Farewell, “Big Brother”

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THE WORLD was a different place when “Big Brother” was first broadcast onto Britain’s glass-fronted, boxy television screens in July 2000. With a nod to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949), the show was billed as a “social experiment”. A group of ordinary people—complete strangers—would be thrown together in an ersatz “house” rigged with cameras and they would complete challenges. Each week the contestants would nominate one of their number to evict, to be decided by a public vote. The last person standing would be crowned the winner, and receive a cash prize.

The early housemates had, by today’s standards, little to fear. There was no YouTube to immortalise their embarrassing moments, no outlets for their armchair critics, and the hash key, not yet co-opted into a means of encouraging and clumping opinion, was just shorthand for “number”. Everything seemed quieter somehow and, looking back, the first season was indeed muted (The Economist, summarising in September 2000, opined that “Britons like their reality to be depressingly, and sometimes tediously, real”). A lack of showiness and shouting make it feel more like an anthropological documentary than a reality-television show. The contestants had an innocence and unselfconsciousness. There was something of Adam and Eve in the way they, on day two, stripped off on live television, covered their naked bodies with clay and imparted handprints (and other, more intimate, markings) on the walls. It was a display of the kind of genuine spontaneity that has become scarce since social media made such choices digitally indelible.

In those early days, the individuals came together as a community. They emphasised the skills and the qualities they would bring to the group. The first crop left the series having successfully kept a brood of hens alive for more than two months. They dealt with drama—such as Nick Bateman’s attempts to cheat the nomination system—by calling a house meeting.

The producers had other ideas. Inspired by the think-pieces and headlines generated by the “nasty Nick” saga, they turned up the heat and tinkered, Victor Frankenstein-style, with John de Mol’s creation. They scoured the country for outrageous, divisive characters and made them live in unpleasant conditions designed to stoke chaos and acrimony, while the voting system gave viewers an opportunity to punish behaviour they didn’t like. It made for explosive and addictive viewing, and the tactic has since formed the basis of the show’s younger siblings like “Ex on the Beach” (a similar concept with the added horror of a contestant’s ex-partner joining the house each week) and “Love Island” (where strangers must “couple-up” or be dumped from the villa).

Sometimes good came from the commotion. “Big Brother” provided a medium through which discussions of important issues could take place in a manner accessible to the entire country. In 2007 the racial abuse of Shilpa Shetty forced viewers to think about what kind of language is and is not acceptable as “banter”. Gordon Brown, then the chancellor of the exchequer, condemned the bigotry and said that he wanted “Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance”.

And, in many ways, “Big Brother” did show off a tolerant Britain. It let LGBT people control their own narratives at a time when they were barely represented in the public sphere, and viewers emphatically accepted them. Brian Dowling was voted the winner in 2001, 13 years before he could legally get married in the country. Nadia Almada won in 2004—the fact she was born male irrelevant in the face of her charm and humour. Pete Bennett, who has Tourette syndrome, won in 2006 and became a spokesperson of sorts for the condition. “‘Big Brother’ played its part in increasing many people’s exposure to people who didn’t look or sound like them,” Jon Tickle, a participant in 2003, wrote. “With that familiarity comes acceptance.”

Yet the show’s most significant legacy is the way in which it catapulted ordinary people out of suburban normality and into a space previously occupied only by actors, singers and otherwise talented entertainers. Fame could be achieved, for the first time, simply by being yourself. But as the definition of celebrity changed, so too did the nation’s relationship with it. With no vocational skills to fall back on, the new stars pioneered ways to make ends meet: not just selling their soul, but their image and every detail of their private lives. They would fill the pages of tabloids, and become YouTube “vloggers” or Instagram “influencers”. Contestants, if they lost momentum after one show, would join a “structured-reality” series such as “The Only Way is Essex” or “Geordie Shore”, where they would play a somewhat fictionalised version of themselves.

“Big Brother” was always watching the housemates, but its viewers had a wandering eye. Ratings plummeted every year since 2006, and fell steeply after the show moved to Channel 5 in 2011. While almost 10m viewers tuned in to see Craig, a Liverpudlian builder, win the first season in 2000, this year’s “Celebrity Big Brother” finale attracted around 1.6m.

After 18 years and 45 series, the show’s last episode—broadcast on November 5th—contained a plea to save it. Yet it is clear that “Big Brother” has been evicted from the British public’s interest. What arrived on British television with a bang departs with a whimper.

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