The International Writers
Celebrity Big Brother
Until last week, the
ingredients for the 2007 series were producing a rather drab dish. Viewing
figures were disappointing and hardly anyone was talking about it. Enter
Shetty in the House
beginning 14 January 2007
Pay a volatile mixture of famous personalities a shedload
of money to live in an enclosed house, present them with certain
annoying challenges and hope theyll get on each others
nerves, and let the nation vote them off the show one by one.
The last one in is the winner. Welcome to the reality TV show
Celebrity Big Brother.
The cast is mainly an assortment of desperate publicity seekers trying
to revive flagging fortunes: has-been pop stars, media personalities,
models and the talentless Jade Goody, whose main claim to fame is that
she once won the non-celebrity version of the show. The show airs on Channel
Four, and, early in the week, it belatedly hit the headlines but for all
the wrong reasons: the media watchdog became inundated with viewers
complaints about Ms Shetty being the target of racism and bullying, with
Jade Goody being the main culprit. The controversy even haunted the British
PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown during his stay in India. People were astounded
that a TV show could actually be responsible for almost causing a diplomatic
incident or even undermining international trade talks!
On Tuesday, a British politician claimed that the UKs image was
being tarnished by the antics of just two or three stupid, ill educated
individuals who were in the house with Ms Shetty. The ignorance of some
of the housemates was admittedly cringe worthy. One housemate asked another
if Shilpa Shetty lived in a house or shack and if everyone in India (or
is it China? someone chipped in oh well, one of those strange
faraway places) ate with their hands: the implication being that it was
a such a dirty habit. At one stage, Goody referred to Ms Shetty as Shilpa
Poppadom and someone asked why she didnt just go back home.
The respected film director Ken Russell, who had also signed up for the
show, mounted a scathing attack on Jade Goody and a few of her cohorts
by describing them as vulgar, objectionable guttersnipes who had no class
whatsoever - that is unless lower class counts.
By Wednesday, the Shilpa saga was the main story on most UK news bulletins,
which were carrying reports about protests on the streets of India by
Shilpa Shettys fans. News reports made it clear to a public, which
was largely unaware of Ms Shettys standing, that she has an almost
goddess-like status in India, and implied that she is perhaps not used
to having to mingle with certain British C list celebrities, some of who
originally hail from the less salubrious parts of some less salubrious
towns and cities in the UK.
and intolerance are traditionally par for the course on the show as well:
Shilpa Shetty was certainly on the sharp end of things from Goody and
her sidekicks whose levels of personal insecurities would have been mind
boggling to even the most qualified psychologist. Anyhow, Channel Four
had got what it wanted all along: controversy.
response to accusations of it condoning racist bullying as a form
of entertainment, Channel Four said that what had been happening
within the house was more a case of class and cultural differences.
Well, class differences were present in abundance but the racism
accusations failed to go away. The concept of girly rivalry
was also forwarded to justify the sniping and arguing, and, indeed,
such personality clashes are part and parcel of the show, with a
potentially explosive mix of residents always certain to increase
After 38,000 viewers complaints and with senior government ministers
attacking the show, the sponsor of Big Brother finally suspended its sponsorship.
Amid the allegations of racism, the careers of Jade Goody and former Miss
Great Britain Danielle Lloyd appeared to be in free fall. As a direct
result of their behaviour on the show and while still in the house, Lloyd
had lost a very lucrative modelling contract and Goodys best-selling
perfume had been withdrawn from the shops. Blissfully unaware of what
was happening in the wider world, both Goody and Lloyd apologised to Ms
Shetty for their behaviour, which they all agreed (including Ms Shetty)
had been unacceptable but not racist.
The next day, Shilpa Shetty went head to head with her main tormentor,
Jade Goody, on the weekly public vote. Thankfully, the British showed
good sense and voted off the truly dreadful Goody by a landslide margin.
All of this has been a storm in an international teacup. But as the ratings
sky-rocketed, Channel Four must have been relishing raking in big profits
via the public voting mechanism, regardless of the loss of the three million
pound annual sponsorship. That was until MP Keith Vaz urged the channel
to donate the profits to charity. And, for the sake of good PR, the channel
Ms Shetty will receive a huge fee for appearing on the show, probably
the largest sum out of all the contestants, but some may argue that there
must be a better stepping stone to take from Bollywood to Hollywood or
the West. Apart from such misgivings, thanks to an unnerving brew of race,
politics, ratings grabbing and the ensuing publicity, her name is now
on the lips of millions of people in the UK. Her agent must be very happy
indeed and Ms Shetty seems likely to be the ultimate winner, both financially
and in terms of publicity, regardless of whether she actually wins the
competition (which she went on to do).
