18 August, 2006

Big Brother


It's Big Brother finale day and I have to admit I couldn't sleep last night as I was so excited. OK, I'm exaggerating my excitement - a lot - but I do want to know if the deserved winner will win over the long-time favourite.

As English Dave pointed out Big Brother has not only been Channel 4's biggest show (and the most popular Big Brother year ever) but it has bested the main primetime dramas on the BBC and the ITV. As I said on his comments page it was because Big Brother has more interesting characters, more drama and better storylines.

With the reality writers strike on America's Top Model still going on, it's worthwhile pointing out just how much 'reality' and 'unscripted' programming owes to dramatic conventions and scriptwriting.

What Big Brother does is what I do when trying to create a long-running series. My equivalent of brainstorming characters is their auditioning lots of people. Some characters are simply not going to work and they can be discarded, others are worth keeping a while longer.

Having assembled a long list of several characters who are interesting enough in themselves and have an attitude and point of view and a goal, they then try and think about what characters would work well together. Not necessarily would get on with each other but would also cause some drama.

For instance you might try to ensure that for every character there is someone for them to talk to, someone for them to snog and someone they would hate. That ensures that we know what they're thinking, there can be some romance and there will be some conflict.

The process isn't flawless however as BB housemate Mikey in his film profile insisted that he believed women should shut up and do as they're told and their only role was to serve men and yet in the house he bottled out of any direct sexist comments to women and only made his views known via subtext e.g. his body language and attitude when women disagreed with him.

As screenwriters we can try and ensure we capture those more subtle qualities of the misogynist but also ensure that there's a major conflict with the feminist character over something important.

People tuning into Big Brother for the first time often say it's boring and it's just people talking in a house. To appreciate BB you do have to be interested in people and like character-driven entertainment. However because it is character-driven and based on relationships, unless you know the characters and their immediate history in the past episodes, much will be lost. But it is rewarding when something pays off that started to build several weeks ago.

Once you have set up those characters then you can't rely on them to provide conflict and emotional moments on their own you have to carefully construct it or create it. Aisleyne was pushed to breaking point at having other housemate's fates in her hands in the secret house. It was her choice if they stayed or left. OK, it wasn't exactly Sophie's Choice but in the context of a celebrity obsessed culture where a stay in the house could make you a millionaire, whether you win or not, then the stakes were raised high enough for true drama.

That was one of many storylines where Big Brother was called unnecessarily cruel but you have to put your characters through hell; you need to treat them mean to keep the audience keen.

One character, Grace, left the Big Brother house but came back in the house next door. In there she was saying how she would love to confront Aisleyne and tell her what's what. Aishleyne stated how she wanted to question Grace about her rudeness to another housemate. But they weren't able to meet up with each other being in two different houses and so a major dramatic scene would be lost. The solution: BB allowed Grace to go into the main house as a 'birthday present'. It was contrived but believable; a lot more believeable than just opening the door to the house and saying 'you go for it, girl!'. Likewise in drama we obviously want the dramatic moments but they have to appear more natural than contrived. In the end Aislyne did confront Grace who shamed herself by running away and not living up to her prior boasts and threats.

But let's not forget about the comedy. In yesterday's show, Big Brother spoke Welsh only to the frustration of the housemates (apart from the sole Welsh speaking housemate). While it seemed an obvious and initially slightly dull way of livening up the house, it ended up giving us some great scenes. Glyn the Welsh speaker gave Nikki words of apology to say in Welsh to Big Brother except they weren't words of apology she was sincerely parroting but insults about herself.

I prefer characters to have had some kind of journey in drama and have changed and learnt something about themselves. So this year it's either Glyn or Aisleyne. As Aisleyne has had the toughest time in there by far my vote goes to her. Aisleyne to win.


TonyB said...

Robin, good to see a working writer speaking up for BB! I've been watching it since the first series and I always enjoy it. I know it's often condemned as low brow entertainment for the texting teen generation but I've always felt it's much more than that. Okay, it's not high culture but it is the very stuff of drama.

What can be more interesting than watching real human interaction, carefully manipulated by unseen puppet masters? It’s like a drama that has gone from a detailed treatment stage straight into production without a written script – you have your situations and characters but without a script they can and do run wild. It’s that unpredictability which gives BB its edge. People turn out to be quite different to how you expect and one thing I’ve learned from it is never to judge anyone on first appearance. People can surprise you for good and ill.

As you say, you have to put in the hours and really stick with it over the weeks. If you do it will reward you with key scenes that come out of nowhere.

Did you see the highlights last night? The final scene, with Aisleyne apologising in the kitchen to Pete and then the scary Nikki advancing slowly behind them and looking as if she was about to turn into a remake of the exorcist was a classic moment.

The final shot of the three of them standing there, silent, staring in different directions and locked in unspoken mutual loathing, was pure theatre!

Anyway, I also agree - if there's any justice in the world then Ash must win!

English Dave said...

I confess to watching BB more this year than any other. Although it tends to be at 7.30 a.m when I'm sick of watching news for an hour.

Great post Robin. The BB people know EXACTLY what they are doing. Someone once described 'soap' as real life without all the boring bits.

Thanks to judicious editing that's what BB aspires to and often succeeds.

But to me it is still train wreck TV rather than drama. You watch it to see people screw up rather than you getting involved on any real emotional level.

I'm not knocking it. It's my guilty pleasure. But when train wreck TV beats prime time drama you've got to be thinking something is wrong with prime time drama.

Robin Kelly said...


Well, third place for our Ash isn't bad, all the better for knowing Grace was sure she'd be the last woman.

I think critics don't realise how interactive Big Brother can be, not just in terms of the multi-media experience but people analysing the show (including the production aspect)on a sophisticated and intelligent level.


It's true there is the train wreck aspect but most of the time the train is steaming along normally and it's the ordinary foibles of human nature that are fascinating.

While I thought I was watching objectively, learning about people to help my writing, I found myself getting involved emotionally. The oft-quoted screenwriting thing of putting characters in trees and throwing rocks at them is to elicit empathy and emotion from the audience. Whether they are an hero character or the antogonist - our Ash was considered both - you are going to be upset at the injustice of the rock throwing or desperate for more rocks to be thrown.

I don't know what's wrong with primetime drama (well, I do but I'm blogging under my own name and can't say) but hopefully things will change more fundamentally than the occasional half-hearted attempt at "the American way".

susiesoap said...

For all us wordy types BB was also a masterclass in visual storytelling. As well as the Exorcist scene highlighted by Tonyb, there was a wonderful moment two weeks earlier with Mikey and Spiral working out.
Seated, Mikey did an effortless forearm curl from the floor. Spiral couldn't even lift the dumbell. In less then three seconds, we saw all we needed to know about poor Spiral, and his non-existent chances of fame.

Optimistic_Reader said...

I tend to dip in and out of Big Brother but I grew to love Aisleyne for exactly the reasons you stated Robin - her's was a satisfying emotional journey, in contrast to Pete who really didn't seem to change much at all. My favourite comedy moment - Aisleyne snogging Pete, and Nikki's face rapidly changing from smiling sweetly to grimacing menacingly. Priceless!