The unbearable lightness of 'Big Brother'

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The Independent Online

Incredible but true, there's now a Big Brother helpline (courtesy of Heat magazine) for Channel 4 viewers who cannot come to terms with the end of the show. When it ends, this Friday evening, with a two-part phone-in vote (one to get rid of Darren, the second to off Anna and leave Craig Phillips the winner of the £70,000), a massive, unfillable hole will be left in the national psyche, a hole as big and unhealable as that great ulcerated air-vent in the skin of the Millennium Dome.

Incredible but true, there's now a Big Brother helpline (courtesy of Heat magazine) for Channel 4 viewers who cannot come to terms with the end of the show. When it ends, this Friday evening, with a two-part phone-in vote (one to get rid of Darren, the second to off Anna and leave Craig Phillips the winner of the £70,000), a massive, unfillable hole will be left in the national psyche, a hole as big and unhealable as that great ulcerated air-vent in the skin of the Millennium Dome.

And while the billion-dollar umbrella will be remembered as the worst thing that happened in 2000, Big Brother (a smaller-scale structure with even fewer people inside it) may well be remembered as the best.

I can't believe we came to care so much about the awkward squad of BB residents and their closeted, mundane lives. I don't know how it happened. When I saw The Truman Show, I complained that you'd never get a large TV audience to give a toss about the minutiae of someone's ordinary daily routines: that you'd need incident, confrontation, drama - a charging-up of experience - to hold the attention of the remote-zapping spectator for more than a second. And sometimes - while watching, say, Mel and Anna sitting in silence for minutes until Mel decides to throw caution to the wind and make a rice pudding - you wonder what a visiting Martian on the sofa beside you would make of your idea of fun.

But the howling success of the show (do the final three contestants have any idea of the uproar in the outside world, and was Claire banned from telling them about it?) has shown two intriguing things. One is the viewers' hitherto-unguessed ability to focus on, and celebrate, tiny moments of revelation, little don't-blink instances of what Desmond Morris used to call social leakage, titchy bonsai epiphanies when you suddenly felt you knew what was going on in someone's mind.

Recent conversations around The Independent's photocopier have been full of them. The moment when Nick Bateman stumbled through the assault course like an epileptic hen and sowed the first doubts about whether he really had been in the Territorial Army. The touching moment when the otherwise unspeakable Nichola tried and failed to tell Darren she fancied him. The four-times-a-day costume changes of Mel - that hard and sexy femme fatale - as she struggled to compete with the bosomy Claire. Anna pretending the bruises on her legs were caused by a stray kid's rocket rather than by her ineptness on a unicycle. It was these subtle, involuntary displays of self, rather than the who'll-snog-whom voyeurism, that turned out to be the heart of the programme.

The second extraordinary find was the rancour displayed by the voting audience for anyone with a spark of life. One by one they were removed for being too posh, too noisy, too on-for-it, too show-offy, too jolly or too flirtatious. The talkers, sexpots, schemers and ones with integrated personalities had to go. Nick is so two-faced; get rid of him! Mel plucks her bikini line: lawks-a-mercy, ditch the trollop!

It's as if we were watching a society quickly evolving into terminal blandness, natural selection breeding out any trace of ego, fire, guts or intelligence. We're left with one ex-novice-nun office manager with the charisma of a paper-clip, one black Millennium Dome greeter and chef with a basic grasp of conversation and contraception, and one block-headed Scouser who walks, as my friend Paul puts it, as if he's got his white-van keys stuffed up his bottom.

Is that what we wanted? A final trio of two-dimensional wraiths with nothing between them (such as, for instance, sex or empathy or dialogue) except an interest in seeing who gets the cash? It's a sadly bleak conclusion to an extraordinary journey.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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