Throughout the saga, people in the UK were expressing concern that the
nasty underbelly of British society was being exposed to the world. Perhaps
that was not such a bad thing. As a result of the furore surrounding the
show, the British became increasingly captivated by an image of their
society reflected back at them by the drama being played out on their
TV screens. While some of it made for uncomfortable viewing, at least
it allowed society to engage in a dialogue with itself as a result of
the issues that emerged. However, a lot of reality TV, including the consequent
debates, is often trivial, unsophisticated and deliberately sensationalist.
People in the UK remain unsure whether the ongoing proliferation of this
type of entertainment on their screens is the kind of thing
that Britain, as a modern society, either wants or deserves.
Week beginning 21 January
The debate about Celebrity Big Brother continues to simmer in the UK.
The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has called for Channel Four to have
its franchise revoked and some are saying that the show should have been
taken off the air when the controversy over racism was at its height.
The debate has taken many forms. Senior politicians were very embarrassed
and twitchy over it, many of who had never watched the show. In certain
quarters, the fashionable thing is to not watch the show, or at least
not admit to having watched it, because it is tacky and way too low-brow.
So what we had from Tony Blair and some senior ministers when questioned
about the show was glib responses that went along the lines of: I have
never seen the programme in question, but condemn all forms of racism
outright. Well, for many commentators, that was just not good enough.
These senior politicians were unable to engage in meaningful debate about
the show and the issues it raised. And, as far as the public was concerned,
that was highly unimpressive.
Others, of course, were all too ready to jump on the bandwagon and condemn
the programme and its backers as racist. The tabloid newspapers were sometimes
at the forefront of this condemnation the very newspapers that
have, in the recent past, run screaming headlines and sensationalist stories
that bordered on racism about immigrants and asylum seekers. Whether what
occurred was racist or not is open to long, protracted debate. Some argue
that Jade Goody and her cohorts were engaged in intolerance and bullying.
Others throw racism into the equation where any form of unacceptable behaviour
is applied to certain ethnic groups particularly given Britains
cultural and historical legacy of colonialism and slavery.
If the programme has done little else, it has placed racism in the public
sphere of debate for a short period at least. This, in itself, is no bad
thing given that it can be one of those topics that too often gets swept
under the carpet, being regarded as too hot to handle. Racism affects
millions in Britain but only seems to be debated on the back of an atrocity
that emerges from time to time. However, some have argued that it is such
a pity that racism has been placed on the agenda by a tawdry reality TV
show, which manufactured the debate as a result of its own commercial
interests. I have to agree, that is indeed a sad state of affairs. But,
at the same time, the debate about commercial interests, popular culture
and entertainment (reality TV in particular) has been thrown open and
has come back to haunt Channel Four.
People who bemoan this state of affairs often refer to a more idealised
realm of public debate, where reason triumphs over commercial or other
forms of interest. But they may wish to consider that rational and reasoned
debate is always open to distortion, compromise and coercion as a result
of vested interests. The prevailing philosophy about public debate has
been shaped by the premise that that an approximation of the truth
can be achieved through the open exchange of dialogue. However, compromise,
distortion and domination by one party over another usually replaces trust
in reason and enlightened debate. Elected and unelected opinion
formers such as politicians, business people, trade unions and the media
are all playing to their respective constituents and the free and open
exchange of ideas rarely leads to debates or policies based on objective
reason and logic alone. So the public is left to analyse and contribute
to debates that are always preset to some or other extent.
In an ideal world, the reports that cite the extent of racism in relation
to access to housing, healthcare, employment, etc. should be leading the
debate. Those reports document the marked inequalities that exist between
ethnic groups and were available prior to Big Brother being aired but,
regardless, there was no ongoing hue and cry about racism in Britain.
The overwhelming majority of the public does not sit around reading reports
or debating the issues in a university seminar room.
So what we are left with are debates instigated by reality TV, mischievous
politicians or other groups, transmitted via the media, all of which have
their own axe to grind. Thats the current reality we have. Thats
the situation we must deal with. We may ban Big Brother, censure debate
or do any other number of things but surely any debate is better than
no debate. And somewhere along the line, within the chat-show debates
and the caricature headlines emerging from the Big Brother fiasco, at
least a degree of informed insight into the issues at hand will seep through.
28 January Shilpa Shetty is declared the winner
of Celebrity Big Brother!
© Colin Todhunter - Liverpool
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.