Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Howard Jacobson

'Big Brother' teaches us that we are all the same under the skin. How tragic

Give or take the size of the breast implants, the whole thing is shot through with cultural sameness

But it was in the hope of meeting one, or even several, that I had agreed to give a talk in this most archdeaconish of English cathedral towns. It had been a successful talk too, of the incorrigibly bohemian sort which archdeaconesses expect when they turn up to a literary festival. I had said things which their husbands would not have. I had sent little frissons of metropolitan naughtiness through the congregation. Hence my sitting here, signing books and being told I had a characterful face.

"In the village in which I live," my complimenter went on, there is an old Jew with a face remarkably similar to yours." Or did she say " 'another' old Jew with a face remarkably similar to yours" And did I say, "Well, when you've seen one old Jew you've seen 'em all"?

The truth is I was too taken aback to remember what either of us said precisely. I suspect I laughed. A laugh being the quickest way of registering pleasure and displeasure all at once. She meant no harm. I was a rare plant in the garden of her experience, and she was commenting on my rarity. What was wrong with that?

On the other hand ... But to hell with the other hand. As long as she did not mean to rip me out of her garden on account of my extraneousness, what did it matter? Would I have preferred her not to notice me at all? Would I have liked it more had she taken me for a geranium or a pansy? Was my rarity not a source of pride to me?

I recall this incident in the light of comments made last week by Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, at the Commission's Race in the Media Awards. Noting that "few people in the majority community actually know anyone from a minority well", Trevor Phillips went on to praise reality TV - "whatever else you think of it" - for giving "British people a chance to encounter people from other ethnic groups in a way they would never do in their own everyday lives."

The last time the truth of our insularity was brought home to me - when I realised that although I lived in the centre of London I knew almost no one from what might be called an ethnic minority other than myself - I set about correcting it in a manner alarming to anyone not white who had the misfortune to find himself in my path. Let a poor Pakistani make the mistake of sitting next to me on the underground, or an unsuspecting Ghanaian stand behind me in a queue for the cinema, and they would be the recipient of insistent queries as to their theology and culture, not to mention invitations to my house for dinner, before we had so much as commented on the weather. In the end, word of my multicultural avidity spread through London's ethnic communities, and men and women of colour would run when they saw me heading in their direction.

I therefore take Trevor Phillips' point, and though I am not a fan of either of the reality TV programmes he singled out as helpful in this matter - The Apprentice and Big Brother - I agree that they familiarize us with minorities we might otherwise shy from or categorize crudely. Whether the familiarity we attain is necessarily, in these instances, the good thing Trevor Phillips believes it is, I am less sure.

We watch Big Brother in our house. I loathe it but I watch it. One of the reasons I am able to do both simultaneously is that the programme sometimes escapes its own intention, and no matter to what depths of tawdriness it sinks, never sinks as low as its producers would wish. In this regard it is useful to think of the programme itself as the tart, and the programme makers as the pimps. For the tart herself we can drum up a bit of sympathy. Whereas the pimps we would gladly see rotting in a penitentiary for the incurably coarse.

Which said, it has to be asked how it serves the cause of racial enlightenment that we encounter our ethnic minorities - in some cases our first encounter: isn't that Trevor Phillips' point? - in a context which not only degrades them personally but disrespects their differences.

Big Brother fancies that all human life is here, every colour and belief, every sexual orientation, the more outlandish the better. In fact, give or take the size of the breast implants, the whole thing is shot through with cultural sameness - the music the housemates like, the values to which they subscribe, their vocabulary of engagement with one another and the language in which they esteem and fail to understand themselves, identical. Star sign, pop idol, big print, small word culture. And though the house always has one figure who is an exception to this, he is invariably absurd in a way which reinforces the pack in its sameness.

Without doubt, it is good to demonstrate that Asians don't only eat curries and that blacks have no more rhythm than the rest of us. But our glory is our difference, not our sameness. We live in a tolerant society when we delight in how strange and marvellous we are to one another, not just the same old know-nothing fame-grabbing self-deluded Charlies under the skin.