'Big Brother' bad for health, say doctors

Psychiatrists round on the Channel 4 reality show as Ofcom investigates viewer complaints following brawl

Andrew Johnson
Sunday 20 June 2004 00:00 BST

Psychiatrists yesterday accused Channel 4 of damaging the mental wellbeing of its Big Brother housemates and cast doubts on the credentials of the programme's advisers.

Psychiatrists yesterday accused Channel 4 of damaging the mental wellbeing of its Big Brother housemates and cast doubts on the credentials of the programme's advisers.

Their attack followed the resignation of one of the programme's advisers, David Wilson, a professor of criminology at the University of Central England, who said he could no longer be associated with a show that "provoked interpersonal violence for entertainment".

More than 100 viewers complained to the media watchdog Ofcom last week after a brawl broke out in the house when two "evicted" contestants were returned after spending a week spying on their housemates.

The shadow culture secretary Julie Kirkbride called on Ofcom to take action if the programme was found to "condone the kind of loutish behaviour we have seen in Euro 2004".

Raj Persaud, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London, who regularly appears on television and radio, told The Independent on Sunday that there was widespread concern within the psychiatric community for the welfare of the Big Brother contestants.

"The professions of psychiatry and psychology are very concerned about this programme and the effects on the mental health of the housemates," he said. "The key questions are: who is providing the medical back up - the key point being are they a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist? And do they have clinical experience of dealing with patients, in particular do they have an affiliation with a recognised clinic or hospital?"

A spokeswoman for Channel 4 said: "We have a fully qualified psychologist who is in regular contact with the housemates." She added that the psychologist, whom she refused to name for reasons of "patient confidentiality", advised producers on many issues, including what games the contestants should play. The producers, though, took the final decisions.

She said that this professional was distinct from the medical pundits who comment on the behaviour of the housemates on television.

Mental health experts have suggested the television pundits lack the necessary experience. A leading psychiatrist, who asked not to be named, said: "The ethos of this programme is to create stress and conflict, because that makes good TV. No properly trained psychologist or psychiatrist could get involved in that. How could they, when it is their job to reduce conflict?"

Hertfordshire police, who were called to investigate the violence, said that they were satisfied the safety of the contestants could now be guaranteed.

Last night the programme-makers, Endemol, said that Emma, a contestant who had been involved in the brawl, would not be allowed back into the Big Brother house.

The Big Brother Challenge We locked two viewers in a room for 12 hours with BB

Hermione Eyre was a 'Big Brother' virgin until she went into the video room for a continuous 12 hours. She emerged singing its praises.

8 pm: "Come on parsnips, work with me" are the first words I hear on tuning in. And immediately, I'm involved. The woman (Shell) is ostensibly talking to the vegetables she's chopping, but it's clear she's really addressing her two moody housemates (Victor and Ahmed), who are unco-operative and silent. They're obviously brooding over last night's violence, but she's making peace and making supper. The tension in the house is like a string waiting to be plucked. I settle under a duvet to see what will happen.

10.04 pm: Emma, in the Big Brother annexe, is shown sitting alone, watching a screen, eating crisps with a ravenous, mechanical motion. "Poor sod," I think. Then I realise that I am sitting alone, watching a screen, eating peanuts with a ravenous, mechanical motion.

10.50pm: My friends pile in and we ooh, aah and urgh at the female housemates. Their collective preening looks vain but fosters peace and reconciliation: they all choose matching outfits, as if to demonstrate a united front.

10.50pm: The housemates' trivia session makes me warm to them enormously. Having learnt that eviction is postponed, they're relaxed and treat each other with kind diplomacy even though there are big discrepancies in their levels of knowledge. The history of art student very gently corrects Marco when he says "Kutchinsky" for "Kandinsky".

11.50pm: Stark dramatic irony: Nadia is casually asked her most painful experience. The viewers know she has had a sex-change. The housemates do not. With a haunted expression, she tells of shutting her thumb in a door. The housemates peel off to bed one by one, as do my friends.

