Why the return of the reality TV flagship show is nothing to put the bunting out for.
On Sunday, April 17th 2022, Twitter was buzzing more than giant wasps in creaky old B movies. Had Depp and Heard kissed and made up? Had Boris Johnson resigned? Had something happened in Russia? No. It was the news that Big Brother, the original reality show, was poised to make a return to ITV2. Possibly. It was in development. It was being talked about. And this is where I sighed, switched my phone off, and looked for something else to do.
Before I’m accused of cultural snobbishness (fair cop), I’ll point out that I loved the first Big Brother. Originally broadcast in 2000, it featured ten people, all older than 22, put in a house together in Bow, East London, and monitored for 24 hours a day. The only way you could watch this was on an internet livestream or the carefully curated highlights programme broadcast on C4 late each night. The original contestants were all unknowns, and all, to be fair – pretty normal. An office administrator, a florist, a stockbroker, a designer…these were people who had relatively normal jobs, and normal lives. The only really outrageous contestants were Caroline O’Shea, a then 37-year-old Brummie who had once sold sex toys, and Nichola Holt, an artist. But the attempts by the tabloids to paint them as wild and crazy seem ridiculous when you consider some of the characters put in the house by the late noughties. But in the pre-Facebook, pre-social media, pre-iPhone world, when mobile phones only rang and sent texts and people didn’t spend their time broadcasting the minutiae of their lives, it was genuinely ground-breaking. The closest the house got to a snog was between two clever graduates, Andy and Mel, and the only real drama was the not-very-clever attempt by ‘Nasty Nick’ Bateman to cheat. And he was discovered. And politely ejected without violence or a punch being thrown. Anna Nolan, the runner-up and now a successful Irish TV presenter, described the household as “ten innocent fools”. Not a bad summarisation. Touted as a social experiment, it pulled in the viewers. And then that was it – Big Brother was on every summer. Except, by the time it ended, this household really did seem overly innocent. And frankly, as the years rolled on, I passed on it.
So what went wrong? Why did Big Brother go from something I really loved, to something I avoided for several years until its final demise? The answer is pretty simple – demands for ratings, a noisy, social media-driven world, and the growing trend from the mid-noughties for people to become famous simply by going on TV – never mind if you had any talent. But part of the problem was that as the media became ever more interested in Big Brother and used the contestants’ antics to fill newspapers in the summer, the casting became less about finding people with robust constitutions and strong mental health who could withstand scrutiny and more about finding the Freaks Who Would Entertain. The 2001 series had similar casting to the first, but in the third the decision was made to drop the ‘over 21’ standard, leading to the casting of Jade Goody, a then 19-year-old from Bermondsey. Ms Goody, who has since passed away, became a tabloid hate figure due to her lack of knowledge and seeming ignorance. The fact that she had had a difficult childhood, missing school because of an unwell mother and was poor did not invite any compassion. In the summer of 2002, the red-tops were aghast at this woman who dared to flaunt her larger-than-a-size-10 body and asked “Rio De Janeiro? Ain’t that a person?”. Britain, the tabloids decided, was going to the dogs because of this. Bile was poured forth upon her, including from feminist academic Germaine Greer, who brutally dismissed her as a “fat slag”. Goody came fourth, but she set a standard for contestants. Every year, it seemed, the race was on to find people who would be more embarrassing and draw more tabloid bile than her. 2004 featured a gay man who hated asylum seekers pitted against a homophobic asylum seeker, a radical lesbian feminist, two gobby brunettes and model-gorgeous blondes, and a macho wannabe bodybuilder. The result? ‘Fight Night’, in which the producers’ decision to remove the two brunettes only to drop them back into the house sparked a furious bust-up that led to viewers calling the police and the C4 complaints switchboard lighting up like New Year’s Eve. Astonishingly, the programme was allowed to be continued, with only the removal of one contestant – Emma, a vulnerable young woman whose IQ was so low that she was considered to have a learning disability. The tabloids wrang their hands and again complained that Britain was going to the dogs…but ooh, hello, lots of LOVELY HEADLINES!! And of course, people tuned in – because everyone wanted to see what would happen next.
What happened next was the producers seemed to make the jump from casting people who were wild and argumentative to people who were actually suffering from mental illness. 2006 featured a man with Tourette’s Syndrome, a woman who was a recovering anorexic (who tragically has since died), an ex-porn actress with an addiction to plastic surgery, and a 31-year-old who had never had a job and who threatened to die by suicide on screen. The 2006 series lasted fifteen weeks and seemed an endless not-so-merry-go-round of people coming and going, screaming catfights, and genuine nastiness. It’s worth pointing out that this was the year Facebook started to peep up, but there was still no Twitter. Which is a good thing, as the mental fragility of some of these contestants was unravelling on screen – the prospect of strangers broadcasting their thoughts on a micro-blogging site would push some of them too far. This was no longer TV as a social experiment, but more TV as a cruel ‘survival of the fittest’ bear pit. The Guardian pointed out that “from the opening moments, it was clear that not all was well.” You can claim that the people who go into Big Brother know what they’re going into – but don’t the producers have a duty to ensure that people can withstand it? Watching people break down in normal life is distressing. Watching it happen on television because they believe they might get a celebrity career out of it is nauseatingly unpleasant. By this point, Big Brother resembled its first incarnation about as closely as a raven resembles a washing machine. This was no longer a social experiment – it was a freak show with the smell of money firmly at the centre. The more damaged people were, the more likely they would produce TV people would want to watch. But it also smacked of a comment TV producer Paul Ross once made about the ‘Hopefuls’ strand on then-defunct C4 show The Word, in which complete unknowns would perform disgusting stunts because they wanted to be on TV. As Ross recalled on one clip show in the early 2000s: “you had all these deadbeats and losers, and show-offs claiming they were desperate to be on the telly. So we thought, let’s humiliate them.” Translate Ross’s remarks to the later seasons of Big Brother and you have to wonder if the producers took those comments to heart for it.
It should be noted that some contestants did go on to have media careers. Jade Goody was regularly featured in celebrity magazines and on game and chat shows for a few years after her stint on BB. But she became a victim of her own success when she was invited back onto the 2007 Celebrity Big Brother and then accused of racist bullying of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. This sparked a furious debate about whether or not Big Brother was fit to be broadcast. It also turned Goody from Hero to Zero with dizzying speed, even causing some to question whether her publicly admitted diagnosis of cancer a couple of years later was merely to gain sympathy. It is notable that nobody bothered to ask the ‘fitness to broadcast’ question a year earlier when Pete, Lea and Nicky were being paraded on our screens. And clearly, nobody really cared – BB civilian version carried on until 2020 after transferring to Channel 5 in the early 2010s, Celebrity Big Brother limped on until at least 2018. Now it’s claimed it will be returning to ITV. But here’s the thing – the contestants who will want to go on it will be the generation who have grown up watching it, Love Island and other interactive reality shows. They’ll know that the quiet, ‘normal’ people – like those in the very first 2000 BB – do not have a prayer. The louder and wackier you are, the better. The more you can play to the cameras and show how you know what you’re doing, the further you might last. Except if you have genuine problems, you’ll be thrown to it like a lamb to the slaughter. You might make a bit of money and be paraded around a few nightclubs, and get your face in Heat. You might also have to put up with a load of tabloid bile, social media destruction and be the most hated person in the country. You could find your career and life destroyed on the shrine of media hype. But why should we care? It’s only a game show, after all.
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