Janet Street-Porter: Show caution with these stupid inmates

Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Tuesday 9 January I discussed the current series of Celebrity Big Brother on GMTV with Lorraine Kelly, and pointed out that the way that Jade Goody's mother, Jackiey, repeatedly asked glamorous Bollywood star and fellow housemate Shilpa what her name was, and continually pronounced it incorrectly, was verging on racism. I said this made for very uncomfortable viewing, and was surprised, as a former television executive, that Channel 4 had not edited the programme to remove the remarks because there are strict guidelines about such matters.

Now, 10 days later, it seems my worries were well founded, and there's a huge furore over how the remaining housemates are talking about Shilpa. Is it racist, and should it be broadcast?

Peter Hain calls the programme "grubby" and "unacceptable", Keith Vaz tables a motion in the Commons and Gordon Brown gets inundated with questions during an official trip to India. The media regulator Ofcom is said to have received more than 21,000 complaints from viewers.

It reminded me of an incident in 1992 when I was head of entertainment features at BBC television. The boss of BBC2 then was Alan Yentob, and he asked me to take a look at the series Sylvania Waters, made by the distinguished director Paul Watson, which had been edited but not yet approved for transmission. Paul, who pioneered fly-on-the-wall documentaries with The Family, in 1974, has always been a true innovator in a medium that is full of copycat stylists.

For Sylvania Waters, Paul had followed a working-class couple in a Sydney suburb (hence the title) for weeks on end, Noeline and Laurie, and the result was absorbing and horrific. They seemed to reinforce every stereotype you might have dreamt up about Aussies, loud and abrasive in the extreme. Noeline liked a huge amount to drink and Laurie was prone to spouting nasty remarks about Aborigines. Could we let this stuff be broadcast?

Paul argued that his subjects should be shown warts and all, but in the end I agreed with Alan Yentob, and some of Laurie and Noeline's most offensive rants were removed. Paul was furious and attacked us both publicly.

Fourteen years later he still courts controversy. His latest series, Rain in My Heart on BBC2 (broadcast last November), followed a group of alcoholics in an NHS hospital in Kent, and was equally uncompromising viewing at a time when so much television seems sanitised or formulaic. Was Paul taking advantage of his tragic subjects, and did they realise how they would come across? I happen to think he has the highest moral integrity.

But in the Big Brother house, there is another problem: the nightly programme on Channel 4 contains mostly edited material which can (and should) not contravene guidelines about racism, but the unedited stuff which spews out all day and night long on digital television is more problematic. Big Brother is watched by the young and impressionable; they have already made Jade Goody a huge media star. It is important to err on the side of caution.

Most of the time I think the housemates open their mouths without thinking. They seem to be stupid rather than wilfully unpleasant. But Channel 4 cannot be seen to condone offensive behaviour; they should give all the housemates a good talking to and install a time delay on everything they transmit.

Times are a-changin' for Dylan

My last trip to the Highlands was spent looking through the car windscreen at torrential rain. But I adore the place, and will never forget a wonderful walk over the moors to Glencoe. After about three miles, a man in a dark suit, wearing a white shirt, came in the opposite direction down the track, wheeling a large rectangular suitcase. Who was this bizarrely dressed stranger, and where was he going? We might have had a rare sighting of Bob Dylan, house-hunting. He's long been a fan of Scotland, admitting that he based "The Times They Are A-Changin'" on a traditional folk song. Now he's bought a huge mansion outside Inverness. An appearance at the Highland Games this summer? Makes a change from the Isle of Wight or Woodstock.

* Elizabeth Hurley has been taken to task by the female taste police in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, who talk about her forthcoming wedding as if they personally have been issued with a detailed press release, itemising the vast wardrobe guests will have to pack, and calling the arrangements gleaned from a private letter sent to guests "ostentatious".

Facts always mess up a good story, don't they? Elizabeth Hurley is having a traditional ceremony in England, and a traditional ceremony in India, which, as her businessman husband-to-be hails from that very continent, is hardly surprising.

I will not find wearing a sari an ostentatious ordeal, and will be only too happy to pass it on to Allison Pearson afterwards, if she fancies a spot of "ostentation" in the Home counties in between mopping up kiddie mess and whingeing about being a working mum.