Big Brother

Monday, July 31, 2000 by

Who did you vote for? Was it Sada, with her tarot cards, crystals and droning mantras about being “one with the Goddess”? Or was it Caroline, with the machine-gun laugh, enormous teeth and pineapple hair? The first two weeks of Big Brother climaxed with us the viewers getting the chance to pass judgment on the fate of this irksome pair of contestants, and then seeing how the remaining occupants in the house coped with their former comrade’s dramatic departure.

No doubt about it, Big Brother is extremely enjoyable television. For the most part it appeals to those traits we’d rather not own up to: our passion for nosiness, eavesdropping, gossip, rumour, and watching people being nice to each other’s face then slagging them off behind their back. That’s it with Big Brother, mainly – a fascinating experiment into how people scheme up new ways of betraying each other and how polite pleasantries fade into bitchy asides under the breath and then to open warfare.

It’s the ultimate in the long TV tradition of making others suffer for our sake: the Big Brotherhouse is a gigantic science lab where the specimens are people like ourselves and the apparatus a load of cameras and microphones everywhere from the toilet to the garden shed.

Channel 4 have made this programme a success by selling it as an event – proper appointment television, with regular chances for viewer interaction (by voting for one contestant to be kicked out each week), and above all creating the feeling that this is a national “thing”, a happening, an occasion, unique to British screens, nothing less than a piece of broadcasting history. And consequently, you want to be involved, and thanks to regular daily updates on what’s been going on in the house promising full and frank details of who likes/hates/fancies/loathes who (and the inevitable who’s-going-to-shag-who-first) Big Brother is a winner.

But over the first two weeks of the programme it’s become increasingly clear how editorialised each update is – to the point where the assembling and sequencing of an apparently random collection of highlights from each day is now being engineered to leave the viewer in no doubt as to who is hero and villain. So we’ve seen plenty of shots of two contestants, Nick and Andrew, conspiring over who to nominate for eviction (each week it’s the housemates themselves who select which pair the public must decide between). But why not similar footage of the other males, such as Thomas or Darren? For it was made clear that, through some kind of collective strategy, all the blokes voted for Sada and Caroline to be thrown out; and thus there must have been captured at some point footage of Thomas assenting to collude, or at the very least being approached to join the scheme. Yet none was shown and the moral waters remain, in his regard, unmuddied.

The longer things like this have gone on, the more the feeling grows that what we’re seeing on telly each night is a supremely distorted, manufactured version of events, dictated not by theBig Brother contestants but the production team and whoever it is on high (in C4) who has decreed that, yes, Thomas is the good guy, Nick the bad guy, you must make this programme accordingly. But does that really matter?

Well, what if the contestants started becoming more unpredictable and wry in their own tactics towards C4 – deciding, for instance, that they can’t be bothered playing the game today so they’re all going to stay in bed for 24 hours. Or not say anything to each other in a vow of silence. Or ignore one of the tasks or discussion topics Big Brother sets them. Or make sure every sentence they utter is full of the choicest swearwords they can think of; or is prefaced with constant acknowledgements that the whole thing is staged (“Shall we play strip poker for the cameras to film?”/ “Shall we have an argument so they can put something in the next episode?”) Watching the contestants become more self-aware of the mechanics of the whole set-up has been one of the most intriguing aspects to Big Brother so far.

However, during the first week it was almost as if C4 didn’t want you to tune in – by scheduling ridiculously brief updates at a different time every single night, it felt they were perversely trying to shake off any audience interest they’d established off the back of the opening 60 minute episode. The second week was better: half-hour updates every night at 11pm. This still felt wrong, though, as if C4 were ashamed of the programme so they’d stick it on when most people would be getting ready for bed. The level of swearing doesn’t preclude scheduling the updates nearer to 9pm – so presumably it’s the prejudice of C4 programme planners and schedulers that means we’ve had to sit up extremely late to watch Big Brother (never mind have to choose between it and the repeats of This Life on BBC2 on at the same time).

The updates need to be on earlier, and need to be longer. Also, without access to the internet you’re relying totally on these half-hour clip packages and it’s become patently clear many things are being missed out, or abbreviated, or edited together. It’s annoying too that the updates are not even highlights of that day – they’re of the day before; so come Friday’s live programme, room has to be found for updating events from over 36 hours ago. A problem.

The actual first eviction was fumbled by C4. Instead of waiting to reveal the result to both the viewers and the contestants at the same time, host Davina McCall told us first, thereby completely ruining the tension. She did this by rather stupidly showing us the vote as it stood five minutes or so before the phone lines closed – yeah, as if those remaining few minutes could overturn the outcome of the tens of thousands of calls already logged.

McCall handled the whole event very poorly. She couldn’t remember Darren’s name, desperately referring to him as “the guy who’s scared of chickens”; and was thrown by the contestants’ behaviour on learning that Sada had been chosen to leave (they all started cheering, Sada cooing unconvincingly “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”) Proceedings were split between two separate live broadcasts, the first at 8.30pm with the announcement of the result, the second at 11pm and the actual departure of Sada from the house. Again, this completely deflated the atmosphere and momentum – we should have stayed in the house right through the evening, watching them all come to terms with the result, seeing more clips from the previous day or so …

As Sada left the house, cries of “Witch!” were audible from the rain-swept masses. The post-eviction interview was derailed as Davina and Sada were totally upstaged by the screens on the wall behind them showing the housemates celebrating deliriously – meaning you wanted to find out what was going on there rather than hear Sada pontificating for one second longer. Then Davina was again exposed as being not properly briefed on the habits of the housemates – as, indeed, were we, for none of us had prior knowledge that there were two bisexuals in the house, not one. If C4, as Big Brother, supposedly sees and hears everything that goes on in the house, why weren’t they prepared for this revelation from Sada in that post-eviction interview?

To end this shambles, Davina ran outside into the pouring rain to ask one of the crowd who they’d think would be thrown out next – only to receive the response, “I want Nick out, he’s such a prick.”

Since Sada’s departure the programme has, if anything, become a bit boring. The nine remaining contestants appear to have forgotten about their erstwhile colleague remarkably swiftly, and have to be clumsily provoked into talking about her by Big Brother. Their new task involves a Krypton Factor-esque marathon on an exercise bike, which has so far made for endless dull footage of each contestant peddling for hours on end. We’ve also seen more shrinks wheeled on to pad out the updates and an intriguing increase in the number of times the housemates are prone to talking straight to camera. However watching their displays of good humour, companionship and bonding has really been distinctly unsatisfying, with the result it’s actually quite hard to predict which two will be next up for nomination.

So we’re in a trough, but it doesn’t matter. Even the mediocrity (“this is booooring” moaned Andrew at one stage) is somehow compulsive (and tomorrow night we peak again as the nomination process starts anew). To be inside these people’s lives, to know more than they do and to ultimately wield the stick at those who displease us is irresistible.

We are the Thought Police.


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