Wednesday March 14, 2001
So bad it's good
It hardly sounded promising: a bunch of second-rate personalities dropped into a reheated gameshow. But celebrity Big Brother has proved irresistible TV. And it's the very pathos of its faded and fragile contestants that makes it so compelling, says Julie Burchill
It seemed such a good idea at the time. Take the sure-fire car-crash appeal of the Big Brother format and stick it in a blender with the celebrity-snooping that threatens to consume western society in a vast vat of froth. Give it a quick whizz until it's nice and sticky and down in one in aid of Comic Relief. And it has turned out to be great TV, though probably not in the way it was intended.
In the early days of its inception, rather dashing candidates were mentioned: the seriously famous (Mel B), the seriously screwed up (Chris Evans), and the seriously sexy and charismatic (Mariella Frostrup). Mmm, a window on Olympus! But there's many a slip, and somewhere along the line the prime cuts of fame dwindled down to the scrag ends.
Mind you, even within this airtight little kingdom there is still the ever-present hierarchy of fame. At the top of the ladder sit Jack Dee and Claire Sweeney, interestingly the only people in the house who could in any way be described as being talented; this reflects itself in their groundedness. Dee's straightness and lack of showbiz bullshit (hilariously, he nominated Vanessa Feltz for eviction "because she keeps banging on about what a good cause it's for, and it's getting boring") and Sweeney's amazingly saucy blue-collar charm sent them up in my estimation considerably - and in the case of Miss Sweeney, nearly made me question my sexuality all over again. She is obviously that one-in-a-million actor who is not at all thick, conceited or graceless as well as being the embodiment of a peculiarly Scouse sex appeal - sly, fly, self-mocking - and the perfection of her figure in her tight jeans and little tops is a revelation after all those years of Lindsay Corkhill's depressing chip-shop overalls. In short, phwooar!
In the middle of the pecking order we have Keith Duffy, the ex-pop singer and Chris Eubank, the ex-boxer, now both obviously hoping for some sort of gig in the meejah - "presenting", probably. Ah, "presenting" - the Holy Grail of the modern micro-celebrity. The growth of satellite television has created a boom town for the legions of media wannabes who have ambition but no talent, and sometimes it seems that every ex-page three girl, sports starlet or celebrity wife is bent on a job "presenting". (One day, surely, we'll run out of programmes for them to present, and the end result will be Presenters Presenting Presenters.)
These jobs seem attractive, especially to someone who is all attention-seeking and no skills, but for that very reason they are lethal, especially for women. Relying as they do on being rather than doing, on appearance rather than talent, the presenter remains in the permanent state of a prostitute lined up in a bordello, for ever projecting her hopefully superior charms in order to get the punter's money. And, of course, there is always someone younger, blonder, cuter coming up on the inside ...
The pathos of the short-term presenter is summed up heartbreakingly in the persons of Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz, the twin occupants of the lowest rung of the Big Brother ladder; as they fall apart - Vanessa messily and swiftly, Anthea more photogenically and professionally - it is horribly compelling, like watching a John Cassavetes film or hearing your neighbours' marriage break up in gory detail through the wall. They are the flimsiest, most damaged and most compelling creatures in the house, with none of the confidence born of talent that Dee and Sweeney possess, or the dumb macho swagger of Eubank and Duffy. Even their names - 19th-century literary inventions - seem to mock their lack of substance and roots.
The interesting thing about the famous is always the gap between "personality" - that which is touted to the public - and character, the raw, pink squirming thing inside the carapace. Both Turner and Feltz are perfect examples of people whose public personalities are the exact opposite of their real selves. Turner's cleaner than clean persona all along masked a woman completely driven by sex, while Feltz's wacky, madcap persona hides a woman of profound melancholy.
I often wondered why she pulled that hideously unattractive, pop-eyed rictus grin in every photograph taken of her, and now I understand; in repose, her face is simply the saddest I've ever seen, with the clownishly downturned mouth of the tragedy mask and restless, rejected eyes. People say of certain fat women - Dawn French is another - "Oh, she'd be so pretty if she lost weight," but in Vanessa's case the melted layers of fat have revealed a face that expresses little more than confusion and dismay.
The terrible precariousness of the professional presenters' position was revealed in the reactions of Turner and Feltz to their eviction nominations; tears. Tears, from two educated, adult women in their 40s! What is their mental age, you have to wonder? And what sort of psyche is so desperately dependent on the kindness of strangers that its withdrawal can actually make them cry real tears? If these people are not actually clinically depressed now, it can't be long before they are.
I'm inclined to blame punk; it was the punk ethos, after all, which preached that talent, creativity and charisma were unnecessary, and that wanting it was everything. Feltz is the logical end product of an age in which ambition is valued more highly than skills. Paradoxically, the piece of work that has caused Feltz the most distress is also the best piece of decent TV she's ever been involved in. Suddenly we could see what she was for ; singularly ungifted as a talk-show host and television presenter, she has come into her own as a sort of modern morality play about where the pursuit of fame for fame's sake gets you. Dee and Sweeney aside, it's hard to believe that anyone in the house will ever do anything that makes such an impression on the collective consciousness again, which is in itself a comment on the flimsiness of their alleged careers. The original Big Brother occupants were allowed to sink back into obscurity after their brief day in the Sun; by the time the repercussions from this melee die down, obscurity will seem infinitely seductive to these prancing, damaged puppets, who only ever really wanted love. Whether they will find it now is another matter.