My Orwellian nightmare: a future without Big Brother

Audience figures for the tenth series, which ends this week, have sagged to a measly couple of million per show, down from a peak of around eight million in Big Brother‘s heyday. But go to the show’s online discussion groups and you’ll find plenty of people thoroughly engrossed by the activities of the current set of housemates. You’ll also discover comments lamenting the media’s lack of proper engagement with this series and Channel 4’s strange decision to cut the 24-hour live internet feed. It was this constant web-feed that helped the media write the stories that gave the show its high profile and, without it, there’s little wonder press coverage has declined. This is a big own goal that has cost Channel 4 dear.

No one will deny the fall in ratings. But, honestly, who gives a toss? We’d never have Channel 4 News, Newsnight, or any serious arts and political coverage on the channel if we pursued this argument. Those keen to see the back of Big Brother have ignored the fact that this year’s series has been eminently watchable. Gone are the screaming trannies, the fame junkies, the weird desperados and the clinically insane. In fact, this year’s show is one of the best ever. Whether through luck or judgement, the producers have picked an interesting and, largely speaking, nice bunch of housemates.

And unlike some of the desperate fameseekers of the past, most of these contestants have signed up for refreshingly old-fashioned reasons. It’s clear they share a view that being on Big Brother is an incredibly interesting experience in its own right. Forget the prize money, and forget fame afterwards, it’s just fun to be involved and living in the moment.

Take Freddie for example. Freddie was agreeably eccentric, intelligent and perceptive. He offered us comments on how Big Brother gave him a heightened reality that was simply better than life on the “outside”. He reckoned that even the bad bits of the BB experience were really good bits and that he will have much to look fondly back on after the show is over. Freddie wasn’t in it for the prize money: his family owns a house the size of Gloucester, so he isn’t short of a bob.

And there’s also been Marcus. As a Wolverine look-alike and a single chap, he must know he’s not up for a Heat or Hello! deal afterwards. In the outside world, Marcus is a keen role-playing game enthusiast and his appearance on the show seems to be motivated by trying to get the better of Big Brother. He is playing a strong hand and it has been fun watching his gameplan unwind.

Another housemate is Siavash. With his fantastic clothes, great hair, brilliant hats and admirably laid back approach to life, a cooler guy it is hard to find. Siavash holds his cards close to his chest, but I like to think he’s there simply because he likes hanging out with people. In the Big Brother house there’s plenty of time for that.

Ten years on, the show still offers a window on a wider world. Over the years, it has repeatedly challenged my personal prejudices and stopped me stereotyping housemates. Street-fightin’ Victor, who I initially misjudged as a hard nut, turned out to be self-aware and gently self-deprecating, once you got past the bravado. I also really liked Science who had a skin so thick it could slice planks in two. He was a great housemate and, once you got to know him, far more complicated and interesting than his initial presentation (or my prejudices) suggested. Amma, Bubble, Eugene; I came to like them all over time as my first impressions were pleasantly overturned. Confounding easy stereotypes and quick judgements is what is still so good about Big Brother.

If, like me, you are in your thirties or forties, you might come to realise that at this stage in life most of your friends come from the same sort of background as yourself, living very similar lives. Sadly, all of us are getting slightly duller and more predictable with each passing year. Watching vibrant Big Brother housemates having fun is good for my soul and serves to remind me that there is life beyond bill paying, mortgage worries and career goals.

So, in spite of Channel 4’s decision to ditch it, let’s hope Big Brother lives to find another broadcast home. Because with the right housemates, I ? and millions of others ? still find it an immensely entertaining experience.

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