Matthew Norman: Why I wouldn't miss a minute of Big Brother

The main reason for the celebrities' presence is not to rescue them from failure, but to rub their noses in it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a mercenary and cynical sporting age, it is with a mixture of delight and astonishment that we find the flame of Olympic idealism flickering in east London. I refer not to the site set aside for the Olympic village, needless to say, where the steroid-ridden and Human Growth Hormone-enhanced will congregate in 2012 to do the bidding of Nike, Coca-Cola and the US television networks for whose benefit the Games are primarily held. I am thinking here of the birthplace of Big Brother.

By now, the limousines will have deposited the gallery of grotesques for the 2006 celebrity edition of the show in Elstree, where the show is now filmed, and even by the impeccable standards set previously this year's crop looks rather special. Michael Barrymore, whose career nosedived after a corpse was found in his swimming pool; Dennis Rodman, a six foot seven cross-dressing basketball star who once attended the launch of his autobiography in New York in a coffin; Anna Nicole Smith, the soft-porn model who enjoyed a fulfilling, if tragically brief, marriage to an 89-year-old billionaire; Faria Alam, who provided such an impressive range of secretarial services to the middle-aged gentlemen of the Football Association; and Johnny Vegas, a talented comic with a capacity for drink to stagger the lovechild of Homer Simpson and Charlotte Church.

The identities of the other three remain obscure at the time of writing, but if it proves to be Mad Frank Fraser, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and David Icke few will fall off their chairs.

What would so enchant the late Baron de Coubertin about this eclectic group of souls is that for them it is not the winning that matters, but the taking part. In fact, winning is the last thing most of them will desire.

Winning, after all, demands that they stay in that hellish house for three and a half weeks (a week longer, even, than the Olympic Games).

Like John McCririck, the Rosa Parks of fizzy drinks who last year treated the confiscation of his Diet Coke as a sovereign issue of human rights, and like his sparring partner Jackie Stallone, the barely breathing cosmetic surgery installation who makes Jocelyn Wilderstein resemble the young Aled Jones, most will go stir crazy within hours. Some, like that uniquely perplexing contestant Germaine Greer, may go over the wall. Most, however, will somehow tolerate the humiliation and tough it out until the public tire of them.

Ever since Vanessa Feltz dignified the first Celeb BB by feigning a nervous breakdown, chalking a frenetic stream-of-consciousness list of despairing adjectives onto a blackboard, two questions have remorselessly posed themselves.

The first - why do they do it? - seems much the easier to answer. The fee, generally £50,000, doesn't really explain it since, however broke one might be, there are infinitely less troublesome ways to earn that sort of money. By engineering a fall in a newly mopped supermarket aisle, for instance, and suing Tesco. Or selling a kidney.

Some have posited that they subject themselves to the torment to resurrect a moribund career, but if so they are dangerously deluded. Following a flatulent appearance that culminated in the departure of his wife, the quiz show host Les Dennis may have learnt to laugh at himself, but apart from a self-ridiculing cameo in Ricky Gervais's Extras he has topped few bills since.

The erstwhile Take That pretty boy Mark Owen, winner of Celeb BB in 2002, hasn't exactly stormed the charts lately. Whatever the opposite of ubiquitous might be, Anthea Turner remains it.

If any of these desperadoes honestly mistook making arses of themselves on Channel 4 for the catalyst for an alchemical reaction to transform their leaden careers back into gold, they utterly missed the point. The primary reason for their presence in that house is not to be rescued from their failure, but to have their noses rubbed in it.

Over the years, allusions to the ancient world, factual and mythological, have often been applied to Celeb BB. Feeding the Christians to the lions, the public being the big cats, is one virtual cliché. Another raises the audience to the level of the Greek gods, who destroyed their favourites, first with arrogance and then madness.

Being wilfully pretentious about ultra-cheap telly has its charms - why shouldn't we compare the Hubris-Ate-Nemesis deterioration of Miss Feltz to that of Sophocles's Ajax? - and you could witter on merrily about the tragic, or tragicomic, irony that is the gulf between the celebs' perception of their status and the audience's appreciation of the reality.

Equally, one could try to explain the incredible appeal of this show - only last week Mr McCririck's demented fight for his pop was voted one of six highlights from all of last year's TV output - in modern cultural terms. Certainly the pre-eminent TV comedy of the age is the humour of excruciation... the cushion-biting, near-unbearable but strangely addictive horror, as perfected by Ricky Gervais in The Office and by his new friend Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, of watching charmless and exaggeratedly inadequate people disgracing themselves without knowing it.

Doubtless the programme makers would make a case for their show providing some kind of sub-Lord of the Flies insight into how conventional societal veneers collapse when the rules are changed, or even (God help us) for it providing harmless and wholesome entertainment. Ultimately, though, casting pretension and self-justification aside for a moment, the source of the British people's insatiable appetite for Celebrity Big Brother must be a sense, however misplaced, of superiority. It is the motto you'd find if you dug up Ena Sharples and sliced open her chest... you're no better than you should be.

This is the special fiendish brilliance of buying Michael Barrymore, a genius once with a remarkable gift for conveying warmth towards a public that will now tune in with cool disdain to luxuriate in his descent from highest paid performer on television to humbled petitioner for a pardon that will never come.

In America, a godly land where Bill Clinton could intone "Ah ... haaave... sinnnnned" at that prayer breakfast without being drowned out by snorting laughter, they gobble up redemption like supersize burgers. Here, there are few second chances, and no pleasure like the misfortune of others. Throw in a lavish dose of synthetic disgust at the spectacle from those lavishing most air time and column inches on covering it, and you have the absolutely perfect British entertainment. I wouldn't miss a minute of it for the world.