The Guide #46: Big Brother is back. Please do not swear

Something a bit different this week: a spirited debate between Guide regular Hannah J Davies and myself about the return of Big Brother, which is coming to ITV next year. Hannah is thrilled about the revival of one of the great reality shows, I think it should have remained dead and buried. Who’s right? Don’t phone in, it’s just for fun …

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All hail Big Brother’s return!

Approximately every eight weeks, I will be staring into the middle distance, when I remember one specific TV moment which will never, ever not be funny to me.

The moment is from Celebrity Big Brother 17, broadcast in the UK in January 2016. US reality personality Tiffany Pollard breaks down in hysterics as misunderstanding abounds around the death of someone called David. The David who is actually dead is the former husband of another housemate, Angie Bowie. The David she thinks is dead is David Gest, Liza Minelli’s former husband … and a fellow contestant on the series.

What ensues is a maelstrom of chaos, mistaken identity and pathetic hilarity that makes Shakespeare look one-dimensional, as the likes of former EastEnder Danniella Westbrook and crooner Darren Day try to figure out who is dead and who is alive.

While Celebrity Big Brother was, by the time it ended in 2018, a horrible show in so many ways, it could also occasionally still be the funniest, most surreal thing on television. But when that techno soundtrack and the iconic eye logo popped up in the ad break of Love Island (but of course) on Monday night, announcing the return of Big Brother to TV, it instantly took me back to a simpler time.

I wasn’t thinking of “David’s dead” or TOWIE’s Gemma Collins calling people who used hair straighteners “weirdos” or George Galloway imitating a cat – I was thinking about the simple pleasure of the original Big Brother as a format, a petri dish for all the weird and wonderful and problematic things that people do when they’re locked in a house together for several weeks with no contact with the outside world and a fridge full of booze. I was thinking of the show that laid the foundations for Love Island, The Circle, and so many others besides – and how completely genius it is to resurrect it as the world seemingly crumbles.

And why, you may be asking, would that be such a great move exactly? Isn’t reality TV a toxic mess? Haven’t you just watched Luca sulking like a five-year-old in a Spanish villa for two months? Didn’t you write in this very newsletter about the manufactured dramas of shows like Selling Sunset?

The answer to all the above is yes, and yet, if done correctly and with a dose of both diversity and normality, Big Brother could be the antidote to many of the genre’s current issues. Everybody on reality TV nowadays seems to be an influencer or a nepo baby or – at the very least – harbouring a pathological need to become extremely famous extremely quickly. What was so refreshing about this year’s Love Island winners, Ekin-Su and Davide, was that they had a genuine “nation’s sweethearts” feel to them. Sure, they’re hot, but they also seem like you could take them to Wetherspoon’s for a pitcher deal.

After a couple of years spent primarily inside, god knows who will be volunteering themselves up to enter the Big Brother house. But, when they do, they could make reality TV feel like the smart social experiment it once was, instead of the cruel and callous race to the bottom it often is today. Perhaps, just perhaps it could happen; after all ITV2 is reportedly working on a “middle aged Love Island” where offspring will pair up their parents and send them off on dates. To quote former Big Brother winner Anthony Hutton: “You don’t want loads of almost famous people … I want to see Frank from Wigan!” Hannah J Davies

The Big Brother house should stay closed

An empty Big Brother house in 2013.
An empty Big Brother house in 2013. Photograph: Channel 5/PA

The year 2000. Big Brother launches on Channel 4, to no little fanfare. It feels like a major moment. Nothing had ever been attempted to this scale on British TV before. 11 people stuck together in a one-storey house somewhere in east London, building alliances, rivalries, romances together, before being slowly winnowed down by the watching public, until one of them is declared the winner. It’s a dynamite premise: innovative, immersive, cruel, though with the slightest hint of a worthy social experiment at its core. Everyone is watching it, even the people declaring it a new nadir for British society. A new era for TV – the reality TV era – is ushered in.

Fast forward to 2017 and, 19 seasons (plus 22 celebrity editions) later, Channel 5 – responsible for such landmark TV as Naked Jungle, Touch the Truck and approximately 382 shows about lambing in Yorkshire – decides that Big Brother is beneath them, and cancels it. No one seems remotely surprised or bothered. The intervening 17 years has seen the show grow coarser, crueller and more stupid. It had moved further away from its original premise – the fig leaf of social experiment long since having fluttered away – and had been reduced to endless stunts (fake evictions, secret second houses and the like) and increasing levels of savageness meted out to its contestants. It has inspired bullying, tabloid viciousness and a truly hideous racism scandal. Its ratings are in the gutter too. Now seems a good time for everyone to cut their losses.

2022. Surprise! ITV2 announce that they are reviving Big Brother after five years away. Five years seems a suboptimal time to relaunch a series; recent enough for everyone to remember why it was binned in the first place, and not long enough for the warm glow of nostalgia to kick in. Buried in the press release trumpeting the show’s return is the fact that it will air for “up to six weeks”, a hint that maybe the ITV bosses aren’t viewing this as a surefire ratings hit but rather a gamble that might end with them pulling the plug early.

Big Brother won’t arrive on our screens as some returning hero, but instead as a space filler while Love Island isn’t on. Love Island has, in 2022, not just eaten Big Brother’s lunch but found space for its breakfast and dinner too. It is the buffer T-1000 to BB’s creaking Schwarzenegger. It has extracted all the most compelling elements of its predecessor – the bickering, the booting out, the sex – and condensed it into a glistening, lean, irresistible package. Next to that Big Brother is likely to resemble a wobbling dad bod.

Reality TV has changed dramatically since Big Brother dominated the genre. Contestants have become dramatically more savvy, and self-aware, conscious of their confected role in the product. Audiences too have become savvier too, more media-literate in their understanding of how these series are put together. Perhaps Big Brother, with its primary appeal of people-watching, will serve as a welcome antidote to this artfully manufactured era of reality TV. More likely though is that it will do what it did in its later years, layering on twists and stunts in an attempt to keep up with its younger reality brethren until it becomes utterly incoherent.

Big Brother also returns to a reality TV landscape that has been altered in another way too, with an increased focusing on safeguarding contestants. While reality TV is still problematic in so many ways, the wild west days of early Big Brother, where no one gave enough attention to the effects of plonking a load of people into an enclosed space and pointing cameras at them, have largely gone. Among other things, reality TV is now more careful with alcohol, whereas Big Brother was awash with the stuff. Can BB recapture the voyeuristic thrills of its early years, while still toeing the line of today’s TV standards? I sincerely doubt it. Gwilym Mumford

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