Thursday, September 01, 2005

Archive: On Big Brother Africa... and the UK One

Here's another dated piece of mine. Basically, my thoughts on Big Brother Africa - as seen on Nigerian TV in 2003 - yeah, that long ago! I also talk some of the UK editions of show.

By Molara Wood

I have just returned to London after a brief spell in Nigeria to discover that some bloke called Cameron won the fourth series of Big Brother UK. Although BBUK was in full swing long before I departed London, I did not even know who Cameron was. Such was my complete lack of interest in the show, all the more surprising because I was an almost obsessive follower of the three previous series and knew every detail about every housemate.

I would watch daily highlights and reviews on UK's terrestrial Channel 4; live and interactive feeds on satellite TV; participate on the message boards of fan websites; and engage in endless discussions with colleagues at work about the programme. I would suffer withdrawal symptoms at the end of each series, saying: what do I do with myself now? And there would always be a Smart Alec nearby, telling me to get a life. I make no apologies for my BB addiction. I recognised the show for what it was, low-brow drivel, but loved it all the same - no tragedy therefore.

So this was the summer during which I finally got a life, or so I thought. I found I never got into the fourth series of BBUK; not even when Gaetano came briefly from BBA to the BBUK house. I was free at last. Before I could proclaim my independence, however, I found myself in Lagos amidst people in the grip of that all too familiar obsession. Visiting a friend on Lagos Island, I asked for the DSTV to be put on CNN and her face fell. Why, I asked, and she replied that Big Brother was about to start. And so it was that, having escaped BBUK series 4, I sat down to watch Big Brother Africa.

It turned out to be the episode in which Alex was evicted - he of the gladiatorial physique, obviously selected by the producers as eye-candy for the females. Alex also had the required exhibitionist streak and could be quite funny, giving us his own inimitable rendition of Frank Sinatra's My Way. Like a good mummy's boy, he didnt know where to look when he saw a near-naked female housemate - his unease was comical TV for us. It was also clear that a large section of the viewing public could no longer stand him being in the house, and out he went.

Alex's eviction show afforded me a glimpse of Nigeria's representative in the house. Despite his Hip Hop Hooray machismo, Bayo turned to jelly on seeing his girlfriend on the screen. For a young Nigerian Def Jam follower not to care if the whole of Africa knows that he adores his shorty was very heartening indeed. It was only a glimpse but I, for one, was won over by Bayo. There was also a moment during the show for hanging one's head in shame at the cesspit that Lagos has become. Interviews conducted in Ghana had the clean streets of Accra as backdrop, a timely reminder of how the streets of Lagos ought to be.

The future as predicted by Andy Warhol is here, in which everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes; and the unthinkable vision of George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four manifests itself in an unexpected way, as entertainment. The Orwellian thought police is reduced in a TV show to the disembodied voice of Big Brother, round the clock cameras, and a participating audience of millions worldwide.

Calls are now growing in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa for BBA to be banned, especially as two of the housemates have gotten to know each other rather too well under the sheets. It must be said that in four years, BBUK contestants have not crossed this line - although the obnoxious Jade in series 3 almost certainly performed a Monica Lewinsky on one of her male housemates. And since we never bought Bill Clinton's definition of sexual relations, it is safe to say that sex is sex. There is no denying, therefore, that Big Brother marks a new low in television programming.

However, while the producers could definitely exercise a bit more responsibility in bringing us the show, I am in no doubt as to the social import of Big Brother. The Big Brother house is a microcosm of the larger world and the ills displayed therein are merely symptomatic of the greater ills in society as a whole. It has been alleged that Nigerian children prefer watching BBA to reading, but the culture of reading was eroded long before the advent of Big Brother. I spent many years of my Nigerian childhood in a house with a generous supply of books and read every work of literature I could find in English and in Yoruba. My children now live in a London flat overrun with books and yet cannot be bothered to read, preferring instead the illusory but instant gratification of satellite TV, Gameboy and Playstation - much to my heartbreak.

