Big Brother Live

Thursday, June 21, 2001 by

Hysteria in the tabloids, recriminations in the jacuzzi and nudity before the watershed – Big Brother 2 has pretty much picked up where the first series left off. But this time round there’s one key difference, because as everybody knows by now, you can follow the action round the clock on E4.

Last time out it was possible to watch events in the house at any time via the Big Brother website, an infuriating process for anyone – i.e. everyone – with a 56k modem. “Hey, come and look at this, Nasty Nick’s just admitted … oh no, hang on, it’s frozen again …”

The only frustration presented by E4′s transmissions are the infamous gaps in sound, ambient FX of trains or birds being inserted when the language is unsuitable for daytime broadcast, if the housemates refer to someone outside the house in potentially defamatory terms, or give too much away about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the show. Discussions about members of the production team in the first week were swiftly excised during the 15-minute delay inserted into the live coverage.

Big Brother Live has been a triumph for a channel which, despite some marquee imports of the calibre of ER and Friends, has underwhelmed many subscribers since its launch in January. And it’s been a godsend for newspaper editors desperate to fill acres of newsprint during an election campaign devoid of any real interest.

For the viewers at home, the attractions are clear. Stripped of Marcus Bentley’s measured narration and Davina McCall’s pseudo-Cilla post-eviction mothering, the sense of – well, let’s be honest – voyeurism should be heightened, in theory anyway, and more compellingly, there’s the perennial opportunity of seeing the big flashpoints as they occur. On E4, the watercooler moments can happen at any time.

So, that’s why, with barely a thought for my own sanity, I’m sitting down for 18 hours in front of the screen, to sample the E4 Big Brother experience for OTT. But to make the exercise worthwhile, I decided to see how watching E4 changed the perceptions of the housemates I formed by and large from the edited updates on Channel 4. And, with Narinder and Paul less than 24 hours away from eviction, could watching Big Brother Live even change my vote? Now, where’s that remote …?

0000: The vigil begins, and E4 helpfully warn us that “there may well be strong language”. Dean, Helen, Elizabeth and Amma are clustered around the kitchen, while Brian and Narinder are dancing and bouncing around irritatingly. Brian says Narinder, now doing gymnastics, smells. “You’ll have people turning off,” says Dean in background.

0007: Helen joins in the gymnastics. Badly. Narinder looks perturbed at this uncalled-for intrusion. Elizabeth and Dean wash up. In the garden, Brian and Narinder discuss the possibility this could be her last night in the house. “50,000 people have phoned in,” she tells the chickens.

0028: The others are talking about meeting celebrities. Bubble makes the shock revelation that Jordan isn’t very nice. Someone suggests a discussion about the person who most influenced your life, which Dean swiftly amends to the gingerest person you’ve ever met. Helen has been out with a ginge, we learn, but the C4 goons aren’t having any of that, prompting the first appearance of the night of the FX tape. The discussion about whether to have a discussion ends in a shambolic vote.

0038: Dean and Elizabeth are now in the garden, practising tai chi. We get a chicken’s eye view of the proceedings.

0051: In the bedroom with Brian and Narinder. “He has to go,” insists Naz, referring to Paul’s lack of enthusiasm for the discussion. “How dare he?” “You’re digging a hole for yourself so big,” replies Brian, “as big as your vagina, it’s a bucket.” Paul is very confident, they agree. “Do you think they’ve told him it’s in the bag?” ponders Naz. But it’s all grist to the mill for the soundbite-friendly Narinder. “Why live like The Waltons when you can live like Big Brother?”

0106: Brian says he’ll leave if Narinder is evicted, before offering to squeeze Bubble’s spot. Brian and Narinder start destroying Paul and Bubble’s bed, Brian essaying his hilarious “spastic” impression of Paul.

0128: Someone’s nicked Helen’s cuddly Dalmatian, “an’ I’m not ‘appy!” This is the cue for a massive pillow fight. Bubble suspects Brian, “cos e’s looking innocent for once.” Sure enough, the toy’s in Brian’s bed. It rapidly emerges that the whole thing’s a Bubble set-up. “‘e made me do it,” insists Helen, “‘e twisted my arm!” Brian’s sick of Bubble’s pranks. “I’m so raging …”

0141: Helen’s heard shouting, “Paul, I don’t want you kissin’ me, gerroff!”, which is the cue for everyone to dash into the girl’s bedroom to find Paul motionless on the floor, covered in blood. Coming 10 minutes after the last prank it’s a bit transparent, especially to Josh who decides to taste the “blood”.

0214: The girls are all in bed. And discussing Big Brother. Elizabeth says Brian reckons “people love me or hate me”, and that “if you were watching this 24 hours a day, you’d get a different perspective”. They wonder why Paul has been nominated twice in a row, but this isn’t seen as a disadvantage, “one guy in Holland was up for eviction six weeks in a row and he won,” reveals Elizabeth. Amma reckons that when she’s up for eviction, “the whole of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales will be ringing in to get that bitch off screen.” And Narinder adds “I know I’m going to be seen as the bitch.” Helen wonders if the viewers formed their opinions of the housemates solely from the introductory featurette and they way they walked in. Elizabeth, perceptive as ever, reckons she’ll be seen as “the flan and quiche girl.”

0246: Paul interrupts the girlie chat with news from the boys room, where he’ s thrown a beetle at Brian, who responds by covering Paul’s bed in shaving foam. Bubble meanwhile throws rice at Brian, who believes he’s been showered in maggots, squealing “they’re eating me!” Top marks to Josh for his remarkably accurate impression of Brian.

