This morning I was listening to the news on the radio and heard that the National Trust was going to open the Big Brother House to the public – just for one weekend. As a news item on BBC4’s Today programme it was framed as something to incite the indignation of middle England. The Today crew wheeled out Anne Widdecombe (former Tory politician and Strictly Come Dancing contestant from 2010) as the voice of disbelief – for her the BB House can’t be part of our heritage because it hasn’t stood the test of time – oh and also because it is tawdry. Widdecombe – who manages to be both a ‘national treasure’ (for some) and an old-fashioned high church hang-em and flog-em Tory – suggested that a much more suitable building for the Trust would be the BBC’s recently vacated Broadcasting House – which led the interviewer to ask if Widdecombe wasn’t just desperate to get back into the ‘Strictly’ studio. The defence was taken, unsurprisingly, by Ivo Dawney, London Director of the National Trust who claimed that the Big Brother house was ‘a stately home for the digital age’ (a phrase, no doubt, that is a crucial part of the promotion, though it sounded like it just slipped off his tongue) and that we shouldn’t think of heritage as being comprised solely of eighteenth century aristocratic taste.
I think I watched the second series of Big Brother and then for about four or five years after that. I missed Nasty Nick at the time (caught up with him later of course) but I saw Jade Goody – twice – as both original, non-celebrity contestant and then again, on Celebrity Big Brother as a ‘celebrity’ famous for being on Big Brother. If this was TV eating itself it also seemed to mark a moment when TV was becoming a crucial part of how we experienced the seasons. We might not any longer, what with global warming and the infamous waywardness of the British weather, be able to rely on summer being sunny, but we seemed to be able to rely on Big Brother to start its broadcasting at precisely the time when it was meant to be summer. For a generation or so I imagine that Big Brother will be the Madeleine Cake of remembrance for that season rather than the sound of ice cream van’s jingle, just as I’m a celebrity get me out of here will replace the smell of mulled wine and real fires for winter.
But actually I imagine the media archaeologists of the distant future digging up the Big Brother House and finding a caché of old video tapes and a few DVDs and deciding that the house and the show was not a significant moment in the rise of reality TV but a continuation of a much earlier sort of TV – the public information film. Just as for years TV has shown us that we shouldn’t drink and drive, and that we should always ‘clunk, click every trip’ and that Alvin Stardust could tell us a thing or two about road crossing, so Big Brother was really teaching us something. It was a long elaborate lesson in how to live in public. On the eve of an era of social networks, an era that demands full disclosure of everything all the time Big Brother was part of a pedagogical avant-garde showing us how drunken snogs should escalate into national incidents and how every argument, every behavioural tick could be gist to the mill of the blether-sphere. Big Brother saw the future and saw its role as priming us for an age where shame is magnified and embarrassment is embraced, and where letting it all hang out was going to make or break a career. Today we can all live in a Big Brother house – every room is a diary room – we just need to fight for an audience who will care about the indiscretions we perform.