Thursday, 27 August 2009

Big Brother is Dead

It wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s drugged corpse was found splayed on an incontinence mat in his four-poster bed that we remembered him as the innovator he once was. The images re-circulated of his sexy silhouette pulling implausible shapes and the radio once again remembered the sharp sounds that had defined him. Big Brother is dead. I hope the wounds aren’t too fresh. It is easy to dismiss a programme that has been so irritatingly ubiquitous for so many years, a programme that has thrown so many vapid wannabes onto the pages of magazines (*shifts uncomfortably*). From the first time I stood underneath the live feed from the Big Brother house as it twinkled on an oversized screen in Leicester Square, I was a fan. The pretentious teenager that I was would overuse words seldom applied to any other pub-talk subject. ‘Microcosm’ had a good year in 2000. But behind my waffling was an enthusiastic belief in a truly groundbreaking innovation in television.

Gone was the hulking camera and the hulking cameraman that reality often found hard to ignore. Gone were the cooling down times, the phone calls to mother, the days off. We made friends with people we always assumed we would hate. We hated people we always assumed we would hate. And by dialling five numbers God had a direct line from heaven to earth. The human chess element was a crafty way of creating a feedback loop that made viewing essential. We didn’t want anyone to get away with ANYTHING. And they didn’t. Liars were outed and the nice guys were vindicated. For the first few years Big Brother was an irresistible innovation. Then the housemates started getting horny. There was something reassuring about watching romantic encounters culminating in awkward fumbles between sweaty duvets in a strip lit box room. Arguments were void of clever put-downs and never resolved. This was reality.

I walked through those set doors in 2006 during what I predictably think of as the golden age of Big Brother. I had been sworn to secrecy, punishable by banishment, and told nothing of what I was to expect. I read the rumours religiously and had convinced myself that Anna Nicole-Smith and Boy George would be nervously watching the door as I swung it open. They weren’t. I was amazed at the lengths the production team would go to to remain true to the concept and to keep us, the contestants, in a state of total confinement. Although the Celebrity edition of the show is a quarter of the length of the summer stint, it seems celebrities crumple in a quarter of the time. My no-list status allowed me to keep my head and I treated my position in the house as ‘interactive spectator’.

The symptoms of Big Brother’s terminal illness started in a world separate from the compound in Borehamwood. Fresh reality ‘stars’ fought for precious column inches in glossy magazines alongside pop, sport and movie stars. Contestants were no longer interested in winning on the inside, their sights were set on the prize awaiting them on the outside. The show itself quickly and inevitably became a formality as competitors adopted personalities that had proved popular during previous series. This steered the show into an echo pattern from which it is struggled to recover, ultimately affecting public opinion. As people lost interest the media scramble dissipated and both legs buckled. In many ways the moribundity of this summer's installment has been its saving grace. With no glossy career goals to think about beyond a few free glasses of champagne, the contestants are driven by a love of the format. This has given the penultimate summer a classic feel but will the damage prove too great?

The solution? Heat magazine pick twelve good-looking, slightly unstable bi-curious ‘people like us’ and plaster them directly on to the front page of the magazine. Then we can sit back and watch the real competition unfold. The cat-fights for columns. The boobies. The irresistibly steep, derailed decline. The initial success of Big Brother launched the reality genre. A genre which rarely shared any of the charm and intelligence with its… Big Brother. I have every confidence in the production team to deliver a new ground-breaker; it just feels like the ideas factory needs a new machine. Now, as you lie back and draw your last breaths, Big Brother, we can remember your best bits.