The announcement by Channel 5 that it will make no more series of Big Brother or Celebrity Big Brother should not perhaps be the cause of much mourning, but it should still be marked. Because the show was a key staging-post on the path to the democratization of culture. The following is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s book A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (Aurum, 2013).
The series Sylvania Waters, a co-production by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC, debuted on British television in 1993, and depicted the lives of a newly rich couple in the eponymous upmarket suburb of Sydney. Though little more than a cult success, it did suggest that the fly-on-the-wall documentary – which had hitherto been obliged to justify its existence by claiming sociological worthiness – might now be permitted purely as voyeuristic entertainment.
A host of other shows followed in the middle of the decade, including most notably Airport (1996), The Cruise (1997) and Driving School (1997). Each of the three brought tabloid fame to one of their participants. Aeroflot employee Jeremy Spake went on to become a television presenter; cruise singer Jane McDonald achieved a number one album and a presenting career; and inept learner driver Maureen Rees bizarrely managed to have a minor hit single, with a cover of Madness’s ‘Driving in My Car’. By now such shows had been rebranded as docusoaps, an awkward coinage that nonetheless gave an accurate description of their content.
Alongside them came the genre of makeover shows. Interior decor had become a fashionable subject for magazines in the 1980s, with Interiors (later retitled World of Interiors) followed by the likes of Country Homes & Interiors and Elle Decoration, but only when the interest was applied to more humble homes did programme-makers consider it suitable for television.
Changing Rooms (1996) was the most durable format, making stars of designer Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and carpenter ‘Handy’ Andy Kane as it brought together two couples to redecorate a room in each other’s houses. The appeal was partly that of seeing into other people’s homes, and partly the joy of the occasional catastrophe, when someone would express their distress about what had been done to their living room. The formula was then applied externally with Ground Force (1997), a series based on the improbable notion that a garden could be created in two days, and which introduced television viewers to the braless charms of Charlie Dimmock.
Somewhere in the mix too was the oddity that was Stars in Their Eyes, in which members of the public were given the right to appear on television, but only by imitating existing stars. Essentially an evening of tribute bands crossed with a grand karaoke competition, aided by professional make-up and costumes, it became for some a passport to a career. When the group Hot Chocolate needed a replacement for their singer Errol Brown, who had left for a solo career, they recruited Greg Bannis from the show. ‘We got him from Stars in Their Eyes,’ said guitarist Harvey Hinsley. ‘He was copying Errol, doing “You Sexy Thing”, and he was exactly like Errol.’
Perhaps too there was a connection to be made with the rise of the concept that stardom could be taught, with the opening of the Brit School in Croydon – sponsored by the British Record Industry Trust – and then the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. The impact of such academies was to become evident in the charts and on television in the following decade, producing artists as diverse as Amy Winehouse, the Kooks and Leona Lewis, as well as a substantial number of cast members in various television soaps.
In a separate, but related, development came the popularisation of the camcorder. The television series You’ve Been Framed (1990) encouraged viewers to send in humorous home videos, and was followed by the likes of Neighbours from Hell (1997), which itself span off into other themed shows, including weddings and holidays.
The BBC, taking a more high-minded approach, launched Video Diaries (1990), in which people were given a camera to record themselves talking about their everyday lives. The format was adopted in other areas, including an advertising campaign for Superdrug in 1996, and a programme in which Amanda Platell documented the Conservatives’ 2001 election campaign, displaying little apparent interest in loyalty to the party that employed her. Meanwhile comedians Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis gave us the video diary of Samuel Pepys from 1665.
More significant was the trend to include amateur footage in news programmes, a process mocked as ‘genutainment’ by The Day Today. ‘Real events shot by chance on amateur cameras are increasingly putting real news crews out of business,’ announced Chris Morris, before introducing a segment titled ‘It’s Your Blood’. By the end of the decade, television channels were actively seeking such material.
All these strands – the docusoap, the makeover show, the video diary – were rooted in the idea that the lives of ordinary people could be made interesting for the public, a belief that led inexorably to reality television.
The arrival in the summer of 2000 of Big Brother, a format developed in Holland, saw ten previously unknown people – all but one in their twenties – locked up in a house together for sixty-four days and nights, while viewers progressively voted for their eviction, one a week. When just three contestants were left, viewers voted for their favourite, who received a prize of £70,000. They were given tasks to perform, but this was not a game show, more a popularity contest, combined with twenty-four-hour video surveillance. It turned into Channel 4’s greatest ratings winner, with a final-night audience of ten million and nearly eight million votes cast, although by that point the best-known contestant, ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman, had already been evicted for cheating and lying. The story was covered even in the Financial Times.
‘It is a shocking truth,’ wrote Charles Kennedy; ‘more people have voted in recent Big Brother polls than voted in the European elections.’ That wasn’t quite true, since it assumed that every vote cast over the course of the show’s nine-week run came from a different person, and the final night’s tally was still two million short of the turnout for the 1999 European Parliament election, but something was stirring here, and it demanded attention. As voting in elections declined, the opportunity to be consulted in the field of light entertainment was growing enormously. There was some anguish over what this might mean, particularly when Big Brother spawned dozens of sequels and imitators over the next few years.
These reality shows, as they became known, were joined in 2001 by Popstars and Pop Idol, essentially old-fashioned talent contests which brought at least temporary fame to the group Hear’Say in the former, and to Will Young and Gareth Gates in the latter. Again huge voting figures were recorded, as the public revelled in its chance to choose its own stars even before their careers had started.
There was nothing new about the concept, which relied on telephone voting, just as had Bob Monkhouse’s Bob Says Opportunity Knocks! in the 1980s, except for the noise and the hype attached to them. New Faces and Opportunity Knocks had never been able to command newspaper front pages. Nor had the contestants’ life stories mattered in the same way, for now talent was no longer the sole criterion on which they were judged; to be successful on such a show required also a tale of overcoming obstacles and hardship in pursuit of a dream. The taste now was for the everyday drama, a celebration of normality in a democratisation of culture that was one of the more pronounced features of the decade and one of its key legacies…