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Big Brother gets therapeutic

How did a silly drunken spat between the BB 11 come to make national news as a 'near riot'?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Big Brother gets evil’, said Channel 4 when it launched the fifth series of its staple reality show at the end of last month. Yet it seems the wicked schemers at Horseferry Road don’t want to see anything so all-out evil as a heated argument between housemates.

When Victor, Emma, Jason and the rest of the dozy 11 got drunk, screamed abuse at each other, smashed a bit of furniture and indulged in a tray-throwing incident in the early hours of Thursday morning, Channel 4 cut the live feed, sent in the security guards to break things up, issued a press release saying ‘the welfare and safety of the housemates is always our overriding concern’, got the police involved, and enlisted an army of psychologists to talk to the housemates about their ‘terrifying anger’.

Tonight’s eviction has been postponed because the housemates are feeling ‘too fragile’ to cope with a baying audience, a special ‘talking session’ has been arranged for arch rivals Emma (the dumb northern one) and Victor (the cocky black one), and all the Big Brother rules were chucked out of the window when a mate of Shell (the dippy posh one) was allowed into the house to comfort her ‘distraught’ friend. Big Brother gets evil? Big Brother gets therapeutic, more like.

BB is the silly, rather degraded reality show that puts 12 strangers in a house and films their every waking fart for nine weeks. Yet having been elevated by poncy TV theorists and excitable Channel 4 producers into something it isn’t – a modern social experiment that says something profound about human relations – the fuss over BB does reveal something about contemporary obsessions and fears. The drunken antics were just drunken antics; it’s the handwringing response to them that is revealing.

To anyone who has ever been involved in a drinking session that went a bit too far, nothing especially outrageous happened in the house on Thursday morning. The reports say there were ‘death threats’ – well, Jason (the bodybuilding Scot) did threaten to ‘rip the head’ off Marco (the gay one), but I don’t think he was literally going to do it. Yes there were ‘violent confrontations’, if you think that throwing a plastic tray at someone counts as violence. There was also ‘verbal abuse’, some of which was quite funny – especially when Jason told the strange, wiry, helium-voiced Marco, ‘Don’t fucking disrespect me, gimp boy Gollum’.

Yet reading today’s reports you’d be forgiven for thinking that all hell broke loose, or that there had been a ‘near riot’ as some of the papers claim. ‘Big Brother 5: the animals are getting restless’, said one headline. Chartered psychologist Cynthia McVey reckons: ‘One classic thing you can do to stop this sort of behaviour is not give them any alcohol. This year they are in a reduced living space and there is no escape from each other. If you put animals in a confined space then you will get aggressive behaviour.’ The BB contestants may be irritating wannabes, but animals?

The 11 housemates are being discussed as if they were lab rats – and the result of the experiment, it seems, shows that people are volatile (especially when alcohol is added), are fragile, vulnerable and in need of constant words of wisdom from psycho-babblers, and sometimes will display that most unacceptable emotion, anger. It is striking that in today’s confessional culture, where we’re encouraged to let it all out and where BB housemates are invited to cry for the cameras in the diary room, any ‘release’ involving anger is strictly off-limits. It is also striking how quickly the housemates themselves accepted the psychologists’ degraded view of their behaviour. Even Victor, the self-declared alpha male of the house whose nickname is DNA (Dis Nigga’s Attractive), seems to have bought his psychologist’s assessment that ‘there was an intensity in my anger that terrified everyone’.

We viewers, it seems, are not much better. Channel 4’s aim in editing the show appears to have been to protect us from ourselves. It cut the live feed between 2am and 3am on Thursday morning; last night’s show came with a warning that ‘this programme contain scenes of confrontation that some viewers may find disturbing’; and it didn’t show the one confrontation most viewers were looking forward to – when pretty, polite blonde Vanessa jumped on Nadia (formerly Carlos, a Portuguese transsexual from Woking) and allegedly committed an act of violence.

Perhaps Channel 4 was worried that the rest of us would become terrifyingly angry and threaten to rip the heads of our family and friends if we watched too much of this violent confrontation. Indeed, it seems that some viewers can’t tell the difference between a spat between housemates and a real-life crime – it was viewers of E4’s live feed who called the police after watching the arguments unfold.

They were drunk, loud and badly behaved – but the housemates didn’t really do anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps those psychologists, journalists and TV producers who think they did should get out more. Although, of course, they’re much more comfortable observing and offering therapy to an apparently weak and volatile public from the comfort of their TV screens.

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