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

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