Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Of Man's first disobedience..."

A few days ago, I was rooting through an old pile of unlabelled video tapes. (Incidentally, has anybody yet had to explain to a small child what these bulky, noisy, obsolete slabs of plastic are?) All manner of odds and sods were there, including, for some reason, several hours from the first series of Big Brother, shown in the summer of 2000.

As luck would have it, the recording I found was of the episode that propelled BB from being an interesting media experiment, to a bizarre cultural phenomenon - the downfall of Nasty Nick. In case you don't remember, Nick was the posh City boy who was discovered to have been plotting against his housemates, and was ejected from the house. Following the original broadcast moment by moment, it's difficult to see exactly what he was doing wrong, apart from being friendly to individual housemates, and then bitching behind their backs. In the end, it appears that his mortal sin against the Gods of Endemol was illegal possession of pencil and paper.

In retrospect, what was interesting was his justification for his actions, and the response of his housemates. He said that he saw the whole thing as a game that was to be won, and he was prepared to do anything to win it. Craig and Melanie and the boring Irish one and the others were dumbstruck. They were friends, weren't they? How could he have been so two-faced to friends? When Nick made his final, contrite speech to them, after being told of his imminent expulsion, it was important for him to clarify that he liked them all, and hoped they'd be friends in the outside world.

I'd followed the first BB quite closely, but became pretty bored thereafter. I thought at the time it was because the novelty had worn off. But, looking back to the first series, there's an intrinsic difference. From the second series, housemates know what being on Big Brother is. In the first one, they were just some people, thrown together. They'd never been viewers or voters, so didn't know what emotions could be stirred up by the Channel 4 press office and the silly-season tabloids. Intriguingly, in the post-mortem with Davina McCall, Nick lets slip that he'd seen the original show in the Netherlands, and that's what had made him want to appear. So maybe he knew what was going on.

Moreover, the producers seemed content to suck it and see. They'd selected a bunch of people of varying backgrounds, and let them get on with it. They probably knew that Nick was ambitious and political, but (unless they were playing a very subtle game) his actions caught them by surprise as well.

In subsequent series, everyone knew what the stakes were, even if they weren't all bright enough to acknowledge a game plan. But the producers over-egged the pudding by provoking conflict and encouraging politics. The Nasty Nick story warmed up our water-coolers because he seemed like the devil incarnate by comparison with his contemporaries. Now everyone's a Nick, and the only reason they don't smuggle writing implements into the house is because they wouldn't know what to do with them.

The original Big Brother, all chickens and home-made party costumes and Scout-like assault courses, was a contemporary Eden. But the snake wasn't really Nick, any more than he was Satan. The snake was everyone who watched it, and worked out how to play it, and applied to get onto the next show. Just as in the Bible, the snake represented knowledge and self-awareness. (I know this means Davina is God, and that Geordie bloke is something akin to Milton, but bear with me.) Nick was Adam, cast into the outside world without even the sustenance of an Eve. One of the most extraordinary moments in the episode is when Nick admits to a dumbfounded Anna that the moving story of his wife's death in a car crash had been a complete fiction.

This death of innocence is what turned BB into a vile, manipulative freakshow, where the only seedy pleasure for the viewer is the knowledge that you're not as grotesque and stupid as the drooling peasants on display. The producers selected the nutters and the cretins, and the Heat-friendly self-publicists selected themselves. But by the beginning of the second series, the whole concept had lost something more important than its innocence, or even good taste. Paradoxically, as the competitors became aware, the show lost touch with reality. Which, for a reality TV show, is a bit of a problem.

12 comments:

Billy said...

And of course it has to get more and more extreme each year to keep people's interest. And with people knowing what it's about isn't a good thing. I wonder what the show would have been like if that had never happened.

I didn't know Nick had watched the original Dutch version. I once met the man in a pub in Egham. Seemed a nice enough fellow.

Molly Bloom said...

It really would be worthwhile watching if they really DID take a random selection of ordinary people and shove them in there. It would be fascinating stuff. The people who get on there now are so 'fame-aware' that it hurts to watch them. And what is even more tragic and desperate is the way that they try and cling on for months afterwards. It is awful...

Can you imagine us lot in there. It would be meltdown within a day. I wonder what it would be like actually. Now, there's a post...imagining the fall-out from a blogger Big Brother.

I can't bear the way that false 'relationships' are started in there either. How far are you prepared to go to get your face in the Media? It's pretty sad.

Tim Footman said...

The fame-aware thing is just a function of the whole celeb bubble (at least I hope it's a bubble, rather than a permanent mutation of popular culture). Posh 'n' Becks were around before BB.

A blogger BB would be appalling TV because we'd all be media aware rather than fame aware (working out how the producers were thinking, how the editing would be used against us) rather than what the voters would think.

Talking of which, I do recall Peter Bazalgette a few years ago denying that the tabloids had in any way assisted the success of BB. Well don't show it in the summer and then see how you manage you lying tosser.

And to think that an ancestor of his built the London sewers.

Incidentally, is nobody going to tell me my Paradise Lost analogy is bollocks? I'm already picking holes in it myself...

mimi buzzard said...

Urgh Big Brother.
So why did you have a 2hr recording of the Nick episode from series one? Very strange indeed.

Molly Bloom said...

I liked the analogy actually.

Quiz is Tues eve 8pm if you want to join usxx

patroclus said...

'Nasty' Nick and I were incarcerated at the same school at the same time. It was like a full-on, five-year stint of Big Brother, which probably gave the boy Nick a natural advantage regardless of whether or not he'd already seen the Dutch version.

tom l said...

What made the 1st season of the American BB interesting was when all of the remaining contestants were so dull that the producers actually brought in a box of cash, and tried to bribe any one of them to please leave the house so they could bring in someone else.

Tim Footman said...

Mimi: I'm not sure, exactly. I've been finding some very odd bits and pieces. But, as I said, the first series was quite interesting because it was new, and the viewers were as innocent as the contestants. It was certainly "real" to an extent, and I did watch it. I can also justify my behaviour on a professional - I was working for the Guinness Book of Records, and we'd just featured the Dutch version (the original) because something like 20% of the population had voted, which was a record.

Molly: I'm with you in spirit(s).

Patroclus: Well, at least you weren't at school with Jade.

Tom L: That kind of blatant tweaking wouldn't work in the UK. They have to pay lip-service to unreality. Although a big bribe might have been necessary, had the Nick episode not occurred.

Molly Bloom said...

Change of plan - Weds eve at 8pm. Blame Robert Swipe..it's his fault.

First Nations said...

bravo!
let me hasten to add i couldnt have put it better myself!
my darling, may i link you in my post????
nah, fuck it, im gonna do it anyway.

Spinsterella said...

Oddly, that is the only episode of BB I have ever seen. I remember realising how people coud get drawn in...

Tim's point, of a BB of a collection of people with brains who have actually read a paper ever is an interesting one.

Nobody with a brain would ever apply, obviously...

Tim Footman said...

Think it was Molly's idea originally, if bloggers equates to people with brains. I think people would apply, provided there was a clear distinction from regular BB; there would be allegations of snobbery, but what the hell. Mark Lawson could replace Davina; maybe voiceovers by Charlotte Green from Radio 4... exclusives in the London Review of Books (Spinny bikini madness; what really happened between Molly and Billy in the hot tub?; Bob Swipe talks to chickens about Schopenhauer and Bergkamp)

Remember Germaine Greer walked out because she was bored? I also noticed on the first BB that they were each allowed to take one book in. Didn't watch subsequent series closely, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of reading matter. That, I think, is what would driven me mad.