The hold that BBA now exerts on the Nigerian audience only mirrors our society's ever-willing embrace of all things Western. The UK version of the show is an invaluable learning experience (for those of us from elsewhere) on the varied peoples and accents to be found on the British Isles: the Geordie; the Scouse; Welsh; Irish... The Scottish would never want to be thought of as English, and an Essex girl would celebrate her essexness, never mind what anybody thinks of it. The few blacks that have graced the show, however, play down their cultural identity, sheltering under the blanket cover of the catch-all label; I am British. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us, about things that cry out for change in ourselves.

As British as they are, BBUK's Black and Asian contestants have not stood a chance of winning. In series one, black Darren helped prove beyond doubt that the machiavellian Nick was cheating. Nick got his just deserts and was sent packing but Darren became the fall guy and caucasian Craig - who spent most of the series in blissful sleep - won. That same year we had mixed race Mel, a graduate of Psychology and arguably the most intelligent girl ever in BBUK. She was entertaining and stayed true to herself, only to be derided by the great British public as a slut. True enough, she inspired the first erection ever on terrestrial TV in the UK, albeit seen only through the veneer of a pair of shorts. Mel, nevertheless, was no more sluttish than many of the other girls in the house.

It is therefore difficult not to detect a covert racism at work in the UK show. Then there was America, where the race issue blew up in an explosive way during the first series. Big Brother Africa therefore has the possible advantage of a level playing field where race will not be too negative a factor.

BBUK has helped highlight how British society worships the mediocre and rewards stupidity. British newspapers and magazines are full of celebrities who are startling in their ordinariness; exemplified by the vacuous Victoria Beckham who, despite being the most devoid of talent in the now defunct Spice Girls, has become a superstar. The shambolic state of British education is also laid open in BBUK, most notably by Jade in the third series. The daughter of a one-armed lesbian and a father behind bars, Jade passed through the British school system knowing nothing, but came on Big Brother thinking she was the bees knees. Try getting your head round the fact that she has made more money out of the show than that year's winner.

While the ordinary is too highly regarded in Britain, the sad fact is that it is not celebrated enough in Nigeria, or the rest of Africa for that matter. The $100,000 prize money on offer in BBA compares favourably with the UK's £70,000, and represents the kind of extreme good luck that the ordinary African does not normally come across. Part of the lure of the West for Africa's youth is the possibility it affords the individual to seize upon the dream chance. Big Brother offers such a chance, within reach, on African soil. This big break, fostered neither by power nor privilege, is long overdue.

BBUK series 2 has been the most satisfying so far. Its winner was the mass of contradictions that was Brian: sensitive, gay, catholic, childlike and insecure - with a god-given talent for making people laugh. Then there was Helen, a blonde hairdresser unencumbered with much by way of brain matter. A Welsh Marilyn Monroe, she was guileless and adorable, prompting one of her housemates to tell Big Brother memorably: Helen is full of uncomplicated goodness.

Helen came into the house talking of her boyfriend on the outside, Big G, but gradually became drawn to another housemate, Paul - in a romance that gripped the nation. It was love and it happened in front of our very eyes. Two years on, Helen and Paul are still together. The last word goes to the unwanted Big G who observed pathetically: I have been shat upon!

The finale was a nail-biting finish between the two babies of the house, the runaway favourites, Helen and Brian. We watched live as they held hands and told each other how lucky they were to get this chance, and how it didnt matter anymore which of them won. It was beautiful television, as only Big Brother knows how.

Who knows what moments of transcendence may yet come out of Big Brother Africa? Who knows what the mirror it holds up to our society will reveal? We may not like what we see but much of it will be the truth. A great hue and cry greeted the first series of BBUK, most of the sceptics have since joined up with Big Brother's happy band. Come next year, the Big Brother fever will spread again. I cannot promise that I will not succumb.

  • Published on Nigeria2Day Online, 5th August 2003


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