How I helped bring television history to an inglorious end

As the 'Big Brother' door opens for the last time, former housemate Jon Tickle spills the beans

Sunday 06 June 2010 00:00

This week the final series of Big Brother begins on Channel 4. This is the story of my part in its downfall.

I was a housemate in Big Brother series four in 2003. This came as a surprise to many people who knew me. Soundly middle class, with a physics degree and working for a blue-chip company, I was hardly a typical BB applicant, even then. "Sociable, amenable" may have been common descriptions of me, but not "extroverted, loud".

I hadn't liked BB. I refused to watch the first series on a point of principle, despite the attention that it attracted. This was not the sort of television with which I wanted to waste my time. It was lowbrow, sensationalist and intrusive – and I read The Independent, not The Sun. But by the middle of series two I was forced to admit defeat. BB was already a cultural phenomenon, whether I liked it or not. If I was to battle against it, I would have to know my enemy. Series three saw me hooked.

Why did I apply? I wanted to see it from the inside. How was it made, who were the decision-makers, what influenced them, what was broadcast? Was reality television real? A useful, if surprising, analogy can be found in the financial disaster of the last few years. People have asked how a banking industry with such complex financial models, skilled employees and regulation could possibly go wrong. What naivety. Fact-based decision-making, rigour, controls, corporate governance, checks and balances; yes, they exist and for good reason. But think of your own workplace; we all know that big decisions aren't necessarily empirical. When the chips are down and you're working to a deadline, preference, experience and instinct will shape decision-making as much as the instructions of a supposedly complex model.

I met dedicated, professional people on the production team who were committed to their work. However, like the financial models, complex decision-making in reality television doesn't exist. The producers deciding what you watched in the BB house weren't in their autumn years, with decades of experience. They were gifted, but they were in their twenties and thirties – and they stayed awake for 30 hours at a stretch in order to produce their particular episode.

"I was edited badly," cry those who exit the house to discover that the public does not share their own internal self-image. "If you hadn't done it, we wouldn't have been able to show it," retort the producers, and they are right.

There is no time in those 30 hours to edit the footage from dozens on cameras in accordance with a predefined story. The actors follow a script only of their own choosing. But I am not suggesting that producers are not to blame for the decline of BB and that it was all the housemates' fault.

The application process was a long affair for the first four series. I recorded a video, completed a short application form and heard nothing for weeks. Then, following a whispered telephone call received out of the blue while I was wrestling with a thorny business problem in a grey office block in Leicester, I found myself at a group audition in London. Those 25 people were the only other applicants I met during the whole process.

What followed was a far longer application form and series of one-on-one invasive and highly stressful interviews with Harley Street psychiatrists and senior production staff. They wanted to know my character and my secrets, but I believed that near the top of their list was their desire to establish that I was mentally equipped for what was to come. Some applicants weren't, and were excluded.

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Contrast that with the application process from series five onwards. Tens of thousands of applicants queued for hours outside large conference centres up and down the country. In order to be noticed, you must be – to put it kindly – exuberant and extroverted. Were I to have been unkind, I might have said, loud, obnoxious and anti-social.

Why did this change in the application process take place? Big Brother 4 – my Big Brother – that's why. Several things went wrong. For a start, the early summer of 2003 was gloriously hot and sunny. There was nothing to do, so we sunbathed and didn't talk. They allowed us one book each. I read the other 12 books in the house as well as six plays from my own book, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The hour-long "gentlemen's reading club" became a regular feature of the day, during which we wouldn't interact at all.

Most housemates were of a similar age and social class. We didn't even have any gay men, lesbians or transsexuals. No one was politically active. No one's career was hugely successful but then again, everyone had a job. No one was married but neither was anyone off-putting to members of the opposite sex. We were distinctly average. If you met any of my housemates in the pub, you'd have a pleasant enough time.

We formed our community immediately. We cooked and ate together on the first full day and, at the dining table, we made a pact that we were going to resolve any differences amicably. We weren't going to fight. We were true to our word. Our community worked. We worked together to overcome the meagreness of rations. We all had our particular jobs around the house and cared for the environment in which we lived.

But we worried, constantly. "What on earth are they going to show on the highlights programme?" we wondered. So too, it turned out, did the producers. Viewing figures were nearly 20 per cent down on what would prove to be the peak third BB series. The conclusion reached – analogous to the hypothesis that shark attacks cause an increase in ice cream sales – seems to have been that viewing figures were bad because my housemates and I didn't fight, and therefore the way to improve them was to populate the house with those who would. Hence the introduction of X Factor-style auditions, and housemates from society's behavioural fringes.

The viewing figures recovered, although not to BB3 levels. Indeed, in hindsight, series four compares well: the audience only tumbled to half its previous size from series eight to 10.

Why has the audience lost interest? It helps to examine what BB did best in its early years. People watched because they could identify with the housemates. Like casual acquaintances in the pub, you could imagine interacting with them and being interested in their lives and the things that they liked. They might not have been exactly the same as the people in your own social circle, but they weren't alien to your experience and that bred empathy. Even as late as series seven we encountered Pete Bennett; he happens to have Tourette's syndrome but far more importantly – I've met him a number of times – he's a lovely chap.

People want to meet and engage with Pete, and that's a good thing. In understanding and accepting our differences, whether in the pub or on national television, society is improved. In its early incarnations, BB had the power to change the nation. A gay Irish air steward, a virgin fish trader from Orkney and a Portuguese transsexual bank clerk all won their series and crucially, the acceptance of the Great British Public.

In contrast, how are the viewers supposed to relate to the rest of them; the majority of the X Factor hopefuls? We wouldn't tolerate antisocial behaviour in the pub and it seems that we've had enough of it on our televisions as well. Does the fault lie entirely with the housemates, playing out a script of their own writing on the screen? No, for much of the responsibility must be carried by the producers who choose those performers and create the environment which moulds their behaviour.

Big Brother had – and still has – the power to change society. It started off by showing us that people can build successful communities despite their differences and the hardships they share. It ends having reinforced the view, among the young in particular, that it's all right to be antisocial – racist, sexist and most "ists" in the book – because "I said it to yer face!"

The easy decision from series five onwards was to choose housemates who were unrepresentative of British societal norms. The conflict that followed shored up the viewing figures in the short term.

It would be a brave decision in this week's final series to go "back to basics" and give the public what it wants; a window on a world that is different – yet not ridiculously, excessively, unrecognisably so – from its own experience. Fingers crossed.

Jon Tickle presents Brainiac: Science Abuse on Sky One

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