Tom Phillips: It's a freak show but he's no freak: why we love Big Brother's Pete

'We think you're great, but just a bit Tourettey for our show'
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The Independent Online

A new freak show low with the new series of Big Brother! The show's wannabe rock star is a Tourette's sufferer! For the professional disapprovers, inviting Pete to be paraded for the mocking benefit of an uncaring public was the latest in a long line of final straws. A horde of ravenous, fanged Endemol executives would hungrily devour the ratings sucked fresh from his bloodied corpse. That sort of thing.

Of course, it's not exactly clear what those complaining would rather have had the Big Brother producers say. "Pete, mate, we think you're great, but you're just a bit Tourettey for our show. But if you could lose the twitching and the potty mouth, you could be star." Not the most progressive message to send out, really.

But you could see their point. As Big Brother has to fight for attention with crasser imitators (not to mention Wayne Rooney's foot), it's hard to shake the feeling that it's got trapped in an arms race of outrageousness. Only the most optimistic would have denied the possibility that Pete (pictured right) could become a figure of fun, the main attraction in a freak show. But a few weeks in, Pete's the roaring favourite to win, both loved by the public and fondly thought of across the divides of an increasingly cliquey house.

To be sure, at these early stages, he might be getting a sympathy vote from both groups. (Let's also pass over the uncharitable assumption that Pete is simply a proxy for a nation that's been longing to shout "wankers" at BB contestants for several years now.) Even given that, it's clear that Pete has charm, charisma and - most importantly - a degree of honesty somewhat absent from the other, gameplan-driven housemates. Undeniably, he's improving the visibility and understanding of Tourette's. But above all else, he is, simply, highly likeable.

The final three contestants on the first series were a black man, an Irish lesbian and a dyslexic Scouser - not quite the triumvirate you might have predicted for the Great British Popularity Contest. A gay man won series two, a committed Christian won series four, and series five was won, not just by a transsexual, but a foreign transsexual. Either Britons are a lot more tolerant than you might have suspected, or BB doesn't actually play to everybody's worst instincts.

In fact, right from its very beginnings, "reality television" has been at the forefront of breaking down social prejudices. When producer Craig Gilbert mixed together elements of cinema verité and the soap opera to create An American Family in 1972 - generally accepted as the precursor of all reality TV - Lance Loud became one of the first openly gay men to appear on American television. The British version, 1974's The Family, featured a mixed-race couple when such things were widely frowned upon. The winner of America's first Survivor was gay, and when an HIV positive character featured on MTV's The Real World in 1994, it did more for AIDS education than a hundred worthy public information films.

So, given a television audience's natural empathy for an outsider, we should not be surprised that someone as intriguing and simpatico as Pete should have been accepted so willingly - and if events do pan out as is currently expected, and he wins, we will quickly forget that his Tourette's was ever supposed to be an issue. After all, he still swears less than Wayne Rooney.