Who cares about Celeb BB? You decide

spiked-TV: Has-beens, hissy fits and a competition of victimhoods make Celebrity Big Brother grimly compelling.

Sandy Starr

Topics Culture

Celebrity Big Brother, Channel 4, until 27 January 2006.

This year’s Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 has been more consistently entertaining than last year’s. Then the main reasons to tune in were to see racing pundit John McCririck pick his nose, rootin’ tootin’ Dane Brigitte Nielsen make an imprint of her breasts, and feminist bore Germaine Greer walk off the show because it was supposedly too tawdry for her (hadn’t she watched it beforehand?).

Greer’s specific reason for walking out – she said the programme encouraged bullying – has become a dominant theme in the current series. Glamour model Jodie Marsh said she was appearing on the programme to counter the ‘abuse’ she’s supposedly suffered from a jeering public in recent years. Then when she took exception to fellow contestant Pete Burns’ fur coat, and subsequently became the target of the other housemates’ derision, she complained that they were ‘bullying’ her. Since (deservedly) being the first housemate evicted, she’s complained about this bullying incessantly, and even Greer has climbed back down from her ivory tower to lend poor ickle Jodie some icky support.

Hearing adults whinge in this way, about the fact that other adults say mean things to them, is a disturbing insight into what passes adulthood today, much less celebrity. Saying ‘I’m being bullied’ is now assumed automatically to give you the moral high ground in any exchange of views, as is saying ‘I find that offensive’.

For all that, it was almost possible to feel sorry for Jodie – almost – given the antics of her fellow housemates. Her chief nemesis Michael Barrymore, the disgraced entertainer who previously left the UK when a partygoer died after being found unconscious in his swimming pool, is clearly and sadly unhinged. Like Jodie, he’s given to frequent crying jags that provoke embarrassment more than they do sympathy.

To see Marsh and Barrymore clash was to see two competing forms of victimhood – the childish and prurient twentysomething, who assumes that the world owes it to her to tell her she’s fantastic; and the damaged middle-aged man, whose spells in rehab and therapy have made him what he is. The latter is arguably more deserving of pity than the former, but both types of victim are ultimately egotistical and undignified.

Talking of egotistical and undignified, how about controversial contestant George Galloway, Respect Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow in east London? As Mick Hume points out elsewhere on spiked, MPs appearing on reality TV is not so much an unprecedented trivialisation of politics as it is a perfectly logical development, given how vacuous and personality-obsessed politics has become (see What Kennedy and Galloway tell us about politics now). When it comes to politicians lacking integrity, those who are opportunistically huffing and puffing about Galloway’s presence on the show should take a look closer to home.

Galloway’s most infamous moment in Celebrity Big Brother to date has been his impersonation of a cat, as he pretended to sup milk from actress Rula Lenska’s lap. While this was indeed nauseating, he’s done even more cringe-inducing things since entering the house, such as claiming that he’s the most famous contestant because almost all Muslims – nearly a third of the world’s population, by his reckoning – know who he is.

But my favourite Galloway moment had to be his declaration in the diary room that the British public had done well to evict a Page 3 tart like Jodie, rather than a leading left-wing anti-war crusader like him. He had the gall to say this with a straight face, while wearing white facepaint and a Dracula wig. Come back Jodie, all is forgiven.

Other housemates evoke the ghosts of yesterday’s popular culture, as the has-beens who populate reality TV tend to do. I know lanky contestant Dennis Rodman not for his basketball career, but for kicking butt in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Double Team. I can’t look at Rula Lenska without either seeing her topless in the appalling 1970s sex comedy Soft Beds, Hard Battles, or remembering the surly space station crewmember she played in the 1980s Doctor Who story Resurrection of the Daleks. And as for an ancient Jimmy Savile’s visit to the Big Brother house – now then now then guys and gals, this is surely some nightmarish TV purgatory, where it’s eternally teatime and you’re forever spellbound by crap.

More unsettlingly, Big Brother is constructing a purgatorial anteroom all of its own. Those of us sad enough to watch not only the edited highlights but the live feed and the adjunct programmes Big Brother’s Little Breakfast and Big Brother’s Big Mouth (mea culpa) have seen a whole procession of former Big Brother contestants, whom we assumed had returned safely to non-entity status, pop up again to offer their inane views. But at the end of the day, you can’t begrudge them their moment in the spotlight, when you’re the one who’s choosing to watch them.

This year’s Celebrity Big Brother has actually done a good job of poking fun at the poor calibre of its own celebs, by involving a non-celebrity contestant – Paris Hilton impersonator Chantelle Houghton – and asking her to pass herself off as a celebrity. After all, she has at least as much right to be in the house as did Faria Alam, who was (deservedly) the second housemate evicted, and is famous solely because of her affairs with Football Association chief Mark Palios and England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson. By putting Chantelle in the house, and getting her to pretend to be a singer in a girl band which will doubtless exist for real once the series is over, Big Brother‘s maker Endemol gets to have its cake and eat it while inspiring a thousand undergraduate theses on postmodernism in the media.

It says something about the otherworldly character of Celebrity Big Brother and its contestants, when you find yourself rooting for plastic surgery casualty Pete Burns – a one-hit wonder with ‘You Spin Me Round’ back in the 1980s – and the affable clart (or ‘yachy da’, as Savile put it) Maggot. Dennis Rodman is the mellowest and most likeable housemate, but Pete, for all his preening androgyny and nicotine deprivation hissy fits, talks the most sense. Here’s hoping that Dennis, Pete and Maggot stay the distance.

It remains only for me to say ‘props to Pete’, as Maggot would put it, for wearing his ‘gorilla’ coat despite the objections of the animal rights contingent inside and outside the house. Either I’ve been watching way too much of this stuff, or it looks rather fetching on him. How’s about that then?

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Topics Culture


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