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Why Big Brother still speaks to us

The reality-TV behemoth continues to hold up a mirror to our culture of narcissism.

Darragh McManus

Topics Culture UK

Big Brother may not, technically, have been the very first ‘fly on the wall’-style reality-TV show – MTV’s The Real World (1992), for one, preceded it by almost a decade – but it was the first to break big on this side of the Atlantic. And it broke really, really big. Now, it is back on our screens for the first time in five years.

Big Brother essentially created a whole new genre of television. It spawned legions of imitators. It radically transformed the entire media and broadcasting ecosystem. In some ways, it even reshaped – or certainly reflected – the broader culture. And it managed to do all this while consistently being as boring to watch as the proverbial dog’s ass. How’s that for a neat trick?

Having suffered through some of this 20th series’ opening episodes, nothing much seems to have changed in the world of Big Brother. When it first started, not only was it duller than watching paint dry, but it also appeared to consist, in large part, of people watching paint dry. Or arguing listlessly and staring into space. Or looking at their fellow housemates argue listlessly and stare into space and watch paint dry.

Here was a kind of Beckettian purgatory – telly as bracingly unwatchable performance art. It was waiting for Godot… to do absolutely nothing.

I can confirm that the show is still monumentally boring and pointless. There’s a perverse comfort in that. You’d almost be disappointed if Big Brother had become fun or exciting. The few moments of drama or interest thus far have been one housemate coming out as transgender (#sobrave) and a confected ‘race row’ between two other screeching eejits. And it’s still essentially the same format, location, filming / editing style, etc, as in the previous 19 iterations.

In other ways, however, this giant slobbering idiot-machine has changed considerably since crash-landing into the public consciousness in summer 2000. There was – amazingly in retrospect – an innocence about Big Brother back then when it started.

Contestants were mostly normal people, who’d sort of stumbled through the looking glass into a world of fame or notoriety. During the first series, I still remember how genuinely bewildered they all seemed, when released from the house, at how large a phenomenon they, and the show, had become over a few months. I also remember heated office debates about who’d survive, who’d get turfed out, who we liked and who we hated. This too feels amazing in retrospect.

Yet within a few years, most entrants became fame-hungry wannabes of varying stripes, calculatedly using Big Brother as a springboard for their ambitions. Even ‘Nasty Nick’, pantomime villain of the first series, now comes across as nothing more than slightly eccentric, especially compared with the cavalcade of freaks, geeks, lunatics and borderline sociopaths who followed in his train.

A lot of us were already tired of Big Brother by the second series but it lumbered on, somehow, for another 17 years, first on Channel 4, then Channel 5, and now ITV has the privilege. There were spin-offs, including Celebrity Big Brother and Big Brother’s Little Brother. Charlie Brooker, celebrated showrunner of Black Mirror, made his bones as a screenwriter with the Big Brother-based horror-comedy Dead Set.

Public interest in Big Brother waxed and waned over the years (although mostly waned, which is why this puppy was put to sleep in 2018). But its bastard offspring thrived. Big Brother was basically Patient Zero for the rash of reality TV that has infected and colonised the medium for almost a quarter of a century.

It certainly paved the way for telly goliaths like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Big Brother was the gateway drug; those were purest crystal meth, instantly addictive. Talent shows like this are still going strong. I guess shows with people singing and dancing have a longer shelf-life than those with people doing feck all.

On a wider level, Big Brother also amped up the confessional / exhibitionist culture that was already beginning to stir in Western culture, leading to the eradication of privacy.

All those tearful sob stories to the diary-room camera, the infantile demands for constant notice, the imperviousness to embarrassment, the willingness to have every single detail of your existence filmed and broadcast – this stuff seemed bizarre to us in the early noughties, but nowadays it’s par for the course on social media. Indeed, you’re considered weird if you don’t want to share intimate secrets with millions of strangers.

I still can’t quite work out what Big Brother is all about. What’s the point? What’s the attraction? What does it all signify? Which, perhaps, makes it the perfect avatar for our empty, atomised, nihilistic and meaningless modern culture.

Is Big Brother art imitating life, or life imitating art? Did it subconsciously prepare us for the rise of a surveillance state? Is it class warfare, waged by middle-class media wankers against ‘chavs’ and people with funny regional accents? Is it cultural democratisation writ large? Is it the voice of the people sounding their barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world? Is it all just showbiz, baby?

Or is it – maybe most disturbingly of all – a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Whatever it is, we’ll still be watching.

Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. Visit his website here

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