Watching them watching themselves

The contestants in Big Brother 3 treat the cameras like an additional housemate.

Ray Crowley

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Many claim that Britain’s third series of Big Brother has been the most boring yet and that the show’s format has become stale. I may be an avid fan, but I think they have a point.

When Big Brother first came to the UK from Holland in 2000, some got overexcited. The idea of 10 strangers in a house whom we could watch whenever we wanted caused many a raised eyebrow. Would they really show everything the contestants did? Would it really be on the internet all the time?

But now, watching Big Brother is no longer like looking into a secret world. Series three hasn’t felt like we’re getting a very public screening of very private events. The format may have remained the same – with weekly tasks, shopping budgets, fessing up in the diary room, and nominations for eviction – but the contestants have become acutely aware that nothing they do or say is really private.

So in series one, contestants seemed comfortable giving negative opinions of each other in the house diary room, perceiving it to be private. Nasty Nick had such a sense of privacy that, in spite of Big Brother’s constant surveillance, he even tried to cheat by writing down names of people he wanted the others to nominate on bits of paper (strictly against the rules).

In series one, the contestants, like the audience, didn’t know what to expect. The programme was not established, and they did not know how being filmed 24/7 would translate into TV. They didn’t wonder what their ‘best moments’ would be, or picture their interview with Davina McCall after eviction, or wonder how famous they would become – which is all some of the series three contestants seem to do.

The original Big Brother contestants often seemed to forget they were being filmed. Their only qualms about being naked were about being naked in front of other housemates, rather than being naked on Channel 4. When the Nasty Nick situation was discovered by the housemates, none of them wondered why Big Brother hadn’t picked up on it sooner. The group took it upon themselves to sit down, confront and resolve the situation – having largely forgotten about the all-seeing eye of the producers.

By series two, contestants had a better idea what to expect – but they still maintained some notion of privacy outside of what was being broadcast. When Helen and Paul discussed sex, they seemed to be only half-aware that the cameras were filming their chat. They used the code word ‘stuff’ to mean sex, as though they could still have a private conversation despite the five million viewers.

But in Big Brother 3, the housemates are always aware, not only that there is a camera on them, but that there is a human and public presence behind it. For example:

  • Jade and Kate stumble into the bedroom to look for Alex. He hides behind the door and pulls faces at the camera.
  • During a game of hide and seek, Alex (hidden again) talks to his mike, asking Big Brother to guide the housemates out of the bedroom. After emerging from his hiding place, he refuses to tell the others where he was – saying: ‘That is something you’ll have to watch.’
  • Tim, afraid of being exposed as ginger-haired, shaves his chest in the bedroom. Even though no housemates are in there, he does so under the duvet.
  • Big Brother psychologists, on the last Sunday night show before the final, talk about an evening when all the housemates hid from Jade. They explain that she was ‘acting lost rather than reacting to the situation’, in spite of her being alone in the room.
  • A few days away from the series final, Jonny tells Big Brother: ‘My advice to anyone doing this next year is, think before you open your mouth, and think before you do anything.’

Big Brother 3’s housemates communicate with the cameras in the same way they communicate with each other – treating the camera as an additional housemate, rather than a piece of electrical kit.

They often make comments about situations out of earshot of others, to let the public know what they think, and worry constantly about how the public will perceive them (witness their agonising over being booed on eviction night). They are more convinced than any previous series contestants that nothing goes unnoticed or hidden in the Big Brother house.

This is particularly apparent in the interactions in the diary room. In the first two series contestants used the diary room as a quasi-confessional, and were comfortable speaking candidly in there. In Big Brother 3, contestants know that the public is watching and judging what they say.

The biggest concern in the house this year has been ‘not being two-faced’. Housemates can’t cope with saying something in the diary room, or to one or two others, and then not revealing it to the rest of the group. Once Jade and Adele had taken the plunge, and begun to bitch about Sophie, they couldn’t help but behave coldly and cruelly ‘to her face’ in spite of the fact that it created tension and was, well, cruel.

Knowing their private thoughts had become public, they were forced to adapt all of their behaviour accordingly – to avoid being ‘two-faced’ or insincere.

It is telling that the high points of series three have been ‘Weegate’ and ‘Verrucagate’ (1) – explosive rows about who peed in the shower and a small blemish on a toe. The problem with Big Brother 3 is that, although the cameras are in every room, Big Brother cannot see ‘behind closed doors’.

Big Brother may always be watching, but he will never be able to see what this group of people get up to in private, because they never are in private – and don’t they know it.

Read on:

The real wannabes, by Ray Crowley

It’s only a game show, by Ray Crowley

spiked-issue: TV

(1) So named in The Official Guide: Big Brother, Series 3, ed Ben Olins, 2002

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