Big Brother 2004

So, now that Big Brother has well and truly ended, the time has come to reflect on what we have learned. The set is being packed away, the crew are going on much needed summer holidays and the housemates are selling their stories to the tabloids. The question is: what remains of the experience?

Even to ask such a question is outrageous to most of the population. With viewing figures peaking at around seven million, that still leaves a good 60% of the television-watching public unmoved and often, as I found when talking to relatives, blatantly contemptuous. To my Dad, for instance, only morons go on the show and only morons watch it. He is bemused by why anyone would watch such irredeemably stupid people being stupid. To Daily Mail leader writers, Big Brother is quite a way down the slippery slope of decadence, a moral cancer at the heart of the nation. Such people claim Big Brother to be the modern-day equivalent of bear baiting and as Macaulay said: “the Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

Perhaps the success of Big Brother (over and above that of any other reality show) is down to fact that its pleasures are like those of bear baiting but with the supplementary veneer of irony. For there are roughly two groups of people who watch Big Brother – the ironic, educated voyeurs and the swinish multitude of housewives and teenagers. The genius of the most recent series is that it emphasised the difference between the two groups with the barely-sentient fag hag Emma clashing fiercely with Victor, the ironic, phrasemaking gangsta. The fact that the former was quietly ushered out says more about the production team fearing that they had unleashed a second Jade Goody than any problems of her being in the house.

Much talk centres on the way that TV infantilises the viewer, the adult equivalent of the maternal breast. The difference with Big Brother is that it teenagerises us. Watching it reminds me of the endless stream of gossip, bitchiness, hurt, sexual intrigue, contempt, clinging alliances, and stupidity of being at high school (with the character of Big Brother being a kind of headmaster/matron figure). The feeling of reliving your teenage years is a brilliant coup on the part of the producers. Perhaps the contempt of most adult viewers mirrors the disappointment of parents. Teenage life is, by its very nature, irresponsible and Big Brother contestants are too, if only because of their situation.

Let us remind ourselves what that situation is: up to 71 days in a house without books, TV, computers, pens, paper, radio, music, solitude, privacy, and contact with the outside world – it is a systematic deprivation far more complete than that of any monastery and one that most people cannot even countenance. Except with Big Brother you can, it allows you to imagine what it would be like to be in such a situation. This experimental aspect (cue reference to the Stanford experiment) is often ignored because most of the contestants want to be shallow, vacuous, ever-smiling television presenters, but as the endlessly fascinating weekly psychological analysis shows: people are more revealing of their inner thoughts when they are trying not to be revealing. The experimental side of Big Brother is highlight when the people leave. Almost instantly they lose whatever charisma they had within the house. They look like the goldfish they are, gasping for air.

Which brings us neatly on to the most modern aspect of Big Brother: the will to celebrity. Apparently everyone wants to be a celebrity nowadays. It is the equivalent in evolutionary terms of being a great warrior or chieftain – gaining unlimited sexual partners and the respect of people you don’t know. Perhaps what we are seeing is a shift in sensibility equivalent to that which occurred with the creation of the novel. In the 18th Century, the epistolary novel made inwardness more interesting, thus incubating the subjective passions of romanticism. Could the celebrity binary of shallow attractiveness (as plastic surgery hits the high streets) coupled with spiritual crisis (Kabbalah diets etc.) become an everyman archetype? Maybe, with Heat magazine as our Bible, it is certainly possible.

It is significant that, although I watched it, like most people who watch it self-consciously, I didn’t vote. The winner, Nadia, touched all the right buttons of the tabloid-classes: she was superficial, tragic, effervescent, and simultaneously different (transsexual) and familiar (aching to be accepted by the mainstream). And, as the iconic Geordie voice might say: WHO GOES, THEY DECIDE. Anyone who was different (Victor, Ahmed) without wishing to be accepted was sure to be voted out.

We live in the age of the remote control (and its cousin, the computer mouse) – boredom is clicked away rather than endured. Big Brother is a reflection of the age, distilling 24 hours of footage into 50 minutes of sensation. It is unlikely that interesting thoughts can come to fruition with so much distraction. Yet for all this, the combined pleasures of voyeurism, living vicariously and zeitgeist spotting are not to be sniffed at.

Same time next year?

Neil Scott | Autumn 2004