After 18 years of innumerable controversies and spats over whose turn it was to make the tea, the reality franchise to rule them all is headed for the big diary room in the sky. Ahead of the 19th series of Big Brother, which launches tonight, Channel 5 has announced that the season will bring the curtain down on the show. The CCTV caper that introduced Britain to the highs, lows and shouty in-betweens of reality TV and fundamentally altered the nation’s perception of – and relationship with – celebrity is itself about to be ejected from the schedules.
It’s been a bruising several months for Big Brother. Ratings have continued to slide; the first series garnered 10 million viewers in 2000 while the latest instalment of Celebrity Big Brother saw viewership sink to below two million. It has also found itself at the centre of an unwelcome firestorm over former Emmerdale actress Roxanne Pallett’s swiftly debunked assertion on air that she had been physically abused by eventual CBB winner Ryan Thomas (video playback confirmed he had playfully tapped rather than assaulted her).
Truthfully, however, Big Brother has been in decline for some time. Since relocating to Channel 5 in 2011 it has struggled to reclaim its early notoriety, when it scandalised the public and made overnight stars of contestants such as nefarious stockbroker “Nasty” Nick Bateman and the late Jade Goody. Yet its influence lives on – not only in flashier (and arguably equally manipulative) distractions such as Love Island, but also in the ongoing cult of the social-media celebrity.
If Big Brother had a message – beyond that it’s never a good idea to become intimate with someone when night-vision cameras are rolling – it was that anyone could be famous, provided they wanted it badly enough and were prepared to behave outrageously. Like a contagion in the water supply, it’s a message that has entered the DNA of popular culture.
It’s no exaggeration to describe the original 2000 series as a light entertainment earthquake – one of the defining television moments of the decade. That is certainly how it was received in the moment. The concept of sealing a dozen average members of the public in what was essentially a network of mildly luxurious sheds and watching what happened was regarded as genuinely revolutionary and 40,000 people duly applied to participate.
That the idea had originated with Dutch production company Endemol was, moreover, perceived as applying a veneer of continental sophistication to the endeavour. Indeed, at the time Big Brother was received as much as a social science experiment – the equivalent of lab rats fighting over cheese – as a cheap attempt by Channel 4 to commandeer more eyeballs.
And if the goal was to illustrate the tooth-and-claw reality of human nature in the wild, it more than succeeded. Viewers were riveted as “Nasty” Nick slithered about setting housemates against each other. Great cheer was taken from the fact that, after 70 days in confinement, the decent Craig Phillips was voted the winner. It says something for the shadow cast by that first season that, nearly two decades on, those names still chime a bell, when many pop stars and actors from the early 2000s have been reclaimed by obscurity.
Big Brother would quickly confirm that the hype over its launch year was no one-off. At a time when television was undergoing deep-rooted change, it was a phenomenon like no other and yet was not regarded in a benign light. Its portrayal of housemates with mental illness was widely criticised as crass and exploitative. For instance, Tourette’s sufferer Pete Bennett was sold as a lovable weirdo while Nikki Grahame, who was anorexic and had attempted suicide, found herself painted as a hysterical villainess prone to exploding over the tiniest slight.
“I think reality TV programmes do a lot of damage,” argued Vanessa Feltz, who appeared on Celebrity Big Brother. “Nothing prepares you for the scrutiny and incarceration and worrying what people might think of you and trying to survive all at once. Believe me, it was extremely intense and a most unnerving thing.”
The remarkable power of Big Brother was personified in the rise of Jade Goody, the series three contestant who became a national laughing stock because of her perceived lack of geographic expertise (believing Rio de Janeiro was a person rather than a city etc etc).
The public loved to hate her – which she parlayed into a place on the Z-list prior to her death from cancer in 2009 at the age of 27. After Big Brother, she starred in her own TV shows (Jade’s Salon, Just Jade) and was a regular in the tabloids. That she could become famous by projecting an image of mid-level cluelessness was a klaxon warning that, in terms of celebrity, we weren’t in Kansas any more.
But her somewhat cuddly persona was undermined with an appearance in Celebrity Big Brother 2007 when she was accused of racism towards fellow housemate Shilpa Shetty (Ofcom was inundated with a record 44,500 complaints). The outcry prompted an extraordinary intervention from then chancellor Gordon Brown, who interrupted a state visit to India to attack the programme (protestors in India were burning images of the Big Brother producers in the street). “I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance,” he said. “Anything detracting from this I condemn.”
Amid slumping viewing figures the franchise transferred to Channel 5 in 2011 (upon purchasing the network, media baron Richard Desmond declared Big Brother top of his wish list). This brought a change of presenters (original host Davina McCall had stepped away in 2010 with Emma Willis eventually becoming the face of Big Brother on Channel 5) but the emphasis on bad blood between housemates remained.
How much of this was a result of cynicism on the part of the producers is difficult to tell. Channel 5 endured a backlash in January when a season of Celebrity Big Brother, ostensibly marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, found room for Dapper Laughs, the comedian accused of misogynist humour.
The recently concluded run of Celebrity Big Brother meanwhile saw “Human Ken Doll” Rodrigo Alves ejected off camera for an unspecified racist outburst. Whether this was part of a dastardly scheme to gin up ratings or the inevitable consequence of lumping a dozen attention seekers together for a month was impossible to say. Either way, a reek of desperation had gathered about the programme, particularly after Stormy Daniels, the adult entertainment star in a legal dispute with Donald Trump, backed out at the last minute.
Big Brother probably won’t be missed. At a time when the schedules are heaving with reality fare – from The Great British Bake Off to Strictly Come Dancing via The X Factor and Love Island – it had become just one lowbrow distraction among many.
But it set the tone for the shows that followed, as well as contributing to this imperial age of the social-media celebrity (a demographic that used to be called “famous for being famous” but is today better described as “famous for being on Instagram”). In terms of its influence on popular culture, it can leave with its head high and its chest out, knowing that its work is done.
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