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January 20, 2006

Celebrity Reality: Richard D. North considers what Celebrity - and Celebrity Big Brother - means

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard & Judy, Channel 4, weekdays 5pm
Celebrity Big Brother, Channel 4, E4 (non-stop)
Celebrity Big Brother's Big Mouth (CBBBM), E4 and Channel 4 (nightly)
Celebrity Big Brother's Little Brother (CBBLB), Channel 4

Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world - considers the phenomenon that is Celebrity Big Brother.

On Richard & Judy (Channel 4, weekdays, 5pm), Richard has been worrying that some of the young people who go on talent shows don't understand that being a celebrity isn't the point of being an actor or a singer. Don't they get it, he wondered?

He was implying that one shouldn't want celebrity, but to prove one's capacity to be useful.

This, of course, from a man of whose job description would surely include the word celebrity. He has the quite serious problem of seeming to ache for seriousness. But if what he does requires intelligence, then he isn't the cheerful chappie he seems. Rather he is the manipulative elitist he would hate to seem. He often seems to chafe against Judy's blind spots, and the populism of his show. Indeed, the show is compelling partly because it makes quite successful forays up-market. But its bread-and-butter is celebrity and Richard is whether he likes it or not a professional in a blood sport.

The genre has spawned some exciting presenters: the beautiful Davina McCall seems to gleam with intelligence and may transmute into the next Michael Parkinson (since neither Terry Wogan nor Sue Lawley quite made it when they tried). CBBBM has proved an excellent stage for Russell Brand who runs his bear pit with an almost dangerous geniality, and Dermot O'Leary, on CBBLB, has for years demonstrated how one can be surprisingly graceful whilst negotiating us through the utterest tosh. One false move and he would seem superior or idiotic.

The celebrity TV game is one in which most of us are spectators, and the presenters' ploy has to be to pretend to be no more than a slightly better-placed spectator than you or me. But that's the nature of populism. It feigns an absence of power, advantage preferably of talent. Of course, the inner problem is to decide how far to distance oneself from The Mob, and that's a creature which is no less real now than it was when, gin-soaked, it stoned the windows of anyone it stirred against. Now, it howls at the door of the Big Brother House: fickle, noisy and thank God neutered.

To watch Richard and Judy discussing Celebrity Big Brother is to watch a slow motion collision unfold. Obviously, we are watching nonentities discuss one another. We feel the multiplying absurdities of the thing. People we don't know and couldn't care less about but who are more familiar to us than half our own family members are discussing one another and then we go and cook supper and discuss the whole enterprise all over again before discussing it with complete strangers on commuter trains in preparation for water-cooler debates at work.

And then on Sundays, we will read an army of superior types who write witheringly either on the phenomenon, or on the people involved, and only just avoid calling us idiots for watching. Well, we riposte (most of us), at least we don't get a living rubbishing what we affect to believe to be unworthy of attention.

Is the audience just suckered? Obviously not. For a start, we've struck a deal of sorts. We queue and gawp and turn to something else - but celebrities jump through hoops and go crazy. Who's the loser? Besides, now and this is surely progress more and more of us get the chance to show off. Whether we can keep people's attention that old talent thing, that old survivor thing is not something which can be democratised. But the opportunity to try, that is being democratised.

And even the talent shows which seem to attract and display no-hopers perform a service. For every risible, sobbing croaker on screen, how many others recognise that being a funny plumber who sings in the bath may be the better bet in the real world?

The great difficulty with celebrity reality shows, is to know whether they are a new or a bad thing. Surely not. We've always stared at whoever everyone else is staring at, and people have always been more interesting as they struggle up, or fall down, the greasy pole. Sitting pretty on top of it is just asking for trouble, unless you've become a national treasure - in which case you're safe until you're dead, and then it'll be open season. Christians have always been tossed to lions, but the more famous the Christian, the bigger the draw. Einstein would probably have rubber necked a car-crash, if Marilyn Monroe was in it. It's moot whether Nelson would have been more ferocious when he thought of his country or his own reputation, and Nell Gwynne was all the more exciting to the wider world for once having flogged fruit. So we've always wanted celebrities almost more than they wanted fame, and watching their ups and downs especially the latter has always been very delicious to us.

In the old days, we had "Society", and everyone knew it was mad, and important. Insiders lived for it, and outsiders were absorbed by news of it. Like Celebrity Big Brother, it was a world of mingling and gossip and, for outsiders, of voyeurism. Not all, but most, go-getters longed to be in it, however serious or great were their "real" achievements. It was always prone to absurdities of attention-seeking, and inanities of style. That's part of the point of fashion: a sort of extreme code of belonging. The beauty of the thing is that it was serious, in a way.

You could say that Society was an outer ring of the older idea of the Court: real power dolled up and amusing itself as it hung about for favour. But anyway, power leached away from both of them, and now celebrity is a subset of Show Business which was always a poor relation of Society, competing with it, but despised and feared by it. Now, glamour has been detached from power altogether, and we should not be surprised that it seems rootless, feckless, even useless and silly.

But indispensable anyway. Big Brother occupies the time and attention of millions of educated people. The gang-bang chat-shows it spawns CBBBM and CBBLB - often feature witty and wry plebs and not-so-plebs: "ordinary" young people who reveal themselves to be corking characters.

