Bad TV REDEEMED: Big Brother

Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack has been and gone and not even Andrew cared. But Big Brother is not the Big Bad it's made out to be...

So, Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack passed without any inter-civilizational wars breaking out. For all we know there may have been race hate going on in the house, but alas there was no-one actually watching it to find out.

Like everyone else, I steered well clear this year. I also skipped the Regular Joe Big Brother last year, as what was once a carefully produced programme became the vicious, cartoon stereotype that it has always been accused of being. But I used to be an avid fan of the programme, watching the 10pm main show and goth detective-fronted spin-off talk show, Big Brother’s Big Mouth, alike.

Personally, I’m not a particularly big fan of reality TV. But like any programme format, when it’s done properly and there are good characters, then the result is fascinating. The list of watchable reality shows is short (the Sunday morning relaxation event of Shipwrecked; Big Brother; at a push, Average Joe and its ilk). What marks them all out is that they don’t believe that shoving a few pretty faces in front a camera is good enough. Shipwrecked succeeded by giving the model population of the South East enough diverting tasks to make pretty television, while also being shiny-happy enough to be of contrast to its vicious siblings. Big Brother used to succeed by having a great mix of characters amid a masterclass in production, kept entertained and entertaining with a series of tasks.

I have an odd memory for tasks over the years. There was the puppy put into the house in series one as a challenge for the housemates to care for. There was the hilarity of watching housemates in series two make clay models of each others’ heads that ended up looking about as realistic as the one in Lionel Ritchie’s Hello video. Or the endearing bond between series three prettyboy Alex and the chickens.

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This is virtually unrecognisable from what the programme has become. It was once the residential equivalent of the Generation Game, an exercise in watching a group of individuals – not fame-seekers, but a range of entertaining characters – learn how to cope with life without television, without going out, without their friends or any social space. The 2007 Regular Joe series gave up that last ounce of entertainment (even the last few years, amid increasing backstabbing, produced as wonderful a characters as Makosi, Science and Tourettes Pete), and became the gossip pages of Heat. Which was ironic, considering that Heat’s gossip pages seemed to finally give up their eight-year interest in the programme.

Still, the point is that the programme is not beyond redemption. There were some important green shoots in Celebrity Hijack, that as long as the programme bosses don’t interpret as the reason for the programme’s failure, should help return the programme to its former glory. First, it wasn’t vicious or contemptuous of its contestants. All the jokes I saw played on housemates by celebrities were clearly in good spirits, which is a world apart from the three-month long sneer that characterised the last series.

Second, some originality was put back into the programme, even for cheap throwaway laughs. Former housemate Brian streaked through the house for a cheap laugh of just a few seconds. It’s not much, but it’s the sort of colour that makes the show interesting, rather than relying on engineered conflict to pull people in. For the past few years, originality in the show stretched to messing about with the house a bit, and putting ever more housemates in. That only serves to provide a celebrity half-life somewhere short of their first ad break.

Which comes neatly onto point three: the programme didn’t seem too fussed about making the show’s inhabitants into celebrities (which is kind of lucky, considering the outcome). If they do, then fine. But setting out to do that just led to the lowest common denominator line-up of pretty but dull folks who are keen to hump the dry blue hell out of each other as soon as they get in the house.

And lastly, point four, cut the show’s length by about half. I want to watch the show, not dedicate half of my year to it.

Big Brother never was clever, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a bad programme. It just needs to put in a bit of effort to recapture the halcyon days when it was more imaginative, entertaining and enriching than its critics have ever given it credit for.

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