Weaver's Week 2007-12-16

Weaver's Week Index

Image:Square Big Brother.jpg


Big Brother Book

Two health warnings for this week's edition. Readers are warned that the following section contains a word often found offensive. And this week's review of University Challenge contains one of the worst puns known to man.

Also this week: Junior Mastermind, Ratings

Big Brother The Inside Story

Narinder Kaur, Virgin Books, £12.99

In the early years of Big Brother, there was a tradition that Endemol would rush-release a book giving the official version of what had transpired during the television series. We've not seen these tomes since about 2003, as the show moved further and further away from its roots as a social experiment.

There is space for weighty academic discussion of many aspects of Big Brother. Does it constitute the apotheosis of the three-minute culture? Is the programme a microcosm of society? Can we draw reasonable inferences from the events depicted on screen? What does the interaction between the editors and their viewers tell us about mass psychology? Whatever happened to thingy and wotsit?

Narinder Kaur's book isn't weighty academic discussion, but it does provide fodder for future consideration. The format is very simple: past contestants talk about their experiences, ranging from "why did I apply" through "what was it like in there" and "what happened afterwards".

The contributors quoted in the book are a direct relation to their availability, and the persuasive powers of Narinder. It's unfortunate that only fourth-placed Melanie Hill has contributed from the 2000 first series; it's very unfortunate that 2003's sole representative is Joanne "Sissy" Rooney, who left three weeks into the ten-week run. Of the three series that can reasonably be described as more social experiment than ratings-seeker, only the 2001 run has multiple voices.

The audition and selection process has been covered more than adequately in previous works, and we didn't learn a tremendous amount from these early chapters. Once we get into the house, things become very interesting very quickly. Narinder has pulled off something of a coup by inviting two of the main protagonists in 2004's pitched battle, Emma Greenwood and Victor Ebuwa, to put forward their commentary on the night's events. Their reports are intercut with those of Phil Edgar-Jones, the Endemol senior executive for that series, and we found the section fascinating, a clear highlight of the book.

We then move on to the immediate aftermath of the contest, and how the media's attitude to the competitors has changed over the years. Narinder recalls her visit to Kylie Minogue's trailer; some of the more recent contestants went straight back to work. There are tales of rubbish agents, tales of people doing all sorts of things. Very few of the contributors felt prepared for the immediate aftermath. All speak of the feeling that they're public property, and all attest that Endemol didn't do enough to warn them about this. In fairness, the producers reckon they could warn people until they were blue in the face, and people would still go in.

There are a number of contributors from Endemol, and one suggests that people apply for Big Brother because they want to bring about some sort of change in their life. If they're that determined to bring about change, nothing can be done to put them off; from their responses, it's not clear that all applicants wanted (or knew they wanted) to restructure their lives in such a radical method.

Endemol has typically been criticised for editing to reinforce a particular point of view, particularly by chopping the start and end off conversations to change their meaning, and this matter receives an all-too-brief discussion in Narinder's book. Her contributors do not explore one of the central theses of Dean O'Loughlin's 2004 book, that Endemol decides how people will be presented even before they start filming. We do hear of day-to-day manipulations, of air conditioning and heating being turned on to provoke contestants, of the contestants being denied alcohol and sugar until the plotlines demand a sugar rush, and of other subtle and plausibly-deniable psychological tricks. All of the contestants in at the start of the 2006 series were amazed that Shahbaz was allowed near the programme's set.

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What does become clear is the way Endemol brushes its contestants under the carpet. One contestant speaks of how the promise that "you can call the psychiatrist any time" has the unspoken subtext, "but you'll be paying for that support." Given that Endemol has greatly profited from the series, and is at least partially responsible for the need for counselling, this strikes us as a particularly noxious piece of cost-cutting. We were also shocked to read of the treatment meted out to Emma Greenwood following the pitched battle: to spend three days isolated in a back room, and to come out only when the police want a word, verges on torture.