12.15am: I'm glued to the sight of Jason literally trying to rut Vanessa. His behaviour is simple: he wants her. Her behaviour is deeply complex: giggling to keep things light, wrapping him in her blanket to make her role more maternal than sexual, digging her nails in his back to encourage him a little, feigning shock to keep herself looking lady-like ... She's playing a long-term game. And so am I. I make myself a strong coffee.

2.20am: It's the advert loop that's killing me. I try and change the channel. But my friends have taken the batteries out of the remote control.

3.50am: Fail to lip-read Victor and Marco's dawn summit meeting. Tiredness makes me feel grubby inside.

5.50am: Surge of satisfaction when I see Victor stir, wake, move a coat-hanger off the end of his bed and go straight back to sleep. A sight shared only by me, the Big Brother editors and a few privileged insomniacs.

Iain Millar was the office 'Big Brother' know-all, until he went into our video room and ended up having to reach for the sick-bag

8 pm: Shell asks Dan whether only The Sun has page-three models and is surprised to find that the Daily Star does something similar. Shell is a lively and intelligent middle-class art history student. And she mowed the lawn naked on national TV.

8.30pm: Getting twitchy already. Ring the office. Can I watch Channel 4? Davina McCall putting the whole thing in an analytical context with guests including Stella Rimington and Tom Paulin? No, they say. Just the live feed from the house. Bugger.

9.15pm: Over dinner, Stuart asks: "What's stuffing?" This is the clever housemate with the four A-levels.

10.04pm: Poor Emma in her punishment "bedsit". Why is she still there? More worryingly, why doesn't she seem to care?

10.17pm: Dash out of the room for a cigarette while the virtues of a three-CD set called Ibiza Chillout Gold flashes across the screen.

10.25pm: Wonder if Donald Rumsfeld has considered introducing Big Brother Iraq as method of subduing the will of the Iraqi people.

10.50pm: Blimey, the house denizens are having a lively debate, including shrewd and pithy observations. Such as Marco's description of James Joyce's Ulysses as "a man gets on a bus and all his thoughts just run together without stopping, and that's it". Victor evinces Brian Sewell-like perspicacity when he states: "Half a cow in formaldehyde ain't art" ... but blows it by adding, "Jackson Pollock? 'Oo the 'ell's that?" It's enough to make you weep.

12.15am: Watching Jason, the man with the self-styled "best buttocks in South Lanarkshire", trying to get the tabloid-styled "Vanessa the undresser" to snog him in the bathroom. A frank house discussion about masturbation reveals that it boosts the immune system - unlike staying up late watching this lot, which is a well-documented carcinogen.

3am: Must have fallen asleep. On the TV, motor-mouth monster-ego Victor is droning on about factions and scheming and "the rules" to half-man, half-seal Marco, who can't hold eye-contact for more than three micro-seconds - and these two can't stand each other. But 70 per cent of it is being muted, so either they're libelling other housemates or celebrities or saying "Coca-Cola McDonald's" over and over.

3.20am: I surface every now and then to see a bunch of people asleep in a bedroom. A bedroom! Lucky bastards.

8am: The sun is up and the TV's off. I am looking forward to a good night's sleep and a cooked breakfast or four. Roll on next week's eviction show.


Vanessa Nimmo, 26, student from South Africa

Jason Cowen, 30, body-obsessed air steward

Michelle Bass, 23, page three wannabe

Nadia Almada, 27, transsexual from Portugal

Daniel Bryan, 30, hairdresser from Hull

Ahmed Aghil, 44, property developer

Shell Jubin, 21, sensitive art student

Stuart Wilson, 20, pretty psychology student

Marco Sabba, 21, camp law student from Middlesex

Victor Ebuwa, 23, alpha male student from London

Emma Greenwood, 20, this year's Jade Goody

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