Out of Africa
Big Brother Africa is better than Big Brother Britain only because it's the first series rather than the fourth.
Anyone in the UK who watched Big Brothers 1, 2 and 3 will know that series 4 has been a big bore. The housemates – dippy hippy Nush, bible-basher Cameron, socially retarded Ray and the rest – get on swimmingly, never saying or doing anything remotely controversial, or even especially watchable. No wonder the voting figures (a measure of viewers who care) are down 40 percent from this time last year (1).
Now, Channel 4 has unwittingly shown up just how dull its latest BB is, by simultaneously screening the African version on E4. It started when prudish God-botherer Cameron was sent from the British house to the African house, as part of a ‘global experiment’. Everyone wanted to know how Cameron – a teetotaller from the Orkney Islands who fled to the diary room when fellow contestant Steph kissed him during a game of Truth or Dare – would fare in the African house, where some contestants have had sex, threatened to kill each other, and where they wash together in a live ‘shower hour’ watched by millions (2).
E4 satisfied our curiosity by showing Big Brother Africa for the four days Cameron was there – and it proved such a hit (one million viewers a day) that E4 has decided to keep showing it. The African house even coaxed cagey Cameron out of his shell. Within 24 hours of arriving he had told a fellow contestant to ‘shut up’ (shocking by British standards) and was flirting with Zimbabwean beauty Tapuwa. Back in boring British BB, the contestants now complain that Africa has ‘changed Cameron’. ‘He’s gone all frisky’, says Steph, disapprovingly, claiming that Cameron has started ‘grabbing handfuls’ of her arse.
Reality TV theorists have been wondering out loud why BB Africa is better than BB Britain. One journalist claims that the African version has ‘cultural depth’, whereas the British house is full of ‘celebrity wannabes’ who wouldn’t know culture if it grabbed ‘a handful of their arse’. Others have praised BB Africa’s ‘cross-cultural interaction’, its ‘immense cultural value’, and the fact that it is ‘the one and only reality TV show in the whole world…that combines peoples of diverse races, religions and countries in one game’ (3).
Do what? The secret of BB Africa’s success looks far simpler to me. Its contestants have personalities. They have conversations, arguments, scraps, unguarded moments, and seem blissfully unaware of the cameras watching their every move. BB Africa is better than BB Britain because it is the first pan-African series as opposed to the fourth – and the Big Brother format works best when it’s fresh.
It is true that the African programme has more ‘cultural diversity’ (whatever that phrase means) than the British version. Where British BB producers’ idea of cultural diversity is to get together a bunch of samey young professionals, some of whom happen to have a bit of exotic parentage, BB Africa is pan-national. The show is based in Johannesburg, but the 12 contestants come from 12 African states, including Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Kenya, Namibia, Uganda and Tanzania.
But what is most striking about BB Africa is how culturally similar the contestants are – not only to each other, but to us Westerners too. As in the British BB house, there is the obligatory contestant with a guitar (Stefan from Namibia, the only white person), who plays crappy Elton John songs. Cherise from Zambia says her favourite film is Notting Hill and her favourite band is Westlife (there’s no accounting for taste). Other contestants have professed their love of Kylie, Bob Marley, American horror fiction and Italian cooking – all things that are as ‘in’ over here as they are over there (or at least in the more well-to-do parts of over there).
Even the African cultural things that they do in the Africa house seem to be the brainchild ideas of the South African producers of the show, rather than evidence of organic ‘cross-cultural interaction’. In all BB houses, the contestants have to complete tasks in order to win luxuries. In BB Africa, the tasks have included doing a rain dance and making ‘hunting masks’ – which some of the contestants have executed with more than a little embarrassment. In essence, these tasks are about as culturally significant as when the British contestants had to dress up as Cub Scouts.
The thing about Big Brother the format is that, unlike a good wine, it gets worse with age. This is what Sun TV critic Ally Ross refers to as Big Brother’s ‘law of diminishing returns’ – the more familiar we become with the format, the more predictable the contestants become.
The contestants learn how to play the game – they learn how to avoid getting evicted, and what kind of behaviour gets on the front pages of the papers. The more Big Brother series there are, the more likely it is to attract knowing, rather than open, contestants. As Allison Pearson wrote in the London Evening Standard: ‘[In the first British Big Brother] the housemates had no idea how famous they were. The present lot only know how famous they want to be.’ (4)
That is why, in British series 4, the contestants are duller than ever. They watch what they say and how they behave, in order to increase their chances of staying in the house that bit longer. When Federico (the young trendy Scot) tried to kick against this stultifying atmosphere by saying crazy things (‘all women are slags’, ‘let’s kill the chickens’, etc), the others looked at him as if he were mental. ‘You’ll get evicted’, warned Ray (the stupid one). Even worse, ‘you’ll get booed’, warned Tania (the tarty one). Sure enough, Federico got evicted – and booed.
By contrast, BB Africa, as an all-continent phenomenon, is new. The contestants have little idea of what is going on in the outside world, or how they are being perceived. They are most likely unaware that 25million Africans watch them every night and that their antics have been reported on the front pages of Africa’s major newspapers. It is this lack of awareness, the absence of self-consciousness, that makes the African contestants’ interaction more interesting than the boring Brits.
When African contestant Gaetano came to the British house (as a swap for Cameron), he called Tania (the tarty one) a piggy because she eats so much. Tania wept and said it was mental abuse, the rest of the house went into shock, while Nush (the hippyish one) explained that because Gaetano is from a different culture, perhaps he doesn’t understand the ‘cultural connotation’ of calling a woman a pig. Maybe. Or maybe he’s used to being in a house where the contestants aren’t so camera-aware and uptight.
Now, British BB has desperately tried to boost its flagging ratings by adding a new contestant – Lisa, a 35-year-old clothes shop manager from Cardiff, Wales. Dream on. If they really want to liven things up they should ship the remaining contestants out to Johannesburg.
(1) African housemate leaves Big Brother, BBC News, 26 June 2003
(2) Will Cameron give us a ‘shower hour’ show?, Independent Online, South Africa, 24 June 2003
(3) Burst of drums kickstarts Africa’s biggest TV show, AllAfrica.com, 6 June 2003
(4) Bring back Nasty Nick, Allison Pearson, London Evening Standard, 28 May 2003