Though the book was written prior to this summer's series, it does include reaction to, and commentary upon, the various rows between Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty last January. Sophie Pritchard, who shared a house with Mrs. Goody during 2002, expresses her complete lack of surprise; she and Kate Lawler describe Mrs. Goody's predilection for terms like "liar" and "fake" to describe general niceness, and suggest that she brought in "bad karma" and "infantile" behaviour. More generally, there's astonishment that the press should have built her into such a huge celebrity figure when she had done nothing of any substance. The more general role of the press in perpetuating the Big Brother mystique is covered, though no-one advocates Mr. O'Loughlin's assertion that the show's real aim is to promote Endemol.

Victor Ebuwa recalls how he was offended when Emma Greenwood jocularly referred to him as "her nigger". He complained to the producers, but no action was taken. To the best of his knowledge, Emma was not spoken to, and the episode was never broadcast on the television. This compares with the treatment meted out to Emily Parr in this summer's series, when she had offended no-one.

There are also contributions from Makosi Mumbasi, who describes her battle with the immigration authorities, and the blatant piece of racism that was her exit interview with host Davina McCall. Regulator OFCOM somehow managed to determine that Mrs. McCall's line of questioning was not evidence of racism, a decision that remains as baffling now as it did two years ago. It's one of many complaints against a regulator that has clearly forgotten how to use its teeth. In the interests of balance, we must point out that the book was completed before OFCOM's report into the Shetty – Goody row.

The book includes tales of success – Brian Dowling has clearly bettered himself as a direct result of his victory, and Kate Lawler used the programme as a platform for her substantial talents. Narinder freely confesses that she excised a piece praising Jade Goody, leaving only Jon Tickle as an obvious but missing candidate for inclusion in this section. But there are also many tales of woe, and some instances of personal tragedy.

With the exception of the Shetty – Goody row, the celebrity series is not the focus of discussion: one could cite examples of the series where Dr. Greer exposed the bullying of Mr. McCrirrick, or the moment of madness experienced by Mrs. Feltz. The book's contributors do include Derek Laud, the only person with any measurable public profile to enter the civilian version. From the evidence presented, it could well be that his loose association with fame aided him when he left the programme.

Inevitably, one of the Endemol staff says that Big Brother has a halo effect: it contributes profits for other Channel 4 programmes, and attracts audiences around the schedule. We're not aware of any scientific research into the effectiveness of these programme promotions; a quick review of the total viewing hours for Channel 4 suggests that any effect is minimal. The profit-raising capabilities are now a thing of the past, with the phone-in vote being run at cost.

Narinder summarises by pointing out that we've learned little about transsexual people in spite of Nadia Almada's win; little about those with Tourette's, in spite of Pete Bennett's victory; little about refugees, little about mothers, little about any other minority group you could care to mention. Other than the fact that they are people, and surface differences are much less than the similarities.

For their part, Endemol does not claim any greater purpose to Big Brother; it is not justified as a grand social experiment, but as an investment by Channel 4. If neither plank of their argument holds water, should the show continue to be commissioned? It's a question left hanging by Narinder, who closes her book with a comprehensive index, perhaps marred by listing contestants under their family name rather than their screen name.

We will be keeping our copy, and may well refer to it in future.

Junior Mastermind

Heat 1

Same bat-time, different bat-channel this week: we don't want to see grown men playing with their balls from the depths of Telford. Even if it is the most interesting thing happening there. Four heats, winners through to the final on Friday week, everyone else retires with honour.

Tavia from Buckinghamshire will begin with Mahatma Gandhi. He was, of course, a campaigner for Indian self-rule, known as much for his successful campaign as for his strictly non-violent methods. The round almost goes without a hitch, but a pass on the final question means the score is 17 (1).

Daniel from Bedforshire tries to follow that; he's taking Antarctica; you may know it as the place where all winds come from the north. Smallhead asks about the fauna, flora, geography, geology, and history. Nothing fazes him at all. 16 (0).

