overthinking the idiot box

January 30, 2006

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in...

London Calling
The Least Wonderful Time of the Year

Another Season of Celebrity Big Brother

by C.J. Quinn

January, whatever Eliot thought, is definitely the cruellest month. Freezing temperatures, grey drizzle, Tube strikes and beady-eyed little chickens spreading bird flu ever deeper into Europe — Britain needs cheering up right about now. What better to do the job than a little reality TV?

Five is finally jumping on the diets and detox bandwagon with The Diet Doctors (i.e. enjoy vicious Schadenfreude at the expense of fat, malnourished poor people).
The answer, according to the current schedules, seems to be "a LOT of reality TV". Channel 4 has resurrected the long moribund (and with good reason) Shipwrecked format, perhaps in a desperately ill-timed bid to surf the Lost wave, and ITV has created a monstrous crossbreed of Pop Idol/The X Factor et al and crappy soaps such as Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale to give the world the gift of Soapstar Superstar. Five is finally jumping on the diets and detox bandwagon with The Diet Doctors (i.e. enjoy vicious Schadenfreude at the expense of fat, malnourished poor people), and Channel 4's 10 Years Younger in 10 Days team, led by the praying mantis-alike Nicky Hambleton-Jones, are this week tackling some poor raddled woman who used to be incredibly obese and now wants to be shorn of her folds of sagging, wrinkly fat-skin.

Worst of all, it's that time of year again — Celebrity Big Brother time. There are no words for how awful this excuse for a TV show is. It takes everything that's tired, tawdry and tacky about the BB format, attaches some Z-list has-beens and flogs the dead horse for hour after hour, on both Channel 4 prime-time and E4, Channel 4's digital sister channel, for three weeks straight. Only More4, the new and supposedly more intellectual digital offering from 4, escapes unscathed (this week offering a merciful escape from reality hell with new episodes of The West Wing, and a new season of programmes on the Iraq morass under the Bloody Circus banner).

While CBB used to at least attract the odd current celeb, albeit fairly C-list, Channel 4 are clearly down to the very last barrel-scrapings now, as anyone with two brain cells to rub together has figured out that the chance of a temporary publicity boost is off-set by inevitable humiliation and would only be attractive to the most desperate. This year's roster of freaks and has-beens comprises Faria Alam, most famous for shagging the manager of the England football team; Dennis Rodman (a virtual unknown over here); George Galloway, a mad old Lefty MP most famous for allegedly taking bribes from Saddam (quite how his constituents feel about him missing the start of the new session of Parliament in favour of shutting himself in a TV freakshow must sadly remain a matter of conjecture); the delightfully named Maggot, from Welsh novelty rap band Goldie Lookin' Chain; Traci Bingham of Baywatch 'fame'; some bloke called Preston from a band no one's ever heard of called the Ordinary Boys; 'glamour model' Jodie Marsh; Rula Lenska (what??); Pete Burns, the 'man or woman?' plastic surgery disaster and singer of '80s band Dead or Alive (you know, the ones who sang that "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" song), and, perhaps most disturbingly, Michael Barrymore.

Barrymore, you see, was once a genuine celebrity, famous in the '80s and early '90s in the UK for hosting a variety of light entertainment TV shows. He survived a forced coming-out thanks to Britain's infamously vicious tabloid press, but his career imploded in 2001 following the unexplained death of a man called Stuart Lubbock, found floating face-down in his underwear in Barrymore's swimming pool after a party. Front-page tabloid headlines screamed about drug-fuelled gay orgies, along with allegations that Barrymore had been seen forcibly rubbing coke onto Lubbock's gums, and an inquest failed to resolve the issue, recording an open verdict. His image as a wholesome family entertainer lying in ruins, Barrymore himself lay low for a while, before attempting a comeback with a live stage show in London's West End in 2003, only to have the show close after a few days following cringeworthy and scathing reviews. Barrymore emigrated to New Zealand with his partner, and little has been heard of him in this hemisphere since, until the buzz started about this year's CBB.

Now the country is being treated to what seems to be the spectacle of a man struggling to keep himself together on nation-wide television every night. In his first few hours in the house, Barrymore got out of bed to talk to a cactus, used a lemon squeezer to vandalise a portrait of the Queen, got up in the wee small hours to straighten cans in the kitchen cupboards, sang a song to himself about birds, hit himself on the head while talking gibberish and broke down in tears while looking at pictures of his boyfriend (he later claimed to be "crying tears of happiness"). Cracking up, though, or just desperately trying to get back in the limelight? Either way, there's something enormously unsavoury about it all.

Chantelle herself is that wonderful thing, a genuine Essex girl (permatanned orange, bleached, short of skirt and without an ounce of self-awareness), vulgar to the core and perfectly happy about it.
Besides the hideous slow-mo trainwreck of Michael Barrymore's return to the tube, this year, CBB is also trying out a new twist, all-too-clearly ripped off from Space Cadets — the celebs are being joined by Chantelle, a nobody, low-rent Paris Hilton clone (already cruelly but deliciously nicknamed Travel Lodge by the press — think Holiday Inn for the analogous American chain), whose task is to persuade the others that she's a genuine celeb and member of fictional girl band Kandyfloss. Chantelle herself is that wonderful thing, a genuine Essex girl (permatanned orange, bleached, short of skirt and without an ounce of self-awareness), vulgar to the core and perfectly happy about it. Travel Lodge was first into the house, and watching her greet the other housemates as they came in was admittedly a marvellous insight into human and celeb nature. None of them recognised her, and yet none were willing to lose face by admitting that they had no idea who she was, and so you got delicious little exchanges like the following:

Michael Barrymore: "So where are you from then?"

Chantelle: "Um, I'm in Kandyfloss, the girl band..."

Michael Barrymore: "Oh, of course I know who you are, I mean, whereabouts are you from originally?"

The absolute worst thing about CBB, however, is how inescapable it is. Clearly, the schedulers know we're captive to their reality overdose — it being January, no one can be bothered to leave the house after dark into the bleak midwinter, even when faced with such an expanse of utter TV tosh. Thus, CBB fills every available gap in the schedules, all night, every night, and the afternoons on E4 are taken up with live feeds (about as exciting as going to the zoo and looking at the motionless animals in the nocturnal house), intermittently obscured by irritating white noise whenever the housemates are discussing something that might lead to a libel suit of some sort (with Barrymore in the house, no great stretch, one presumes). Anything would be better than this, even endless Friends re-runs. God, bring back the Friends re-runs! Rumour has it, I see, that CBS is set to announce its own Celebrity Big Brother line-up shortly. My American friends, I can only say to you — run. Hide. Stuff your fingers in your ears and hum loudly until its over. It's too late for us — it's not too late for you. Save yourselves!

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Return to Season 2, Episode 8.