You go to the theatre to watch a play and in the middle of the performance a member of the audience stands up and demands that the actors abandon their text to talk about how they are “feeling”. Such a disruption would explode the fictional artifice of the performance, and leave you – as a member of the audience – feeling uncomfortable yet probably still compelled to stay. Now, let’s say you found the ensuing conversation between the audience member and the actors more interesting then the scheduled production: might you then not leave thinking that we had – until now – been wasting the potential of theatre by using it as a medium for the telling of fictional narratives? This might be a shocking re-evaluation of one entertainment medium, but Channel 4′s Big Brother makes you question TV in a similar manner. Often billed as a “window on the world”, television has – in fact – been anything but. It is exclusively a narrative medium. Thus, even when relaying “the truth” (be it in documentary or news) television always “tells stories”. If television wishes to broadcast it, then it will communicate via narrative. It will never simply let it be.

Big Brother‘s innovation is not in its central idea (after all others have allowed their lives to be broadcast via the internet for some time now), but in appreciating that such a concept could translate to television. Although compromised by the requirement to construct stories and enforce contrivances on proceedings, Big Brother tantalised us by suggesting that television may prove just as entertaining as a medium for surveillance as it is for conventional story telling. Taken to its logical extreme, channel hopping of the future might consist of jumping from family broadcast to family broadcast, each having consented to seeing their lives represented via this “new” medium. Of course one only has to endure the 7am live episodes of Channel 5′s Jailbreak to appreciate exactly how tedious such a future would be. Yet whilst others may prophesise more and more extreme and intrusive television of this ilk, such Orwellian doom mongering would be to ignore the real genius behind Big Brother, namely its ability to create a format that adheres to the conventions of drama whilst retaining the veneer of truly innovative television.

As viewers we were unable to decide how to translate this programme, but this was to be one of its greatest pleasures. As each eviction came and went, and the doors to the outside world were opened, the contestants would jump around, shout and generally behave in a manner alien to that we had become accustomed to. If Big Brother was indeed a drama, then these moments were the actors’ fag breaks. In truth, it was difficult ever to view the contestants as anything other then fictional characters as their life within the house seemed to adhere so closely to recognised dramatic models. Like our favourite soap operas, major (nomination and eviction) and minor (tasks and shopping) plot lines developed during the weeks, ensuring that there would be enough incident inflicted upon the inhabitants to compensate for any protracted periods of inactivity. Yet for the most part, such a routine merely underpinned the more sensational drama created by the inhabitants themselves. Big Brother reached its dramatic zenith in the week leading up to Nick’s departure. By this time we had come to know the cast well enough to become sufficiently interested in their agendas and shared predicament, yet there was still enough of them to be able to generate sufficient intrigue to obfuscate the mechanics of the programme. In retrospect, the Nick “plotline” concluded at the best time. Had he stayed on much longer, there would not have been enough “victims” left “alive” to provide the confrontation with the multiple dramatic agendas it required to truly reveal his “nastiness”.

The inexorable movement towards a conclusion is another masterstroke of the format. The BBC’s Castaway uses the groups’ necessity to create a self-sufficient community to drive the programme forward. However, Channel 5′s Jailbreak has no unavoidable conclusion and suffers as a result. Either contestants will find a way out or they won’t: either way the show will end after three weeks. In the meantime the participants are left to their own devices. The inclusion of cryptic clues within the jail complex attempts to provide some progression in the narrative, but instead undermines the authenticity of the programme’s environment, thus disrupting Jailbreak‘s fictional conceit. BB was cleverer. It never attempted to create a sense of realism. Therefore, prodding the contestants into being more interesting was an allowable and welcome intrusion. Also, one suspects Jailbreak will require contrivances to exact a winner from the group. Big Brother‘s inherent structure ensured that a victor would be arrived at without having to spoon-feed any of the contestants into a winning position. Like all the best plots, the story’s conclusion had been mapped out even before it had begun.

Whilst its format is to be applauded, the continuing whittling down of the group did have a dramatic trade-off. The final fortnight of Big Brother became focused on those very artifices previously so well disguised. With relatively few outlets left for social interaction, the remaining quartet found themselves subjugated to the Big Brother schedule. Previously, nomination and eviction had provoked drama and conflict, now these processes became the drama. Caroline’s departure divided the house in to two separate conflicting factions – the act of eviction highlighting the attitudinal differences nestling within the group. However, by the time Mel was kicked out there was no significant aftermath. Instead the inexorable wait began for the next Big Brother-initiated activity. Thankfully Big Brother did not ask us to endure a week of just Anna and Craig before terminating the whole affair, thus there seems to have been an awareness of this weakness in the format.

Post Big Brother we are invited to embrace a world where the inhabitants have – once again – become one of us, and, one of “them”. Nick attending movie premieres with Brad Pitt, Andy crashing race cars, Tom going topless in The Sun and “big-upping” his home town are all hedonistic delights for them but betrayals for us. We might have scoffed at those who believed that Les Grantham really was Dirty Den, yet for us to continue to see Nick Bateman as Nasty Nick or even Craig Phillips as “Errr … Craig” is just as stupid. Think of Big Brother this way: it was an extended piece of improvisation in which 11 actors were told to “basically play yourselves”. Think of Big Brother as the most obvious idea in television history it could have happened at any time, it just so happens that the “time” was now. And think of Big Brother as the best show of the summer of 2000, and probably (if the first wave of successors are anything to go by) the best formulated programme that we shall see in this genre.

Be sad it’s over.