This is Big Brother

It's the final day in the Big Brother house for the last four contestants. Their every move has been discussed by millions. But what would the creator of the original Big Brother say? In a world exclusive, GEORGE ORWELL gives his verdict
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The Independent Online

It is said that the Roman Emperor Maximus Severus once decided to play a series of cruel tricks on his slaves. Some of them were lured into a river to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others, on pain of death, were set impossible tasks such as counting the feathers in the Imperial mattress. Finally, the Emperor ordered that a hole be cut into the wall of the slaves' sleeping-quarters so that they could be seen by passers-by. At that point, the story goes, Severus' retinue laid down their weapons and refused to serve him any longer.

It is said that the Roman Emperor Maximus Severus once decided to play a series of cruel tricks on his slaves. Some of them were lured into a river to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others, on pain of death, were set impossible tasks such as counting the feathers in the Imperial mattress. Finally, the Emperor ordered that a hole be cut into the wall of the slaves' sleeping-quarters so that they could be seen by passers-by. At that point, the story goes, Severus' retinue laid down their weapons and refused to serve him any longer.

As a child, I was always impressed by that story, for it seemed to me to demonstrate an elemental truth about any kind of remotely civilised life. That is, that the average human being values his privacy above practically any other condition or state of mind. In a queer way, even the prospect of being thrown to the crocodiles is preferable to having someone watching you defecating or having an argument with your wife. That, essentially, is the point I was trying to make half a century ago in my novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – that totalitarianism means marching feet, lofted torches, tommy guns squirting from the rooftops, but it also means something much worse than that: the idea of someone opening up a window into your soul. Writers are always congratulating themselves on their prescience, of course, but the sight of Channel 4's Big Brother on the TV screen gave me the queerest feeling, like coming across the photograph of a five-year-old playing in a meadow and realising that the child in the picture is you.

On the face of it, the idea of putting a dozen young people in a specially constructed house – quite a decent house, I should say, from the look of it – and continuously observing their behaviour ought to be an instructive business. Scientists, after all, regularly base their deductions on examining cagefuls of animals, and when it comes down to it, a human being is really only a superior rat, albeit lacking some of the rat's innate resourcefulness.

To anyone who knows their Swift, Big Brother's message will be deeply reassuring. Men are not quite beasts, of course, but they are near enough to being beasts to need reminding of the fact every so often. Nor should the programme's apparent popularity – several million people are said to watch it each night – come as any great surprise. Scratch the average bourgeois hard enough and you can be pretty sure of finding a voyeur underneath. One scarcely needs to be told, for example, that the old ladies who write scandalised letters to the Daily Mail about Jade and PJ's behaviour in the bedroom (I am told that one programme contained a fairly frank depiction of oral sex) are among the show's most faithful viewers.

Equally, no one should be much shocked by some of the alleged depravities that have been seized upon by the popular press. Put a dozen young people together in an environment devoid of any kind of mental stimulus – by far the most sinister aspect of the Big Brother house, to my mind, was that there were no books – and it would be rather surprising for them not to get drunk and behave with maximum boorishness. To prattle about "exhibitionism", as one or two critics have done, is to miss a substantial point about the age we inhabit. We are all exhibitionists – you and I and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr Tony Blair – and to ignore this fact is to ignore one of the more salient forces now contending for our souls.

Quite probably, when the psychological history of the late 20th century comes to be written, its keynote will be seen to have been the rise of what might be called public shamelessness. Half a century ago, the original Big Brother, his image plastered on every wall, his agents operating through every telescreen, was conceived of as a remote but hugely sinister and obtrusive presence effortlessly reaching out to interfere in the lives of ordinary people. Now, curiously, he is simply an opportunity for self-presentation, a way in which a handful of guinea pigs can pretend for a few weeks that their existence corresponds to the fake but infinitely seductive world of TV. That is the essential difference.

At the same time, anyone who watches Big Brother will be conscious of a nagging feeling of unease, like ghostly knocking heard a long way off. Admittedly, the cultural value of television is absurdly low, and I am not for a moment suggesting that Alex, Jade, Jonny and Kate are in any way representative, and yet the spectacle of them venturing the sort of remarks that would be frowned upon in the average sergeants' mess, and the range of emotions this provoked, seem worth analysing at some length:

Boredom Say what you like, human beings taken en masse are generally desperately uninteresting (Swift was right about this). This was particularly noticeable in the dialogue (some of it, to be fair, very funny) – a kind of dreadful, self-righteous blah-blahing about nothing, rather as if a flock of sheep had by some miracle been taught a few elementary phrases from a language primer and been encouraged to bleat them at intervals.

