With the start of 2009 came a new series of Celebrity Big Brother. Despite the controversies of two years ago, which came tantalisingly close to snuffing the life out of this tired franchise altogether, the creature lives on, continuing to leave its grimy stain on British cultural life. Surely it’s now finally time for Big Brother, and its celebrity-based spin-off show, to have said their last farewells, and become a mere memory in the minds of the British people.
Firstly, I’d like to establish that the purpose of this article is not to criticise the concept of Big Brother. In theory it can be deemed a valid social experiment: placing a dozen or so people within a house and observing how they interact. The problem is that, in practice, recent series have become closer to farce than social experimentation. Back in those innocent days of the new millennium, the first series brought a group of people together who knew nothing of the implications of being a Big Brother contestant; to them, it was a television gameshow like any other, not an easy route to stardom. Because of this, we could watch normal people behaving in a normal way, and the claims that this was a ‘social experiment’ seemed valid. Such sweet innocence could not last long, however, and indeed nowadays contestants are so painfully aware of the fame that Big Brother can potentially bring that they’d never dream of acting in a way that was entirely natural or spontaneous: the public might not like the real you! In recent series, the actions of the contestants and the personas they develop, seem contrived; an attempt to appeal to the cameras, based on prior knowledge of what the public likes to see. Consequently viewers are not witnessing normal human behaviour, but a feigned simulation of it, created through a number of premeditated performances by half-witted pseudo-actors. This is surely more depressing than edifying.
And besides, we’ve definitely learned all there is to learn from Big Brother in the numerous series of the past nine years. Repeating the same format each year, with the same stock characters, is unlikely to yield anything new. I don’t think I’m being cynical for doubting how much of the human psyche can be unlocked from viewing the inane conversations, bedroom fumblings and, for Big Brother Live viewers, inexplicable bird noises, that constitute recent editions of this programme. An intelligent broadcaster like Channel 4 should have no place producing clapped-out programming like this. Leave the trash to Channel 5, your poorer, stupider neighbour.
Of course, there is another dimension to this. Some might argue that Big Brother is just a bit of harmless entertainment, and that not everything needs to have some form of intellectual justification. I agree, in principle, but I’d also like to point out that Big Brother and its progeny dominate Channel 4’s schedules for months each year. A huge amount of resources are put into their production. Surely if Big Brother came to an end this would allow Channel 4 to create a lot of new programming; to offer us things which are fresh and new, and aren’t constantly reminiscent of what happened in last year’s series (but this time with a few more transvestites chucked in). Because Big Brother still gets the ratings, Channel 4 feel compelled to continue it. Maybe if a few more of us switched off when that big blue eye came on, they could drop this tired format altogether. I say Big Brother had its time, but that time has passed: let’s have something new from a broadcaster that has shown it can do quality.
Not even the contestants can be said to gain anything out of these programmes in the long run anymore. Yes they become famous, but it’s necessarily ephemeral, for any fame acquired is not based on talent, but rather on satisfying the voyeuristic tastes of the British viewing public with drunken frolicking, tawdry relationship dilemmas and occasional nudity. Soon enough this audience will find new sources of entertainment. The positions of the Big Brother contestants in the popular consciousness will be usurped by new pretenders, and our erstwhile friends will join the cultural detritus of 2009, deep down in one of the many recesses of our collective subconscious.
Even the winners of Big Brother can only enter the Arcadia of celebrity for just one or two months; then they’re consigned to the Netherworld of fading stardom, scrambling frantically, and ultimately in vain, for media exposure, as if it were oxygen. Before long they’re all cast back down to reality as mortals, doomed to spend their remaining days touring Butlins camps and judging the beauty pageants of small, remote towns, whilst the lucky few might re-emerge periodically in the nether regions of cable TV on unwatched gameshows. There’s nothing worthwhile in that; those that apply for this show hoping for lasting stardom have been sadly deceived.
If Big Brother is indeed a microcosm of society, as its apologists suggest, then recent series would suggest that society is doomed. We are living in the dying days of western civilization. Of course there’s no need to worry; the show has ceased to have even the vaguest resemblance of British society. Most recent contestants aren’t ordinary people; rather, they tend to be drawn from the strains of our species which don’t appear to have fully evolved yet. Big Brother 2009 will no doubt tell us more about ape culture than anything else! This is why I think it’s time for the whole meretricious franchise to end. George Orwell famously wrote that ‘Big Brother is watching you’. Let us hope, for our sanity at least, that by 2010 we are no longer watching Big Brother.
By Ben Lloyd