Alice from Aberdeen has been studying Johannes Vermeer. That's the artist from Delft, active during the seventeenth century. Again, it's a remarkably successful round, the two minutes end with a score of 18 (1).

David from Lancashire has the Jurassic Park film trilogy. These were motion pictures of the 1990s. It is another specialised round to put the grown-ups to shame, ending on a remarkable 18 (1).

Sixty-nine correct answers in the first round alone! We hardly get that in the whole of some of the shows starring those old fogies.

Daniel reckons that the worst part of early exploration would be camping half-way up a glacier. He would like to go there: if only he'd put this down as his subject for the final, he might have had a location report. Though given BBC budgets, he'd probably have been sent to the Snow Dome in Tamworth. He manages to miss the explorer who climbed Mount Everest the other year, but finishes on 31 (3).

One of Tavia's ancestors was a survivor of the 1923 Amritsar massacre, a link to Gandhi. She gets off to a good start, but treks through pass valley in the second minute. The final score is 28 (7).

Alice saw a couple of Vermeer's paintings last year, including The Allegory of Painting. She gets to 31, then spends a very long time getting questions wrong, finally taking the lead on the very last question. Her score: 32 (3).

David agrees that the movies are silly, but entertaining, and the special effects are wonderful. He would like to be Prime Minister, on a policy of raising taxes by 5%, then lowering them by 10%. "It's just a publicity stunt," says the youngster, who clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Probably as the host of a much-loved but little-viewed topical satire show on BBC4. It's another round that has more hits than misses, ending with the winning score, 33 (4).

Who would ever have thought that 28 points would be a losing score?! It's more than enough to win most editions of the senior quiz, yet ends tonight in last place.

Heat 2

Honestly, we tune in five minutes early, and find a panel of Vic Reeves and two people we didn't recognise vote Mistletoe and Wine the worst festive song ever. Whatever happened to the writer, a chap called Keith Strachan?

First into the hot seat is Emily from Somerset, and she has Rosa Parks, who famously sat fast on her bus. By any normal standard, this is a quality round, ending on 13 (2).

Megan from Devon discusses the Amazon rainforest. Now that's a large subject, at least physically. Her round starts with an error, but goes well after that, ending on 14 (1).

Andrew from Biggleswade will tell us all about the Roswell Incident. We're not going to open the debate over whether the debris found in 1947 was a weather balloon, an alien spacecraft, or something the military wanted to keep quiet. As well as questions can do, this set of questions skirts around the debate, ending on 15 (0).

George from Glasgow has Alexander the Great. He was the king of Macedonia who re-defined the known world so that he could conquer it all. It's another well-rounded set of questions, actually giving an overview of the subject rather than focussing in on minor details. 15 (1) is the final.

Emily says that she's inspired by the example of Mrs. Parks, the figurehead of the 1960s civil rights movement. Regrettably, the round spins away into a few passes, ending on 21 (6).

Megan's mother went to the Amazon some years ago, and has been researching it since. Her dream job: a Blue Peter presenter. Again, the round starts strongly but tails away, ending on 23 (5).

Andrew reminds us that the alien flap only dates back to a book in 1980. Mercifully, there's no reminder of the "alien" footage from the mid-90s, more recently satirised by two well-known phone-vote people. He does know the plot summary for Beat the Boss, and an awful lot more, ending on 28 (4).

George is impressed at the nonchalant way Alexander went through Persia, but agrees that he was foolish for thinking he could just waltz in and be welcomed with garlands of flowers and cheering crowds. We're very impressed that he remembers the plot of The Sorcerer's Apprentice even faster than we did, and we saw all the episodes. Alas, one pass too many ensures the magic is not there: he ends on 27 (6).

University Challenge

Second Round, Match 4: Manchester v St Edmunds Hall Oxford

Two sides that are not popular in the north-east: St Edmunds inflicted a rare first-round defeat on Durham, and Manchester correctly answered 27 bonuses in a row when they tonked Newcastle. A Manchester side won in 2006, and another was runners-up last year.