0319: Housemates – and viewer – are drifting off to sleep. Helen “can’t wait to watch it at home, with wine, chocolate and chips.”

0325: Lights off. The girls have noticed a secret corridor behind a window which hasn’t been properly curtained off. “Seven bloody cameras in this room,” counts Helen, “… bloody ‘ell!”

0820: Awake, although the housemates aren’t. E4 switches between the two bedrooms and the goldfishcam. Ponder on whether the goldfish bowl is, like, some kind of comment on the goldfish bowl-like nature of the housemates’ lives. Or just a goldfish bowl.

0944: Big Brother announces the hot water is on. General stirring.

0950: Big Brother orders Josh and Bubble to put their mics on. Josh is summoned to the diary room to collect fresh mic batteries.

1001: General getting up. Bubble plans to do some washing. The storeroom opens. Paul spends an unfeasibly long time applying moisturiser and adjusting his hair.

1046: Bubble’s sunbathing. Helen’s straightening Amma’s hair.

1139: Narinder’s applying some kind of, well, hair remover to her upper lip. “I’ve got to do some stuff to take my mind off it,” she tells Elizabeth. “That camera has not stopped following me all morning.”

1150: Helen is summoned to the diary room. The hair straightening product is dangerous and must be used with care, Big Brother informs her. “They’re just covering themselves,” she concludes.

1208: “I feel the day is going to go really, really slowly,” reckons Narinder. Helen says the most surreal element of BB will be being interviewed by Davina. “I can’t wait to see the studio with those huge pictures of us.”

1221: Brian gets tooled up with a dustbin lid shield and broom, ready to feed the chickens. It’s too much temptation for Bubble, who throws feed at Brian’ s feet, and an army of chickens start pecking at him, to his obvious discomfort. He claims his fear of chickens is due to a friend who had two eyes pecked out by a turkey. Bubble, unsurprisingly, is incredulous.

1234: More poultry-related hilarity with Brian, as Bubble attempts to lock him in the chicken coop. “They can smell fear,” cautions Dean. “Just go away somewhere and die,” trills Brian to Bubble.

1245: Dean can’t believe “people” – i.e. Vanessa, Anthea, Jack et al – “struggled for a week in here.”

1308: Brian helps Bubble with his washing. “No more chicken fun for you,” promises Bubble, who characteristically manages to mix his whites and his colours.

1317: Brian and Narinder are in the kitchen, discussing the housemates’ culinary skills. Helen’s quite good, reckons Brian. “She chops a few things and puts two cups away,” retorts Naz. Brian suggests she should keep her mouth shut. “I’m so tired of you telling me what to do,” she says, storming into the bedroom. “I’m so out of this house,” she tells Amma. Her rage is compounded by a comment Paul made about how he’d lose to Helen in a vote, seemingly taking his survival for granted.

1333: Elizabeth wants to set up an obstacle course. Bubble, Dean and Paul discuss the World Cup.

1526: Dean’s playing his guitar and singing. Brian and Bubble dance along, Bubble’s crutches flailing away. Amma ridicules the ridiculous questioning she endured in the diary room.

1608: Everyone’s in the garden, belatedly discussing the most influential person in their lives. Paul, Amma and Elizabeth select their mums. Narinder talks about the influence of her elder brother. Bubble plumps for his mum and a nightclub manager. Brian picks his best friend Richard, who helped him through a bad time with his ex-boyfriend, “with all the scissors and stuff …” although we never get to hear the end of this story. Josh picks some New Zealand travellers he once met.

1654: Amma makes reference to “the people in the wall, filming”, before giving Narinder half a profiterole in some kind of final act of solidarity.

1705: Back from a break to see Bubble mouthing off at Brian. Silence. It’s incredibly frustrating.

1718: Paul’s firing up the hot tub and singing a version of Space Oddity.

1727: Amma informs Bubble, who’s in bed, that he’s got to measure his injured leg.

1731: Live transmission ends with Bubble returning the measuring tape to the diary room.

So what did we learn from almost 18 hours of non-stop Big Brother cabin fever? Perhaps the biggest revelation is the amount of time the housemates devote to talking about the show itself. From the lovely Helen’s endearing desire to see the massive picture of herself in Davina’s studio, to the girls’ late night discussion on how E4′s viewers will perceive them, to Narinder complaining that her every pre-eviction movement is all being tracked by the camera, it reveals an acute awareness of the dynamics of the show that’s rarely revealed on the C4 show, and then only usually in the diary room. In itself, that’s one of the weaknesses of E4′s live coverage, as we never go live inside the diary room. It’s unclear whether the producers are just keeping that particularly potent powder dry for C4, or whether they just don’t want us to see the mechanics at work – the doctor examining Bubble’s leg or the replenishment of the microphone batteries, for instance. But there’s little more frustrating than seeing someone enter the diary room, while the camera remains unblinkingly fixed on the door.

But how did watching the housemates for so long affect my perceptions of them? The truth is, very little. It was interesting to see, say, Narinder express her hopes and fears about what life would be like outside the house, but I’d already experienced enough of her patently obnoxious character – on C4 previously and during this E4 marathon – for this new, sensitive side to elicit any sympathy. You get a sense that, yes, the C4 programmes are weaved around a narrative, but that’s only possible because the raw material is there to work with. Elizabeth was only half-right when she claimed that watching the house live gives you a different perspective. By and large it affirms your opinions of the housemates, rather than altering them. Big Brother Live simply offers the ultimate director’s cut of the original – occasionally the drama is heightened, but the longeurs are longer too.

And my vote? Narinder had to walk. I just couldn’t stand the [insert train sound FX here]…


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