All this could easily sustain and match debate by giants such as Laurie Taylor, who is as near to being a celebrity sociologist as that discipline allows. Indeed, Big Brother is of course a sociological experiment, and a very large and self-referring one. But it only looks like a coolly manipulative experiment. It is too organically a fact of modern life too much the natural child of television to be merely an academic thing. And Big Brother is probably less manipulative than were Rome's bread and circuses, or its later sacraments.

It takes the kind of situations we all know or can imagine, and rolls them up into a sleep-over green room. It is a house party with games, a train compartment with travellers' confessions, a jungle clearing visited by the survivors from a plane crash. Its game-playing is strikingly like the more intense sort of seminar.

Naturally we wonder how we could have become so debased as a society. My dear, the people! And then we wonder what has happened to us as persons, considering that we have watched and discussed all this.

The easiest way to keep our feet on the ground is to remember that this is all about gossip, which is the people's sociology and the people's psychology. Gossip is a great leveller. It requires no education, and not much experience. It has always been the matter of picking over who's in, who's out; who's good, who's bad; who's horrid and who's nice. You have to be careful with it, of course. It is often ill-disciplined. It can be fed and generate misinformation. It can be acidic and emetic. But it is also like the market: it puts millions of intelligences to work. Its favourite subjects have always been favoured and famous people, and their ups and downs. To be famous has always been as it is now, the matter of being discussed. Indeed, Celebrity Big Brother lets us have executions of useless famous people without blood: that's an advance on the French Revolution, and no-one accused that of being trivial and tacky.

Of course, we worry that we have induced the ritual humiliation of these nice actresses, politicians, game show hosts, glamour models. If we didn't pay them attention, they wouldn't under-perform for us. If we didn't goad them, they wouldn't get rattled. It's like feeding the pigeons: we shouldn't because it only encourages them. It's like vagrants and soup-runs. And then we think, what the hell, they're grown-up, it's their problem. Would Michael Barrymore rather not have the chance to re-ingratiate himself as the rudest man on television, famous (as Jimmy Savile so well said the other night) for making us laugh by some osmosis that had no discernible chemistry? Should we have insisted that Faria remain in obscurity, where she may have been safer? Can one, actually, condemn people to ignoral, rather as one might hope to insist that some exotic unknown tribe should be kept in ignorance of The Enlightenment?

These people are doing some of the most real and authentic things on earth. They are discussing things, face to face, and doing so as a matter of what is for them life and death. Being famous is these people's living, and if this show boosts their ratings, then their survival's almost in the bag.

The paradox, though, is the authenticity of what they are doing. Most of us spend, what, eight hours a day in front of a screen? Much of the rest of our time is spent staring at the insides of our eyelids or out of windows. We read books and newspapers and listen to the radio. We potter through our family lives. Much of this is vicarious. All good stuff, but not as primitive, intense or deliberate as what goes on in the Big Brother house.

This is human life stripped down quite bare, and as the show reality unfolds, we note how the least obviously promising of the people in it turn out to have the hidden strengths, perhaps even the better strategies, to survive its rigours.

We marvel at the triviality of what the inmates do, and are made to do, and yet we know that these humiliations truly are ritualistic. They are probably a quicker, harder, route to something like the inner nastiness and niceness of the inmates than all the counselling and analysis in the world. Sure, their talk is only gossip but we know gossip was always how humans have prodded and probed and assessed and analysed their fellows. Sure, it's only incarceration and community, but we've always known that proximity is the hardest test of the individual.

Of course it's wrong to take people's real lives and make them into entertainment. Even celebrities deserve better than that. Indeed, like addicts, they should perhaps be protected from the disease which by its nature has deceived them. The trouble is, almost everyone who strives to achieve anything is longing for fame, which is a matter of being on show and being talked-about: Celebrity Big Brother just cuts to the chase more brutally than anything else.

I have no idea what Pete does, or what sex he is, but I know that he has been very entertaining in this show, and rather admirable. It isn't so awful to let him achieve his new fame without achieving anything else. To do so is a special kind of human alchemy, and it's always been attractive.

If he keeps our attention, it's because he is useful to us. His role in the House may be more interesting than any song he once sang or film he acted in. This may be a rather existential role, and it may have value in his own eyes only insofar as he moves on to something else because of it. But still, even by being the subject of gossip, he helped the world go round. Hell, even his boyfriend added to the gaiety of nations when he opined that he had no advice to give his chum, even if communication had been allowed. Pete, he said and how easily one believed him does not take direction.

The deepest oddity is that even after all these hours of watching, we know these celebrities hardly better than we did when they were dazzling us with all the artifice and production of their professional lives. This reminds us how peculiar are the intimacies by which one knows people, and perhaps how little we know even those whom we really, really do know. It's all a vertiginous matter of conjecture.

All very peculiar, and all very interesting.

And no, Richard, it is not the biggest mistake ever made by a silly young person to want to be famous without wanting to do the work or having the talent to be good at anything very much. What would be truly dreadful is to crave celebrity and then spend one's life pretending that it was merely an unfortunate concomitant of being brilliant, effective, and indispensable. Celebrity is, in fact, the serious bit.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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It's true. Rich is beautiful. Mass affluence is good. Let the rich and not so rich and even the wage slaves enjoy bigger cars, a new sofa for christmas and trips to disneyland. That way they'll think I'm poor for not having those things. That satisfies everyone. They can sneer at me or pity me as takes their fancy, and I can just work less.

Posted by: simon at January 21, 2006 03:53 AM
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