The return of Big Brother

As a new season of 'Big Brother' looms, should we see it as a seasonal filler, or a slow-burn drama worthy of Beckett? By Gerard Gilbert

Day 93: 12.04pm. Mikey is in the bedroom, picking his nose. Sara is in the smoking area, alternatively biting her fingernails and puffing on a cigarette; Rachel is in the kitchen, soaking chickpeas while making small animal noises that might or might not be the beginnings of sentences..." For many, many people, the return of Marcus Bentley's Geordie tones, nightly setting the scene at the Big Brother house, is as unwelcome as the advent of the hay fever season.

Bentley, along with cheerleader-in-chief, Davina McCall, will be back next Thursday for the launch show for the annual summer sojourn at Elstree Studios – when a new group of pathologically extroverted wannabes will battle for the TV nation's passing interest, and those all-important cover shoots for Heat and OK! magazines. And nobody will be muttering more darkly about this state of affairs than the actors, drama directors and writers who have been displaced for the duration.

You can see their point. Channel 4 has just had a short run of rather fine dramas – from the death-of-Apartheid saga, Endgame to David Peace's grim-up-north trilogy Red Riding and Samantha Morton's dazzling directorial debut The Unloved. Don't expect to see anything else new and original from the channel's drama department until the swallows start returning to Africa. But are those involved in TV drama right to dismiss Big Brother as mere cheap seasonal filler? I'm going to argue that they would be very much mistaken in making such a judgement – and that they can learn from the show.

Most years I engage with Big Brother – frequently having forsworn not to. What is it that keeps drawing me in, where, for example, often beautifully played and scripted soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street fail to take a grip on any consistent basis? It's certainly not out of any wider interest in the fates of the housemates, whose every carefully edited waking moment I have hitherto been following with rapt attention. Out of sight, out of mind, as far they are concerned. Mikey, Sara or Rachel – last year's finalists... I don't even know their surnames. Rex, the preening braggart and last year's most compelling housemate – did he marry girlfriend Nicole does he now run his own restaurant? I neither know nor care.

One of the show's great strengths – and what makes it almost unique on television – is that very little happens. It's one of the few TV dramas (for, au fond, a drama is what it is) where sitting around seemingly doing nothing is seen as a virtue. Outside of the weekly tasks – a tiresome distraction as far as I am concerned – the narrative has been taken care of. We know why these people are gathered here, and what they want. They're waiting for Davina. "You are live on Channel 4... please do not swear." By the way, why is it less acceptable to swear live than on tape?

Have you seen Sean Mathias's revival of Waiting for Godot, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Vladimir and Estragon? Samuel Beckett would have relished the hermetic ennui of the Big Brother contestants – their petty bickering and pathetic rapprochements. The comparison is not meant facetiously, even if Big Brother may attain to the Becketian against its baser impulses; it's compulsion to artificially create friction where perhaps sheer boredom and over-familiarity would have done the trick. But what the show does have – especially after the first few weeks, when the housemates have settled into indolence or depression (or love and friendship, fear and loathing – proof of Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum in Huis Clos that hell is other people) are long periods when not very much happens. Or very small things happen, with enormous significance to the protagonists. Less is more.

And that is something that TV dramatists could learn from Big Brother – they could learn to take it easy. Admittedly that's not a simple task when you've been given six hours of primetime drama in which to pull viewers away from Britain's Got Talent, Gok Wan or that week's property porn. The pressure is to tell as much story as quickly as possible before your viewers get fidgety. But so often the big story hides the smaller, more significant ones, with pace, action and dénouement elbowing out the real human drama. Where is the rapt gaze, the ease with silence, the Pinteresque pauses?

Dead and buried alongside Harold Pinter, you might say. In the 1960s Pinter regularly wrote for television, although I don't particularly want to hark back to the days of Pinter, Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke. Stephen Poliakoff is still the BBC's licensed purveyor of still lives and long, meaningful silences, but frankly I find Poliakoff arch and empty. Two minutes of 'Big Brother'' shows far more interest in human beings than two, very long hours of Poliakoff.

I guess the heyday of this kind of drama was during the post-war decades of the classic art house cinema. From Jules et Jim to Jade Goody, Sanjit Ray to Shilpa Shetty may seem a leap too far, but arthouse directors adored long takes of protagonists not doing very much – with long silences leading to short elliptical utterances.

Samantha Morton's recent Channel 4 drama Unloved had a stillness that was inspired by the likes of Wim Wenders and Yasujiro Ozu – but it didn't seem slavish. It felt natural and fresh and – like someone rediscovering long-forgotten ways of seeing. And Matthew Weiner's beautiful and intelligent Mad Men, a drama that reminded me at times of the Nic Ray's Technicolor 1950s melodramas, was criticised by some people for being "too slow". I'd argue, however, that what's needed is a television drama equivalent of the "slow food" movement, with characters unfolding at a pace that is unthinkable to most modern TV dramatists.

One of many remarkable feats of the recently concluded second season of Mad Men was the way Betty, Don Draper's forsaken wife, has gone from Grace Kelly-lookalike Stepford Wife to hard-eyed avenging angel over the course of 13 peerless hours of TV drama. In Weiner's deft hands the process didn't jar. It gripped and fascinated. January Jones will be lucky to find a part like it again.

But don't soap characters unfold in this gradual fashion, like slow maturing wines? Actually, soap characters are whimsical creatures – their memories forever being wiped clean like the beauties in Joss Whedon's new fantasy series Dollhouse. Soap characters are at the mercy of whatever dramatic, ratings-busting storyline, or modish topic, their creators have come up with at story conference. They are both contradictory and predictable – predictability being the hallmark of soaps, but also of much wider TV drama. Soaps advertise their storylines weeks in advance, a particularly juicy one making the front covers of the TV listings magazines and women's weeklies. Viewers want to know what is going to happen in advance – in fact they demand it; this is not drama as excitement, but as controlled relaxation. The BBC received one of its biggest recent volumes of complaints, not from the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand-inspired "Sachs-gate", but when EastEnders killed off a young female character – Ronnie's long-lost daughter Danielle, having for once managed to keep the dénouement under wraps.

Say what you like about Big Brother, it's rarely predictable. "Shettygate" in the 2007 celebrity version of the show, was the most extreme manifestation of the show's volatile potential (when was the last time a conventional TV drama led to questions in the House?), but such dramas are repeated in microcosm each week – often subliminally. Channel 4 made a mistake in axing Big Brother on the Couch, the weekly examination of the contestants' body language, and a fascinating adjunct to the series.

What may finally kill Big Brother – and there are rumours that this series may be the penultimate one – is when housemates become too savvy to the show's requirements – when their behaviour becomes more staged and predictable. For the moment, however, the show takes youthful contestants full of posture and attitude, and it slowly strips them back to their human archetype. When was the last drama – Mad men excepted – where you saw that happen?

Okay, so the level of discourse may be mundane in the extreme, but so arguably is that of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. I wouldn't want to over-emphasise the comparison between Beckett's bleakly funny existentialist masterpiece and the sometimes cruel, often brilliant unpicking of a bunch of fame-grabbers. But if Beckett were alive today and given a choice of viewing, I reckon he'd rather watch Big Brother than Mistresses, EastEnders or The Street. And the great man could have been speaking for Big Brother contestants when he has Estragon (or is it Vladimir? It matters not) say: "It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!"

'Big Brother' returns on Thursday 4 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones