Monday, January 04, 2010

Celebrity Big Brother

If anything typifies the vile cultural wasteland of New Labour's Britain it is surely Big Brother. Pathetic wannabes and z-list celebrities making complete arseholes of themselves but so egotistical they don't even realise that normal people are appalled by them. A bit like Members of Parliament really.

Below is an excellent Toby Young article in the Telegraph which very nicely sums up the dreadful phenomenon of not just Big Brother, but reality TV:

Is this the beginning of the end for reality television? Last night, Channel 4 broadcast the first episode of the final series of Big Brother and it felt like the last gasp of a dying genre. This is the “celebrity” version of the show, but the biggest name the broadcaster could muster was Vinnie Jones, the former Wimbledon footballer, and it reportedly had to cough up half a million pounds to get him. No less than three of the eleven contestants were chosen because they’ve had sex with someone famous – two of them with Katie Price. I had at least heard of them, which is more than can be said for Basshunter, Sisqo and Lady Sovereign – all pop stars, apparently. Watching these “celebrities” wander around the revamped Big Brother House – it looked like it had been decorated with the contest of Donatella Versace’s underwear drawer – didn’t make for particularly gripping television. It was more like a Public Information Film designed to warn people of the dangers of too much plastic surgery.

In fairness to Channel 4, they’ve probably done as well as they could under the circumstances. It isn’t easy to persuade celebrities to appear on reality shows these days. Contrast the above no-hopers with the contestants on the first series of Celebrity Big Brother in 2001: Anthea Turner, Chris Eubank, Claire Sweeney, Jack Dee, Keith Duffy and Vanessa Feltz. Not A-listers perhaps, but at least Davina McCall’s description of them as “household names” wasn’t met with gales of laughter. Back then the contestants weren’t paid anything, either. I know this because I was invited to participate in the 2003 version and when I inquired about the fee was told that all the contestants were expected to do it for “charity”.

The reason proper celebrities are reluctant to appear on reality shows is because they don’t want to risk tarnishing their brands. Celebrity Big Brother has a particularly bad reputation in this regard, with several contestants doing serious harm to their reputations. Examples include Vanessa Feltz, who appeared to suffer some sort of breakdown in the first series, George Galloway, who pranced around in a black leotard in series four, and most notoriously Jade Goody, who was accused of bullying Shilpa Shetty in the controversial fifth series. The upshot is that the only “celebrities” willing to appear on the programme – with a few exceptions – are those desperately trying to kick-start their careers in show business or desperately trying to revive them. In other words, people with little to lose.

It’s easy to be superior about programmes like Celebrity Big Brother but if the producers can persuade people with real careers to take part they can be quite riveting. I was completely transfixed by George Galloway’s car-crash appearance in 2005. Galloway’s mistake was to use old-fashioned, Machiavellian-style realpolitik to try and win the contest — making pacts with the strong, attacking the weak and double-crossing his allies when it was prudent to do so. Such skulduggery is absolutely routine in the Westminster village and not something his peers would condemn him for, at least not in private. But the people who watch reality shows are complete innocents in such matters and in their eyes Galloway must have come across like a text-book villain.

It’s always a mistake to use any of the standard political arts to try and win a reality show. The people who emerge best are those who play a completely straight bat – who are always themselves, no matter who they’re talking to. The strongest asset you can take into an environment like the Big Brother House is a complete lack of guile, which is one of the reasons I turned it down.

I’d hesitate to condemn Galloway for his behaviour in the house – or indeed any contestant on the programme who has lost his or her cool. We’re accustomed from watching fictional drama to assume that true character emerges from conflict, but I’m not sure this is the case on reality shows. The producers of Big Brother devise ever more ingenious ways of pitting the housemates against each other in the sure knowledge that the more cornered they feel, the more likely they are to retreat into their atavistic selves, becoming defensive, short-tempered and, at times, highly aggressive. Seen from the comfort of our armchairs, such behaviour can seem revelatory, but we know from things like the Stanford Prison Experiment that people in these pressure-cookers can quickly lose any sense of perspective. They don’t necessarily become more “real” as the layers of civility are stripped away; rather, they regress further than this and become more animalistic, less human. In the case of George Galloway, we didn’t see the “real” him, so much as the disintegration of his personality. He became a lab rat.

Watching human beings regress can be quite mesmerizing, but reality shows shouldn’t be confused with real drama. We’re not gaining any insight into people’s characters or discovering a truth about them or ourselves or the world we live in. On the contrary, we’re just left with the illusion that we have. Reality shows occupy the space in our culture – specifically, in the television schedules – that should be occupied by well-scripted drama. The triumph of “reality” as a genre in the Noughties is a reflection of people’s loss of confidence in fiction and we are much the poorer for it. For that reason, the fact that this is the last series of Big Brother is a cause of celebration.

Having said that it is a great chance for a reminder of what a twat somebody like George Galloway actually is. If a reminder were needed.

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