Scarlett Thomas: There's no point in turning over. Big Brother is on every channel

You can ignore them. You will forget them. But they're here to stay

Share

When Big Brother was first announced in 1999, I had just finished writing a novel about some young people who are confined on a remote island by an unknown captor. The point of the novel was that these people, faced with a big question about why they were prisoners, in fact ended up sitting around talking about sex, TV and their aimless lives. Obviously, I wasn't overly impressed to discover that my idea was about to be gazumped by a TV show. My book wasn't scheduled for publication until after the first Big Brother had aired, which meant I had a whole summer to listen to people saying things like "What a good idea! Get some people and confine them in a house - brilliant TV!".

When Big Brother was first announced in 1999, I had just finished writing a novel about some young people who are confined on a remote island by an unknown captor. The point of the novel was that these people, faced with a big question about why they were prisoners, in fact ended up sitting around talking about sex, TV and their aimless lives. Obviously, I wasn't overly impressed to discover that my idea was about to be gazumped by a TV show. My book wasn't scheduled for publication until after the first Big Brother had aired, which meant I had a whole summer to listen to people saying things like "What a good idea! Get some people and confine them in a house - brilliant TV!".

I felt too sick to watch it at first, just in case I really did end up seeing my book on screen. And I felt disturbed, too: these were real people, not some made-up characters in a book. I wondered, like everyone else, whether this was legitimate entertainment. But, also like almost everyone else, by the end I was watching compulsively, willing the lesbian nun to triumph over the Oasis-loving builder who never read books.

It would perhaps have been OK as an experimental one-off. But, as the fourth series of Big Brother launched on Friday, it has become possible, yet again, to examine the programme that became a template for most of the mundane TV that is now the bulk of mainstream entertainment. Not that it will be examined by many people. Now that so much prime-time TV is based on the reality TV format of doing strange things to real people (or their houses) it seems unlikely that many commentators will bother to open their laptops to write another piece either ironically celebrating the banality of this form of entertainment, or criticising it for being so cheap and predictable.

"Reality" TV is no longer the mildly titillating, vaguely sociological spectacle we were originally promised when the first Big Brother aired. As well as the now familiar close-up-for-the-tears spectacle of the prime-time makeover or talent shows, there are now 24-hour cable channels devoted to such treats as When Good Pets Turn Bad, and Real Life Rescues. But the chattering classes haven't been watching - or chattering - about these things for a while now. By the time the third Big Brother aired, it had become fashionable to say things like "Who on earth is Jade?" as she appeared in Frankenstein's monster form on the cover of the tabloid newspapers that seemed to be attempting to incite a whole nation to hate her.

It seems odd that we once cared about the smallest psychological scars that these programmes might leave on their fragile amateur casts. Now, in the latest twist, two of the new Big Brother contestants could win almost as much money for having sex on TV as they could for winning the competition. The Sun (of course) has perhaps created the most revolting potential chat-up line in history: "Do you want to go halves on 50 grand?" Classy.

Remember the start of the National Lottery? In the first week, you could barely move for people talking about the moral implications of it all. Were we about to turn into a nation of casual gamblers? What would you do with the money? How much of it would you donate to charity? Now, no one cares. And when reality TV first started people did have sensible debates about voyeurism, celebrity and the psychological implications of sending an "ordinary" person on the now well-trodden path - from nobody to tabloid-front-page material and then back to nobody again - in the space of one summer. But what difference did any of it make? Is it now simply a normal part of the life-cycle of a cultural product to be debated and rejected before going on to become so successful no one bothers to criticise it any more? Perhaps it's down to the short attention spans of the chattering classes, but they never seem to chatter about anything long enough to make it stop.

And as for Big Brother 4? While millions of people text message their votes, and a few thousand fashionably yawn, tabloid monsters will be created and delicate hopes of celebrity will be ripped apart like old rags. And there's no point in changing channels, either, because the same thing is on on the other side. Perhaps there is still something to be said about reality TV after all.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss