Monday, 4 July 2016

The Politics of Big Brother

This is my original article on Reality TV which started life as a chapter in the first political book I was writing. The article I wrote this year (2016) for The Powerlessness of Now drew on the remaining notes and cuttings in the binder. They ought really to have been slotted into this earlier work. However, the two versions have a different emphasis. This one is more political whereas the one I wrote recently encompasses the phenomenon of Reality TV in general. I should point out that I have lopped the end off to add to another book, mind!

"Are you watching Big Brother?" someone asked me on the telephone last night. I replied, “No, actually, I was just about to watch The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I don’t have to.’ Hopeful of some reassurance, I then added, “You’re joking aren’t you?’ The woman on the other end of the phone fell silent. She might as well have asked if I had stopped breathing. Not that I wish to pick on women, but Reality TV, as opposed to sports, does appear to get them hooked on the drug of television. A couple of home truths: “Women need to feel like there are people worse off than they are. That’s why soap operas and Oprah Winfrey-type shows are successful.” (Risqué Jokes, Ravette Publishing, Sussex, UK, 2004, p.55). And, “Women don’t understand the appeal of sports. Men seek entertainment that allows them to escape reality. Women seek entertainment that reminds them of how horrible things could be.” (ibid, p.56).

Gone are the days when women gathered together “to enjoy a little culture and a lot of gossip.” (The Bad and the Beautiful, directed by Vincente Minelli, 1952). I did have a momentary lapse of reason and check to see how George Galloway was faring (I also, it must be said, enjoyed some of John Lydon’s escapade in I'm a Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here last year). I then fell under Chantelle’s spell (being from Essex myself, perhaps, although I am happier being mesmerised by Lana Turner in films like The Bad and the Beautiful!) and enjoyed watching the bond between her and Preston develop. It was entertaining to see her personality shine in contrast to others in the house. “’Preston and I are soul mates who helped each other survive the house,’” she explained afterwards. (The Sun, 30 January 2006, p.11). I take that as an isolated event, however, since pretty much everything else confirmed to me that, yes, this is, essentially, a dire reality (quickly re-read as “dirty’) TV programme that makes me cringe. Ron McKay, George Galloway’s media adviser, said of Big Brother: “To be frank, the whole thing makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound elitist or superior, but there are elements of pond life in this show. It just makes me feel a bit unclean.” (Metro, 17 January 2006, p.2). When you are having to deal with resentful, suspicious or spiteful people at work, home or in your local community, it is refreshing to see an endearing person stand up to them and triumph even against the odds and put people who should know better to shame.

Chantelle and Preston

Galloway noticed that Chantelle is “sharp’ and she observed that he is “shifty and crafty.’ There was certainly a sharp contrast between the two. Matthew Wright pondered the nation’s adoration of Chantelle. She has just got something, charisma, he said, an ability “to be natural even when she’s not feeling natural...She has charmed us all and put us under her spell.” Another person observed: “She is herself and we feel that she will always be herself.” (T4, Chantelle: Living The Dream, 14 April 2006, Channel 4). “She is the “genuine article’ and, whatever happens, she won’t go all starry-eyed. She has a down-to-earth, nonsense attitude and has thrown herself into the game and is gratefully lapping it up.’ I believe that what we are witnessing is a potential in younger generations that might possibly revive British society. I admit that I have not seen very much of this stuff and that it does not generally appeal to e and I am unlikely to watch much more of it, so I do not know who else is around who has made for inspiring television viewing. I am all for people learning from good role models, however.

Chantelle and Preston are an “ordinary’ girl and boy and are both warm, friendly, caring, sensitive individuals who know themselves sufficiently and are true to themselves even at a young age. There are examples of the kinds of people we should want to represent society and to whom we should want children to aspire to be like. When people say “that could be me,’ they should realise that it is already them. It is not about an opportunity for fame and fortune. It is about the inner qualities. The outer glamour is just a topping. They are still the same people. One would rather be happy, civilised, humorous, down-to-earth, sweet, strong, sensible, open and adventurous than a “traditional’ celebrity who is something special for more external reasons. Is this the beginning of the end of the cult of celebrity?

For all his intelligence, Mr. Galloway proved himself to be a menacing, self-important, vengeful bully using his power only to support those who promise to further his own personal interests. In his ambition for power, he seemed to think himself invincible in the face of the aggression and cruelty enjoyed by his own country-men and women ensured by the orders of Big Brother. No different from the world of British politics, one could argue. That seriousness and aggressive game plan to side with certain housemates and wage war against those by whom he felt threatened, however, could not, surely, win his Respect Party more votes. I found it reassuring to watch him take on the US Senate. He has such a rigid will and identity, however, and appears to be a narrow-minded patriarch with a high opinion of himself and an obsession with power.
George Galloway

Housemate, Maggot, observed that Galloway was “getting rid of the people he finds strong characters...he sees standing in the way of him or his friends winning.” He also said: “People shouldn’t take it so seriously and get so hurt by it. And if they do, they should get over it.” (Big Brother, 24 January 2005, Channel 4). Mr Galloway did not like Maggot talking about him behind his back, for the obvious reason that he did not want people to call his number and discover the truth about him that he himself has denied for so many years. “If people attack me, I attack them back,” he said. “I’m going to attack people when I get out.” Sound like a sociopath to you? Maggot said to someone about him, “What is your problem? Grow up. He really should grow up. He’s acting like a child.” Galloway behaved like a humourless school bully with a superiority complex, completely out of his league. He is, after all, only a politician! His misplaced attitude might serve him well in the world of cutthroat politics, but he certainly did not demonstrate any concern for the younger members of the house who would probably have responded to someone offering the wisdom of experience, the strength of maturity, especially from a “Left Wing’ politician who professes to be fighting for the rights of the lower classes. It is perhaps easy to represent the masses and their general, basic material needs than people who require more individual recognition and who are more worried about their freedom of expression. Indeed, the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, where Galloway is the local MP, is probably not terribly concerned with individual liberties at all.

Galloway then complained that certain housemates had taken away his rights. People were breaking the rules, it seems, but George was the one who was punished. That is how it goes with rules; someone gets caught because they do something different or at the wrong time. Big Brother asked the housemates to decide on a punishment and they stopped him nominating so he could not vote against them. That put paid to his “shifty’ scheme. It was probably worth it just to see his reaction. He said that he would get them back “either in here or outside.” Preston admired him at the beginning, it seems, but then said he was running a socialist dictatorship. Chantelle “branded Galloway “a wicked, wicked, wicked man’ and Preston said: “He’s about as democratic as a Nazi.’” (Metro, 25 January 2006, p.21). Quite shamelessly, he projected his own negative qualities onto Preston and said that the world would see them. It did not take people much to see through the man who became one of Scotland’s youngest MPs at 32, but who was “expelled from Labour in 2003 after calling the Government “Tony Blair’s lie machine.’” (Metro, 6 January 2006, p.3). Ironically, Galloway said he was trying to show that there is nothing extreme about him and that impressing even half of the viewers, especially young people, would be a big gain for him politically. Unfortunately, he appears to have alienated young people.

Metro also included a bio of Robert Burns in the previous day’s edition: “An Ayreshire-born, rural, working-class, anti-establishment liberal socialist with an eye for the ladies. Think George Galloway meets Irvine Welsh but with principles and talent.” (Metro, 24 January 2006, p.33). Residents in his constituent of Tower Hamlets complained that their MP was in the Big Brother house publicising Respect instead of representing them in the House. I doubt if a stint in panto season did any harm. Whatever you think of George Galloway,” writes a Metro reader, “at least everyone knows who he is now.” (Metro, 30 January 2006, p.18). It is slightly reminiscent of the programme filmed a few years ago featuring Michael Portillo’s brief period of attempting to help raise problem kids or something. One certainly cannot fault the man’s courage. He confessed afterwards that he was not prepared for living in a house 24 hours a day with people with whom he had nothing in common. He realises now that it is impossible to live in harmony in that house and that Big Brother goes out of its way to cause conflict for the sake of entertainment. It is “boring and turgid,” he said. You are with the same people with whom you have nothing in common and cut off from people you love. “Big Brother drips things in to create confrontation,” he said. It is foolhardy action on anyone’s part to participate in such a game show or, as fellow ejected contestant Faria Alam described it: “a sort of think show that exploits people’s frailties.” (Jonathan Dimbleby, 22 January 2006, ITV1). She said it is a kind of pantomime. When people are evicted, they are cheered or booed by the crowd.

Burns and Galloway in 2006

I have found a little note that I wrote earlier in 2005 (before I had really ever watched any “Reality TV’ or even knew what the term really implied): “Exactly what sort of men watch these programmes? I don’t know any. Who are they? What do they look like? Seriously, I’m curious. Are they gay? That would be understandable since they are sensitive and often enjoy a good emotional drama and a bit of gossip as many women do. It’s preferable to beating people up, I suppose.’ The good thing about including comments like these in retrospect is that you no longer have to own them. Right? (Well, we all change and grow). As judgemental as this might be, I find the idea that millions of people are watching “uninterrupted drivel’ on their “telescreens’ troubling, if not distantly terrifying. This is how people are distracting themselves from noticing that “Big Brother’ is watching them and that they are enslaved to Him via the media. It is another form of “brainwipe,’ an instant fix for those emotions that like to cling to people and bitch, gossip, criticise, praise, blame, condemn...pouring along the gutter - or “brainpipe’ - of human consciousness.

No wonder Madonna has reportedly banned her kids from watching TV. She claims that her decision was “’punk rock’ rather than old-fashioned.” (Metro, 1 November 2005, p.12). George Orwell did more than ensure that “Davina McCall would have something to do on a Saturday night.” (“The Story of Sci-Fi,’ a supplement in Empire, Issue 195, September 2005, p.11). His hopes for the working classes, the precious “proles,’ was no that they be spared the brainwashing. In fact, however, many cannot get enough of Reality TV shows like Big Brother. It is the “soylent green’ of the mind, gobbled up hungrily to fill the void left by the lack of education and encouragement to reach their full potential. If only they knew what they were consuming and could see that a totalitarian regime has not been necessary to enable an external source of power to control and manipulate people’s minds and stop them from living and expressing themselves as individuals.

The Establishment is now well-established, like a mature tree. The System is capable of looking after itself now. Everybody is plugged into it and the machines live at our expense. We all go through the motions while our only purpose, without us knowing it, is to feed the Machine World. We are cabbages in the field and we need a new saviour, a human being who can wake us up and save us from such a worthless, banal existence. The Jerry Springer Show certainly gave the genre a shake. One might be forgiven for referring back to the Two Minutes Hate in Orwell’s novel. People would have to assemble at a regular, specified time and hurl as much negative abuse at the image of Immanuel Goldstein shown on the screen.

Soylent Green Quad Movie Poster

“People are watching that Reality TV,” observes Billy Connolly on stage in Dublin. “People are sitting in their house watching people sitting in a house! What is that? “Oh, I don’t like him, he should be voted...Fuck! The IQ level is plummeting.” (Billy Connolly Live 2002). 39 per cent of people under 24 did not vote in the last election. They are more interested in Big Brother and are prepared to vote for people to be evicted from the house or win the show. Perhaps this is the only way to get them to vote either for or against a politician. At least, it is a start. [In fact, this was the start of my political education which led eventually to realising that ‘whoever you vote for, the government gets in.’ Consequently, I no longer advocate voting for corporate entities such as political parties]. It is the custard that is used to make the meat more appetising. I am sure most people, unlike me, love the stuff!

David Cameron has used the same tactic by promoting his “positive message’ about green issues, taking the focus off the blue’s prevailing theme of “atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down.’ Okay, so it is all bullshit but, by concentrating on this and not talking much about other issues, he has managed to win round many traditional Tory supporters. One might go as far as saying that they have actually started to think for themselves for a change but are now reacting to the more negative news in the press. It is pathetic, really. The way to get power now is to be a celebrity. The latest issue of OK! has arrived, the telescreen tells me: “First for celebrity news.’ I found a copy of this magazine on a tube train one day and I simply could not believe my eyes. It is the saddest fucking magazine I’ve ever seen. It’s Not OK! One would not be surprised to find a full-blown picture of David Cameron on the front cover. That is how low politics have stooped now. No sooner did I speak than, the very next day, Jonathan Dimbleby displays a copy of the latest GQ magazine. On the cover is none other than Mr. Cameron looking “sultry,’ projecting a more masculine facial expression as if he is Marlon Brando. You couldn’t make it up! Galloway and Cameron are just trying to engage the public. Bless their cotton socks.

