D. J. Taylor: Big Brother – George Orwell Reflects

George Orwell, The Independent, 2002

It is said that the Roman Emperor Maximus Severus once decided to play a series of cruel and malicious tricks on his slaves. Some of them were lured into a river to be drowned or eaten by crocodiles. Others, on pain of death, were set deliberately impossible tasks such as counting the feathers in the Imperial mattress. Finally the Emperor ordered that a hole should be cut into the wall of the slaves’ sleeping quarters so that they could be seen by passers-by. At this point, so the story goes, Severus’ retinue laid down their weapons and refused to serve him any longer.

As a child I was always impressed by this legend, for it seemed to me to demonstrate an elemental truth about any kind of remotely civilised life. This is that the average human being values his privacy above practically any other condition or state of mind. In a queer way even the prospect of being thrown to the crocodiles is preferable to someone watching you defecate or having an argument with your wife. On the face of it the idea of putting a dozen young people in a specially constructed house – quite a decent house, I should say, from the look of it – and continuously observing their behaviour ought to be an instructive business. Scientists, after all, regularly base their deductions on examining cagefuls of animals, and when it comes down to it a human being is really only a superior rat, albeit lacking some of the rat’s innate resourcefulness.

To anyone who knows their Swift, Big Brother’s message will be deeply reassuring. Men are not quite beasts, of course, but they are near enough to being beasts to need reminding of the fact every so often. Neither should the programme’s apparent popularity – several million people are said to watch it each night – come as any great surprise. Scratch the average bourgeois hard enough and you can be pretty sure of finding a voyeur underneath. One scarcely needs to be told, for example, that the old ladies who write scandalized letters to the Daily Mail about Jade and PJ’s behaviour in the lavatory (I am told that one programme contained a fairly frank depiction of oral sex) are among the show’s most faithful viewers.

Equally, no one should be much shocked by the some of the alleged depravities that have been seized on by the popular press. Put a dozen young people together in an environment devoid of any kind of mental stimulus – by far the most sinister aspect of the Big Brother house, to my mind, was that there were no books – and it would be rather surprising for them not to get drunk and behave with maximum boorishness. To prattle about ‘exhibitionism’, as one or two critics have done, is to miss a substantial point about the age we inhabit. We are all exhibitionists – you and I and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr Tony Blair – and to ignore this fact is to ignore one of the more salient forces now contending for our souls.

At the same time, anyone who watches Big Brother will be conscious of a nagging feeling of unease, like ghostly knocking heard a long way off. Admittedly the cultural value of television is absurdly low, and I am not for a moment suggesting that Alex, Jade, PJ and Kate are in any way representative, and yet the spectacle of them venturing the sort of remarks that would be frowned on in the average sergeants’ mess, and the range of emotions this provoked, seem worth analysing at some length:

  • Boredom Say what you like, human beings taken en masse are generally desperately uninteresting (Swift was right about this). This was particularly noticeable in the dialogue (some of it, to be fair, very funny) – a kind of dreadful, self-righteous blah-blahing about nothing, rather as if a flock of sheep had by some miracle been taught a few elementary phrases from a language primer and been encouraged to bleat them at intervals.
  • Embarrassment I am not a particularly sensitive man, but the sight of Alex trying to explain to Jade why he disliked her, in terms that he could not articulate and she could not understand, depressed me horribly: like a pair of stalactites dripping away side by side in a cave – “So what would you do if we met in the street? Drip drip drip.” “I’d probably say hello. Drip drip drip.”
  • Jade No point in pretending, of course, that much of this isn’t simply a header into the cesspool. Here is this wretched child, dragged out of some Bermondsey slum by the lure of celebrity, hoodwinked by the media barons into making remarks that would shame a parrot. Perhaps, in the last resort, it does not matter if such people are swindled or not, but there was a frightful moment in last Wednesday’s programme during the time she was helping Johnny to be sick when she turned to face the camera.