Embarrassment I am not a particularly sensitive man, but the sight of Alex trying to explain to Jade why he disliked her, in terms that he could not articulate and she could not understand, depressed me horribly: like a pair of stalactites dripping away, side by side, in a cave – "So what would you do if we met in the street? Drip drip drip." "I'd probably say: 'Hello.' Drip drip drip."

Jade No point in pretending, of course, that much of this isn't simply a header into the cesspool. Here is this wretched child, dragged out of some Bermondsey slum by the lure of celebrity, hoodwinked by the media barons into making remarks that would shame a parrot. Perhaps, in the last resort, it does not matter if such people are swindled or not, but there was a frightful moment in last Wednesday's programme when she was helping Jonny to be sick when she turned to face the camera.

It was the ordinary slum girl's look, the look of a girl who is 20 but looks 30 owing to a lifetime of bad food and the lack of healthy exercise, but something in her face caught my eye, and I realised that the people who say, "It's not the same for them as it would be for us", are wrong. She knew, as well as I did, what a dreadful destiny it was to be sitting in a designer armchair under the merciless artificial light with a bottle of cheap champagne, ready to betray her inanity with every sentence that she uttered. And all this for a mere £70,000! Somehow, it seems a poor sort of exchange.

For all that, though, there was some good fun to be had. In particular, the people responsible for the programme's production are to be congratulated for grasping one of the elementary maxims of low comedy, from Max Miller down. That is, if you are going to get people to humiliate themselves in public, then you should make sure that you do the job thoroughly. In this respect, the whole proceedings reminded me of one of those dreadful dance contests that used to take place in big American cities at the height of the Depression, in which the cash prize was awarded to the last couple to remain standing.

Several other points are probably worth recording. The first is the utter collapse of educational standards revealed by exercises of this kind. In fact, the producers have done us all a service by exposing the depths of ignorance now apparent in the mass of society. If I were Estelle Morris, on the strength of this performance by a collection of young people who have recently passed through the country's educational system, I think I should hang myself forthwith.

The second is the peculiar position that "class" now occupies in early 21st-century culture. Early on in the series, a rather feeble effort was made to divide up the household along class lines into "rich" and "poor". This was quite properly resented by the inmates, largely, you feel, because of its obvious arbitrariness. Unquestionably, class distinctions still exist in the world of Big Brother, but they are much less fathomable, less to do with the old notions of dress and accent than with poise, manner, a queer kind of expertise that several of the participants altogether failed to possess. Jade, in particular, seemed vaguely conscious of this. You could see her looking at the others with an odd kind of hopelessness, the thought that there were certain kinds of conditioning that would always be beyond her, like a carthorse suddenly introduced to a stable of expensive thoroughbreds.

It would be all too easy to write Big Brother off as simply another example of Western decadence, that uniquely tiresome navel-gazing of people with too much to eat and too little to do that goes on regardless while half the world starves and America bombs defenceless children with lumps of thermite. In a curious way, though, what has taken place here on our television screens over the last two months has its positive side. Pace Huxley, man does not flourish in a hedonistic environment. One of the last group activities of the final week involved the four remaining inmates – Jade, Alex, Jonny and Kate – laying out their weekly income. Predictably enough, they spent it on drink for a party, were promptly sick and lay around the floor singing songs of inconceivable silliness.

This seemed to me to illustrate another important truth – one that practically every social planner, futurist guru and whatnot forgets – which is that, by and large, the average human being does not want most of the appurtenances of a secular heaven that are regularly dangled in their faces by the ad men. To judge from the average TV show, the summit of most human ambition is to own a DVD player and take five holidays a year. At the same time, there is another part of the soul that wants blood, sweat, toil and lofted banners: the distance between Jonny vomiting his supper (not without its amusing side, if you like that kind of thing) and the dull thump of car bombs and bullets tap-tapping from the machine-gun nests is smaller than you think.

It is a point that Mr Blair and President Bush, as they make their dispositions for the future shape of our lives, might care to ponder.

The live final of 'Big Brother' is on tonight at 8.30pm and 10pm on Channel 4

George Orwell was talking to D J TAYLOR, who, curiously enough, is currently at work on a major new biography of the author