Sam Preston with his pet chihuahua

Is it not somewhat eerie, even “terrifying, that more people associate the term “Big Brother’ with a TV show than George Orwell’s novel just as his story is starting to come true?” asked Peter Hitchens (The Mail on Sunday) on Jonathan Dimbleby (22 January 2006, ITV1). Orwell’s point, says Adam Smith, is that his dystopian vision might have happened already: “The fact is, the inhabitants of Oceania are unaware of their predicament - as in the pessimistic ending, is Winston Smith (“He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother’)...1984 posits a world where a state lottery with infinitesimal chances of winning and ghastly, violent, entertainment pacifies the proles; where the state works towards 24-hour surveillance of every individual; and where a constant state of war is maintained and imaginary enemies and spies convince the public of the need for their liberty to be curtailed (“WAR IS PEACE’). Remind you of anywhere?” (ibid, p.11).

The System preys upon people’s weaknesses. Even those who question it and attempt to free themselves from indoctrination are at the mercy of the authorities because they fail to discover any power within themselves to permanently erase their insecurities. The pressures from without prevent the door from being opened fully. One might know that there is something on the other side, but dependency on the Machine allows it to slam the door shut in your face, suppressing even the urge to question authority. Resistance is futile. No one is permitted to be themselves or to believe that they are anyone other than who they think they are, or who they ought to be.

Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson whose ex-husband Charles Saatchi choked her outside Scott's restaurant over, apparently over having grandchildren, in 2013

In an interview with Heather Nicholson (The Times, 7 June 2005), comedienne Jo Brain, I mean Jo Brand, tells us: “My one piece of advice is to try not to be cruel to people. All this Reality TV aimed at humiliating people is not the road we should be going down. I must admit, though, that I am fascinated by it.” As the actor Val Kilmer opined on Nigella one afternoon, many people participating in Reality TV shows are “obsessed with revealing their sickest secret.’ Apparently, prior to her daily magazine series “that could otherwise have been made in the Fifties (right down to her frock),” Nigella Lawson protested: “’I don’t want to plunge deep into television’s rivers of banality,’” to which Lewis-Smith adds, “yet the host can get away with a good deal of inanity because (as Brand observed enviously) “everything you do oozes sex.’” (Evening standard, 26 July 2005, p.25). Jo Brand, Nigella’s chief guest on the previous day’s show, he says, is “the woman largely responsible for the development of wide-screen television.” (ibid, p.25). He wondered “why ITV had decided to commission what is essentially a remake of the long-defunct southern TV’s upper-middle-class House Party,” but also refers to the series as “competent lightweight early-afternoon fare.” (ibid, p.25).

If politicians themselves fail to charm and impress us, their privileged daughters, with the exception of Carol Thatcher, can certainly put something back into society, even it is just putting a smile on a TV critic’s face as a woman who is “quite simply sex on a stick” talks “in tones that make the Queen sound like a slut.” (ibid, p.25). He goes on: “My suspicion is that she’s simply such a great figure of lust for middle-aged male ITV executives that they decided to book her anyways, and to hell with the consequences...But, what’s harder to understand is why she is prepared to slum it in a daytime slot, where the viewing figures are only a fraction of what she’s used to at prime-time. After all, her hubby isn’t short of a few hundred million, so maybe Charles Saatchi is imply doing the traditional Jewish thing and sending his wife out to work.” (ibid, p.25). One imagines that trying her hand at being a chat show host is a suitable hobby for “posh totty’ whose father ran the economy in the Eighties. Lewis-Smith recalls remarking to Nigel Lawson that, “Like Cilla, Oprah and Esther, she is one of those women who are instantly recognised by their first name alone...’You’ve named your daughter Nigella,’ I pointed out, “and perhaps Salman Rushdie could do something similar. Only his daughter would have to be called ‘Salmonella.’ And do you know what? The former Chancellor never even cracked a smile.” (ibid, p.25).
Creepy George Galloway and Polish Princess Rula Lenska cavorting on Celebrity Big Brother 

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