It was the ordinary slum girl’s look, the look of a girl who is twenty but looks thirty owing to a lifetime of bad food and the lack of healthy exercise, but something in her face caught my eye, and I realized that the people who say “It’s not the same for them as it would be for us” are wrong. She knew, as well as I did, what a dreadful destiny it was to be sitting in a designer armchair under the merciless artificial light with a bottle of cheap champagne, ready to betray her inanity with every sentence that she uttered. And all this for a mere £70,000! Somehow it seems a poor sort of exchange.

For all this, though, there was some good fun to be had. In particular, the people responsible for the programme’s production are to be congratulated for grasping one of the elementary maxims of low comedy from Max Miller down. This is that if you are going to get people to humiliate themselves in public, then you should make sure that you do the job thoroughly. In this respect the whole proceedings reminded me of one of those dreadful dance contests that used to take place in big American cities at the height of the Depression, where the cash prize was awarded to the last couple that remained standing.

Several other points are probably worth recording. The first is the utter collapse of educational standards revealed by exercises of this kind. In fact the producers have done us all a service by exposing the depths of ignorance now apparent in the mass society. If I were Ms Estelle Morris, on the strength of this performance by a collection of young people who have recently passed through the country’s educational system, I think I should go out and hang myself forthwith.

The second is the peculiar position that ‘class’ now occupies in early twenty-first century culture. Early on in the series a rather feeble effort was made to divide up the household along class lines into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. This was quite properly resented by the inmates, largely, you feel, because of its obvious arbitrariness. Unquestionably, class distinctions still exist in the world of Big Brother, but they are much less fathomable, less to do with the old notions of dress and accent than with poise, manner, a queer kind of expertise that several of the participants altogether failed to possess. Jade, in particular, seemed vaguely conscious of this. You could see her looking at the others with an odd kind of hopelessness, the thought that there were certain kinds of conditioning that would always be beyond her, like a carthorse suddenly introduced to a stable of expensive thoroughbreds.

It would be all too easy to write Big Brother off as simply another example of Western decadence, that uniquely tiresome navel-gazing of people with too much to eat and too little to do that goes on regardless while half the world starves and American bombs defenceless children with lumps of thermite. In a curious way, though, what has taken place here on our television screens over the last two months has its positive side. Pace Huxley, man does not flourish in a hedonistic environment. One of the last group activities of the final week involved the four remaining inmates – Jade, Alex, Johnny and Kate – laying out their weekly income. Predictably enough they spent it on drink for a party, were promptly sick and lay around the floor singing songs of inconceivable silliness and futility.

This seemed to me to illustrate another important truth – one that practically every social planner, futurist guru and whatnot forgets – which is that, by and large, the average human being does not want most of the appurtenances of a secular heaven that are regularly dangled in their faces by the admen. To judge from the average TV show the summit of most human ambition is own a DVD and take five holidays a year. At the same time there is another part of the human soul that wants blood, sweat, toil and lofted banners: the distance between Johnny vomiting up his supper (not without its amusing side, if you like that kind of thing) and the dull thump of car bombs and bullets tap-tapping from the machine-gun nests is smaller than you think. It is a point that Mr Blair and President Bush, as they make their dispositions for the future shape of our lives, might care to ponder.

As told to D.J. TAYLOR

D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is the author of five novels, including English Settlement, which won a Grinzane Cavour prize, Trespass and The Comedy Man. He is also well-known as a critic and reviewer, and is the author of A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, After the War: The Novel and England since 1945 and an acclaimed biography, Thackeray. His critically acclaimed Orwell biography, Orwell: The Life (2003) won the Whitbread Biography Award, and he gave the 2005 Orwell Lecture entitled ‘Projections of the Inner “I”: George Orwell’s Fiction’. He is married with three children and lives in Norwich. Reproduced from Orwell: The Life (2003), by kind permission of the author.