Big Brother: 78 days re-nationalising our privatised culture

by Stephen Tall on August 11, 2005

I’m going to make no bones about it; I’m not going to attempt to hide it; it’s no more than the truth. I am a Big Brother addict, and Friday represents, for me, the climax of 11 weeks’ gloriously, excruciatingly compulsive telly. I’ve tried to understand the views of those who feign not to care, who believe such cultural facetiae to be, in some way, beneath them – but such wrong-headed opinions, and their begetters, baffle me. If you think human beings, with all their failing, flailing frailties, are in any way fascinating, then Big Brother is an anthropological treasure trove.

And, without doubt, this year’s show has been the best yet. I will qualify this remark with two caveats. First, BB6’s contestant-performers have been the least likeable. They have – remarkably, without exception – bitched, argued, tantrummed, fought and moaned since Day 1; their utter failure to attempt to relate to each other, or to pull together as a group, has put even the Tories’ leadership infighting to shame. Had they lived by the maxim, “Unless you’ve got something nice to say, say nothing,” E4 would have been broadcasting soundless wallpaper.

What a contrast with the ‘nice’ characters of yore – BB1’s Anna, the lesbian nun (still my favourite ever contestant. My BT phone bill later revealed I voted over 30 times for her, though that was back in my drinking days.); BB2’s Brian, the hyper-kinetic ‘trolley dolly’; BB3’s Alex, the fey hygiene-retentive; and BB5’s Dan, the ultra-perceptive hairdresser. (Devotees will note I omit BB4 entirely: some history truly is best forgotten.) This year’s house-mates have given great telly, but I thank God none of my acquaintances, let alone friends, wear their angsty inferiorities so brazenly.

My second caveat: the original Big Brother had a charm, simplicity, and bold experimentalism which will earn it a deserved place in the annals of British cultural history. It marked the genesis of smart cross-platform media marketing – the internet came of age the day Nasty Nick’s duplicity was rumbled – but its naïve, hands-off treatment of contestants bore the stamp of a more innocent reality era. In the most recent Celebrity BB, the producers jumped the shark when they sprung Jackie Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen’s ex-mum-in-law, into the house to join her shocked daughter-in-law: to open up a big can of whoop-ass on only one of the house-mates is just plain vindictive.

But the creative geniuses at Endemol have excelled themselves with BB6, and so restored the concept’s cred. They have messed with the contestants minds big-style, but with a wit, style, élan and purpose which has kept contestants and viewers alike perpetually on their toes. Purists will claim this is a betrayal of the original BB conceit, to observe the housemates, Desmond Morris-like, interacting ‘naturally’ with each other. But that is to miss the point – when do you think you see your friends’ true mettle: when everything’s just hunky-dory; or when one or other of you is under personal strain? The Big Brother mind-fuck is an essential ingredient of what makes this show appointment telly.
There is, of course, a bigger point here, and one which is my lame justification for this indulgent article. It is a corollary of our fragmented viewing habits that we now crave ‘event telly’, those rare water-cooler shows which grip obsessed segments of the viewing masses.

Long gone are the heydays of the 1970 and ’80s, when the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show or EastEnders could draw audiences of up to 30 million. Channel 4’s eagerly awaited new drama, Lost, premiered on Wednesday with six million viewers – not bad for a minority channel. That it was the most popular in its slot, though, demonstrates just how steep has been the absolute decline in audience figures in the last 20 years, reflecting the latter-day explosion in multi-channel digital choice, video games, DVDs and the internet.

Event telly now must be ‘as live’ – anything pre-recorded is leaked to The Sun or Heat well before it hits our screens, and ‘spoiler’ message-boards happily kill our feline curiosity. Hence the storming success of shows like I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother, and the buzz created even by bland TV concerts like Live 8 and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The über-stringent security arrangements for the publication of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was not simply a marketing gimmick. It was recognition of the saleable power of a unique modern phenomenon: an event publication.

The life of the modern consumer is an atomised, increasingly private, existence. I can gossip with my friends, about people on TV I’ve never met, by e-mail, text or MSN. I can download my music from iTunes, order my books or DVDs from Amazon, and watch whichever programme Sky+ has selected for me whenever I want. I can view the ebb and flow of my finances via online banking. My wireless broadband enables me to work from home, minimising contact with colleagues. It is in just such a ‘privatised’ culture that national events and public space become that much more vital.

As the writer Jonathan Franzen has put it:

“Everybody needs a promenade sometimes – a place where you go when you want to announce to the world (not the little world of friends and family, but the big world, the real world) that you have a new suit, or that you’re in love, or that you suddenly realize you stand a full inch taller when you don’t hunch your shoulders.”

For the Big Brother contestants, the house is their promenade in the big world, the real world; for the viewers, the house becomes, for 78 days, our little world of friends. Yet it seems to me a meta-irony that a programme like Big Brother – in which each individual contestant’s privacy is stripped bare – should enable the rest of us to enjoy a mass, coming-together public event. But that is what it is: a conversation-starting, show-stopping spectacle, which has helped re-nationalise our privatised culture.

All of which begs just one question: who do I want to win? Well, I’m used to supporting hopeless causes lacking popular support, so I’ve already texted Makosi to 64404. Go on, you know it makes sense. And remember, vote early, vote often…