And way back when it all began, from the Big Issue first published on July 17th 2000.
(I went to the press launch and got to go round the camera runs looking in at the house. I was very excited to see they had the same sofa as me...)
Something happened to British television at 8.27pm on July 23 1998. Susan Dukes saw her new dining room transformed into a palace of tat by top-cropped pop-fop Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen on Changing Rooms, and burst into tears. It was the moment we had been waiting for since the home makeover show began. Neighbours who love their new skirting-boards are all very well, but there’s nothing we love more than watching something really unpleasant happening to someone from the comfort of our sofas.
The Germans have a word for it – Schadenfreude: the malicious enjoyment of another’s misfortunes. Think of Castaway 2000, the BBC’s experiment in Lord Of The Flies-style social engineering with 40 volunteers pitched on to the remote Scottish island of Taransay and left to sink or swim. Or the Channel 4 version, Shipwrecked, where an island in the South Pacific played host to 16 teens and twentysomethings, selected as much for their beautiful bodies as for their emotional immaturity – all the better for whinging and arguments. Or the recent run of Can You Live Without, which consists of removing something someone is emotionally reliant upon and then laughing at them? Or even last year’s Victorian House, which saw the Bowler family move into a no-mod-cons turn of the century home. Yes, it was an interesting experiment in interactive history, but it was also a national sweepstake on when the mum would next lose her rag over the mangle.
The genre reaches its logical conclusion this week with the first broadcast from an East Berlin-style bunker near the Millennium Dome. Channel 4’s much-trailed Big Brother puts ten volunteers in the flat-share from hell. Although they can’t see them, they are sharing the house with 27 cameras, a production crew and millions of television viewers. “It’s a sealed TV hothouse,” says Big Brother’s commissioning editor, Liz Warner.
“Programme makers at the moment rely on just two or three tricks, and these voyeuristic programmes seem to be one,” says the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries. “The Family in the 1970s was the first real-life soap opera, following an ordinary working class family over several weeks, but the cameras didn’t go in the bathroom or the bedroom. And even that was so intrusive that in the end the couple split up.”
But the intrusion of Big Brother does not end there – it’s also the first programme to be directed by its audience. Each week, the audience will vote for one member of the household to be evicted. They also vote on pointless tasks for the housemates to undertake. In other countries’ versions, these have included keeping a bonfire burning for seven days, or memorising post codes, although Warner claims the British challenges will be “more psychologically purposeful.”
Executive producer Ruth Wrigley seems to be taking the threat of emotional damage seriously. “We’ve almost been trying to discourage people! They’ve all been read the riot act and forced to consider all the potential consequences of taking part.”
Furthermore, “there will be a psychotherapist available on request – counselling will not be filmed. There’s also support for occupants once they have left, if requested.” Participants may well book a session just to get away from the cameras, which will follow them not only to the shower, but to the toilet as well. “The number of audition tapes I got of people on the toilet!” says Wrigley. “It was quite sad really. We’re not interested in endless shots of people having a dump.”
So what are they interested in? “Bringing people together, force them to talk, and work together as a group,” says Wrigley. And if they want to do a bit more than work together, no one will complain. In the Dutch version, two contestants, Bart and Sabine, were filmed having sex. Infra-red cameras and microphones above all the beds in the British house will ensure we don’t miss any action.
But it was here that the schadenfreude instinct kicked in in Holland – at the end of that week viewers voted Sabine out of the house, much to Bart’s frustration. Even more tellingly, when Bart’s pushy attitude resulted in his housemates pleading for his eviction, a quarter of the population voted for him to stay.
“These shows deliver real emotion,” says Tim Hinks from Bazal, the company behind several of the latest crop of TV traumas. “Viewers can’t get enough of it at the moment.” His latest is Flatmates on Channel 4. The show follows a group of existing house-sharers as they search for an occupant for their spare room. We see them interview the nervous applicant. And then we watch them mercilessly tear his or her personality apart. Just like we do at home when we watch people on TV.
“It’s spine-chillingly embarrassing,” admits Hinks. “Usually people would avoid the rejection scene, but we’ve made them say it face to face. It’s riveting to watch.” He compares it to Blind Date – and let’s face it, what’s kept that show going so long is not the stage-managed post-holiday bitchiness, but the very real abuse we hurl at the participants from the other side of the screen.
So where next for the television of cruelty? In a decade we’ve moved from laughing with Clive James at Japanese endurance shows to prime-time psychological torture. Can we go any further than the all-seeing eye of Big Brother?
Perhaps there’s a hint in Hinks’ explanation of how he got the idea for Flatmates. “I was watching that film Shallow Grave, with the scene where they’re doing interviews, and it struck me that everything in that film would translate to TV. Everything up to the point where the guy gets killed.” He pauses, and I swear I can hear a sales pitch forming in his head. “Mind you,” he muses, “you never know these days…”