The return of Big Brother
As a new season of the show looms, should we see it as a seasonal filler, or drama worthy of Beckett, asks Gerard Gilbert
Day 93: 12.04pm. Mikey is in the bedroom, picking his nose. Sara is in the smoking area, alternatively biting her fingernails and puffing on a cigarette; Rachel is in the kitchen, soaking chickpeas while making small animal noises that might or might not be the beginnings of sentences. . ." For many, many people, the return of Marcus Bentley's Geordie tones, nightly setting the scene at the BB house, is as unwelcome as the advent of the hay-fever season.
Bentley, along with cheerleader-in-chief, Davina McCall, will be back next Thursday for the launch show for the annual summer sojourn at Elstree Studios -- when a new group of pathologically extroverted wannabes will battle for the TV nation's passing interest, and those all-important cover shoots for Heat and OK! magazines.
Most years I engage with BB -- frequently having forsworn not to. What is it that keeps drawing me in, where beautifully played and scripted soap operas such as EastEnders and Coronation Street fail to take a grip on any consistent basis?
It's certainly not out of any wider interest in the fates of the housemates. Out of sight, out of mind, as far as I'm concerned. Rex, the preening braggart and last year's most compelling housemate: Did he marry girlfriend Nicole? Does he now run his own restaurant? I neither know nor care.
One of the show's great strengths is that very little happens. It's one of the few TV dramas (for a drama is what it is) where sitting around doing nothing is seen as a virtue. Outside of the weekly tasks the narrative has been taken care of.
We know why these people are gathered here, and what they want. They're waiting for Davina. "You are live on Channel 4 . . . please do not swear." By the way, why is it less acceptable to swear live than on tape?
What the show does have -- especially after the first few weeks, when the housemates have settled into indolence or depression (or love and friendship, fear and loathing, proving Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum that hell is other people) -- are long periods when not very much happens. Or very small things happen, with enormous significance to the protagonists.
Say what you like about BB, it's rarely predictable. "Shettygate" in the 2007 celebrity version of the show, was the most extreme manifestation of the show's volatile potential (when was the last time a conventional TV drama led to questions in the British parliament?) but such dramas are repeated in microcosm each week -- often subliminally.
Channel 4 made a mistake in axing Big Brother on the Couch, the weekly examination of the contestants' body language, and a fascinating adjunct to the series.
What may finally kill BB is when housemates become too savvy to the show's requirements; when their behaviour becomes more staged and predictable. For the moment, however, the show takes youthful contestants full of posture and attitude, and it slowly strips them back to their human archetype. When was the last drama -- Mad Men excepted -- where you saw that happen?
Okay, so the level of discourse may be mundane in the extreme, but so arguably is that of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. I wouldn't want to over-emphasise the comparison between Beckett's bleakly funny existentialist masterpiece and the sometimes cruel, often brilliant unpicking of a bunch of fame-grabbers. But if Beckett were alive today and given a choice of viewing, I reckon he'd rather watch Big Brother than Mistresses, EastEnders or The Street. And the great man could have been speaking for BB contestants when he has Estragon (or is it Vladimir? It matters not) say: "It is not every day that we are needed. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!"
Big Brother returns on Thursday on Channel 4