Gore Vidal once famously said that ‘Television is for appearing on, not watching.’ I feel the opposite. I’ve just turned down a financial offer from Celebrity Big Brother for this summer’s series so big it made my eyes water — and I’m not easily impressed, size-wise. Verbal people just don’t do well in such a visual medium — and speech is my second language, anyhow.
It would be easier to go in if I was guaranteed first eviction — but Liz Jones was stuck in there for weeks, and I’m a good deal more entertaining and lovable than she is. There’s a chance I would end up walking out, thus losing my fee. I would miss my husband, being alone (a textbook only child, I feel like murdering someone if can’t be by myself for six waking hours each day), and reading.
But O, I love Big Brother so! When, as part of their effort to bag me, CBB arranged for me to go into the house and call one of the housemates to the Diary Room, it was one of the most exciting vertical experiences of my life.
When I read about the recent study by Bonn University claiming that reality TV makes you nicer — or rather ‘reality TV formats with high vicarious embarrassment content activate brain regions associated with empathic concern and social identity’ — I wasn’t in the least surprised. In the halcyon hinterland of Big Brother, humility and honesty are rewarded by housemates and voting public alike, and snobbishness and sneakiness are punished. Bring me your gays, your transsexuals, your misfits and wallflowers, and Big Brother will dust them down and polish them up and make them Queen of the May, if just for a day.
Those who take part are routinely demonised, but this says far more about the slaggers than the slagged. Yes, there are some sexually incontinent, binge-drinking sad-sacks in there — but no more than you find in daily life, and far less than you find in the British media. In the early years it was far more working-class than now — this season the two most beautiful women are law students and the most handsome man is a medical student — but the kids involved have always been bright, and seen it as a sort of gap-year for the non-entitled.
Saskia from Big Brother 6 told me, while I was making my documentary Reality TV Is Good For You a few years ago: ‘I knew when I came out of the house there wouldn’t be a limo waiting to whisk me off to Hollywood. I got some nice clothes, a couple of nice holidays. I’ve already got a nice boyfriend out of it. And soon I’m going to get back to work.’ Even Jade Goody, monstered as the thickest woman in Britain, invested wisely and made her own fortune after surviving an upbringing of Hogarthian horror.
And this is what horrifies a lot of the people who hate Big Brother. Over the years, I’ve observed that the use of the C-word (‘chav’) indicates a socially insecure seat-sniffer who hasn’t got half as far in life as they thought they would, and who isn’t having half as much sex as they dreamed they would. Every year, these busted flushes see all their fear and loathing made flesh in the BB house. Young people enjoying themselves! Having sex! And one of them will be rich! Polly Filla columnists bang on about how dreadful it is that young people today just want to be famous — i.e. they want to earn decent money, do negligible hard work and get their picture in the papers, just like Polly herself.
Over the years, Big Brother has acted for me as a shorthand filter to finding new friends; if someone prefers to watch actors dressed as 1920s servants speaking to each other in silly accents rather than watch a good-looking girl having sex with a bottle on a lawn, we probably aren’t going to get along. I genuinely enjoy it; I find it far more subtle and insightful than, say, the theatre — and much less manipulative.
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