Celebrity Big Brother, Channel 4
President Hollywood, BBC2
It's time to exchange one reality for another
Sunday 25 January 2009
Andy Warhol was the first great TV watcher; really talented. I say watcher, but perhaps consumer would be a better word because it was more like a vital, sustaining backdrop for whatever else he was doing – vacuuming, say, in front of a couple of TVs. He watched them in multiples, though not more than four at a time in the bedroom; he wasn't depraved. "When I got my first TV set," he said, "I stopped caring so much about having close relation-ships with other people."
If Warhol had lived in the age of Celebrity Big Brother, he'd never have gone out at all, except maybe to appear on it. It delivers an atmosphere of exciting company into your home, like social-emotional air freshener. It's akin to being at a long sleepover party with all those famous people only better, because you don't have to suffer the nerves of what to say or do, and you can eavesdrop on all the conversations at once. You ring up your friend while you're watching and she's at the same sleepover party, so you chat about what people say and what they really mean.
La Toya Jackson is asked what she thinks of Tommy Sheridan. "He's a very nice individual and, um, he believes in his beliefs." "She hates him!" cries your friend. The editors hold the shot fractionally too long, or zoom in on the pursed lip that betrays La Toya's true feelings. The show lets you read people without being read, makes you feel part of a team without leaving your sofa. As with a novel, you get to know these characters intimately.
Verne Troyer has been a one-man ambassador for love and understanding between personages of different size. His ram-raiding of the diary room door with his electric buggy was above political correctness and beyond comedy. The best scriptwriters couldn't have come up with some of the dialogue between La Toya and Tina Malone, breathlessly gabbling about themselves. The worst scriptwriters couldn't have made up some of the lavatorial conversations, or the yobby vanity of Sheridan. And what playwright would have been sentimental enough to write the scene in which macho, mischievous, rude-boy Coolio wept after watching Obama's inauguration? In fact, it was as touching as seeing a friend cry. "I could feel his presence through the screen," he said. "I would take a bullet for him."
Put aside the circus of Davina, the public rabble and the degrading costume pantomime bits (in which Verne's height was used like a visual punchline: not good). Then sieve through the 24-hour surveillance, and some of the moments of interaction you have left are dazzlingly brilliant theatre, beyond naturalism, beyond a writer's invention. And if Channel 4's inauguration coverage was a little lacking – well, at least its huge Big Brother viewing audience would have caught up on it via the housemates' reactions.
A repeat of Jonathan Freedland's excellent President Hollywood demonstrated the feedback between reality and TV: from the early Obama influencing writers on The West Wing to that programme influencing voters in 2008. Andy Warhol again: "It's the movies that have really been running things in America .... They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it."
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