No change in the rules, and a surprise as St Edmunds begins with a missignal, forgetting that "stylus" has more than five letters. We're going to resist the chance to snipe at the 2012 Olympics logo, and move swiftly to the Hidden Transmission Indicator of the Week, on Christmas works. Not as blatant as last Saturday's Rich List, talking about the BBC Sports Personality of the Year just one night before the 2007 edition. And in the bit people watch, between the two commercial breaks. The first visual round is Name That Mushroom, and we can be sure that there will soon be an entire series on UKTV Dave, the channel for fun guys. St Edmund has recovered well, leading 45-35.

Both teams are unable to tell the 100th day of a common or non-leap year. Here's a hint: January + February + March = 90 days. They do at least know the difference between former Brain of Britain host Russell Davies and Why Don't You..? scriptwriter Russell *T* Davies. Manchester re-takes the lead during the second stanza, and the audio round – songs from Evita – extends their lead to 95-65. The bonuses are versions of Don't Cry for Me, Argentina, but we don't get the Mike Flowers Pops version. Shame.

It isn't a commanding performance from Manchester, but then nothing that didn't involve a run of tens of bonuses would be. They seem to be doing enough to keep their noses in front, but St Edmund is never much more than a breath away. This sort of thing helps:

Q: If the answers include "shave his belly with a rusty razor", "put him in bed with the captain's daughter"...
Daniel Lowe, St Edmund Hall: What shall we do with the drunken sailor?

The second visual round is on electronic components, and Manchester's lead is hanging by a thread, 130-120. Interruption of the Week is coming in three words:

Q: Augustus Welby Northmore...
Sean Furlong, Manchester: Pugin.

Though they get none of the bonuses, Manchester has the next starter, and it'll be difficult for the Oxford side to come back from a 40-point deficit. Particularly after Manchester does well on cities renamed after Stalinist-Titoist leaders, and throws in another starter to take their lead to 90 with four minutes to play.

St Edmund Hall do their best to pull it back, interrupting the bonuses, but there are just too many errors to get it done in four starters. Sophie Brice's answer of "Lady Jane Grey" means that everyone has answered at least one starter correctly. It's the last action of the night, as Manchester wins 210-170. A well-fought game, wouldn't have disgraced a semi-final.

Stuart Thompson led on the buzzers for Manchester with five starters, the side recovered from a shaky start to 18/36 bonuses. St Edmund's best buzzer was Daniel Lowe, four starters; the side had 16/30 bonuses and two missignals.

Next match: Sheffield v Edinburgh

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 2 December were led by Strictly Come Dancing – 10.2m for the performances, 8.9m for the results. X Factor had 9.55m for the caterwauling, and both beat I'm a Celebrity's final – 8.85m there. Family Fortunes (6.9m) beat Who Dares Wins, but 6.25m is a series best for the latter show. HIGNFY held its own against Celebrity, seen by 5.3m.

University Challenge (3.4m) led the minor channels list, with Secret Millionaire and Dancing on Two (a series best) both beating 3m. Even without live football draining its audience, Heroes was unable to beat the combined forces of Simon Amstell and Keith Chegwin on Buzzcocks.

I'm a Celeb won the digital tier, 1.19m saw Friday's post-show analysis, and 720,000 coverage of the X Factor result. QI had 565,000 when shown on BBC4, and 315,000 on UKTV Dave. Fun guys, get it? Come Dine With Me had half a million on More4, Dancing With the Stars and Best of Friends took 300,000, and The Slammer on CBBC took a year's best 270,000. Challenge's top show was Tuesday night Family Fortunes, seen by 105,000.

Next week, the week no scheduler much cares for. Countdown and Junior Mastermind reach their finals on Friday, and we'll have extensive coverage of both next week. Ready Steady Cook's back, too, but it's the annual double-edition of the television guide that will keep us busy.

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