Big Brother

Big Brother is Watching You, Watching Her

In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell famously creates a future dystopia in which individual freedom has been subjugated by an all-powerful state, a society where privacy is a thing of the past, and control of the media means absolute power. Nothing in the creative imagination of one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century could have prepared us, however, for the reality that is Big Brother (Channel 4 Television)

The format of the programme is simple, or indeed complex, depending on your cultural background. Ten ordinary people, selected from over five thousand applicants, are brought together and incarcerated in an ordinary house for a number of weeks, a television camera positioned in every orifice to watch them do the ordinary things that ordinary people do, and the results are broadcast live to the nation. The object of the exercise, for the contestants, is to prove to be so popular and indispensable as to avoid being ejected from the house by their fellow inmates and the voting public (calls cost 25p, mobile phone rates vary), thereby winning the £70,000 prize money on offer. For Channel 4 and sponsors British Telecom, the aim is obviously to provide quality entertainment, donate large sums of money to charity and culturally enrich the nation. What’s in it for members of the voting public is the reassurance that other people’s lives are in fact every bit as boring as their own.

“What a mad, mad couple of weeks you have had. You’ve really entertained us,” gushed Big Brother’s alter ego, presenter Davina McCall, as she greeted the latest evacuee from the high security of the Big Brother house in front of an audience of hysterically screaming ordinary people consisting mainly of his family and friends. By way of proof we saw video clips of Paul, an ordinary twenty-five year-old car designer, variously dressing up in women’s clothes, painting his face and wearing hair curlers.

Paul accepted the failure of being evicted from the house by punching the air in triumph, his delirium  induced by the pressures of the previous six weeks; the biggest pressure of the previous six weeks seemed to be resisting the temptation to have sexual intercourse with Helen, while lying semi-naked on top of her for several hours a day. “Them two are obsessed with each other,” a fellow-contestant was heard to remark observantly.

“All I want to know –‘cause I’m a romantic at heart –is do you want to see her when she comes out?” probed the interviewer on behalf of an expectant nation.

 “Helen is a very attractive girl. I didn’t actually fancy her from day one. I fancy Helen’s personality,” explained Paul helpfully, slipping into Orwellian doublethink as easily as if he had been conditioned to it. Helen’s personality, in her own words, is chaotic and energetic; her ideal day is to blow-dry her hair, have a bath and cover herself in glitter.

Back in the Big Brother household, despite being fitted with personal microphones and being tracked by cameras twenty-four hours a day, the “housemates” as they are affectionately known, are clever enough to make sure that any intellectual conversation goes completely unrecorded, and that communication is purely of a functional nature, leading Big Brother, and the rest of us, to believe that they have nothing of any value to say. Instead we are invited to watch as they attempt to perform a variety of weekly tasks essential for their survival; in this instance the essential life-skills include skipping with ropes, balancing a plastic hoop above the waist by gyrating vigorously, and bouncing on a pogo-stick, though thankfully not all at the same time.

“You’re like a hamster on a wheel,” Paul confessed to Davina, temporarily deflating the party atmosphere, but while the words exploitation and voyeuristic were forming themselves into part of a sentence in the collective psyche of the ordinary viewing public, the cheeky presenter was reminding him of his part of the deal.  “Never mind,” she assured him, “You’re going to be an international pop star after this.” But somehow, like Orwell’s vision, you wondered if Paul’s glittering future was already in the past.


July 2001


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