Paul Baker looks back at the surprisingly pro-LGBT Big Brother, and celebrates recent Julian Clary’s win of Celebrity Big Brother 2012.
Are Polari readers too erudite and cool to watch Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother these days? Since the aging ‘reality’ television programme shifted channels from 4 to 5, it appears to have gone even more downmarket, yet even truer to George Orwell’s view of a dystopian society, distracted from the real political issues into hating irrelevant puppet figures.
When the programme started, there was a lot of high-minded stuff about how it was a ‘social experiment’. But these days, it’s basically an exercise in how a small group of producers can think of ways to mentally torture and humiliate a house of willing captives (often gunging them in green liquid), all for our televisual fun.
If the captives get along, they are made to nominate each other for eviction face-to-face. If they still get along, Big Brother will repeat whispered conversations, lancing any festering secret hatreds. Unless contestants have behaved impeccably during their time in the house (e.g. not being ‘fake’), they will be booed during a Five Minute Hate upon eviction.
It isn’t reality television, it’s cruelty television. I always feel sorry when contestants are pilloried for being ‘fake’ as fakeness is a quality that’s essential for most human interactions. Human society would never have got out of caves if we hadn’t invented ways of hiding our true feelings. So, if someone has to dislike me, I’d much rather they at least paid me the courtesy of doing it in secret so as not to hurt my feelings.
Despite being horrible on many levels, Big Brother is also one of the campest and pro-LGBT shows on British television. Are you old enough to recall Season 1 when lesbian nun Anna came second? She was up against a likeable idiot who had exposed another player as a cheat, otherwise she would have won.
Season 2 saw the first gay winner, Brian Dowling, who might be the most popular housemate ever, going on to win a kind of all-stars version in 2010. Looking spendidly orange, Brian now hosts the programme, presiding over the baying anti-fans almost as well as Davina McCall did.
Season 5 saw trans contestant Nadia Almada, take first prize, while this year another trans contestant, Luke Anderson, won. In both series, the house seemed more exceptionally stuffed with unpleasant personalities who appeared to have been chosen to maximise conflict. During Nadia’s season there was the infamous ‘fight night’, where two contestants who had been evicted, were brought back in, to the dismay of many.
And this season, poor Luke had to deal with a confection of difficulty, including someone who had escaped from St Trinians and promptly spent the entire week’s shopping budget on sweeties, for a laugh. While the other housemates did cartwheels and screamed at one another, Luke simply sat in the garden, looking depressed, ignored by most of them. Yet he still won.
And now, another gay man has won the shorter Celebrity version – the word Celebrity being a kind of approximation or aspiration. I first saw Julian Clary on the television series Friday Night Live, while I was still at school, back in the 1980s. Those days he dressed more outrageously in bondage gear and went by the name of The Joan Collins Fan Club (until he was legally obliged to change it). After that, he got his own series, Sticky Moments, a kind of gameshow where he routinely made fun of the contestants (ironic, considering his own appearance on Celebrity Big Brother). Although I didn’t know I was gay at the time, his savoir faire and rude wit were traits I admired, and I counted the days to his weekly late night television appearances – a little glimpse of colour in an otherwise very dreary time.
Shoe-horned into the house with a clique of masculine heterosexual men (The Situation, MC Harvey and Ashley McKenzie), Julian observed that they had very little conversation behind the clichés of women, sport, drinking and the gym, and he retreated into his shell, prompting him to be up for eviction early in the game as the others found him to be too reserved.
He had particularly difficulty with ‘The Situation’, a plain-looking American from another reality programme, whose claim to fame is his stomach muscles: Julian referred to him as The Occasional Table. But it was his gentle, stoic relationship with Julie Goodyear which won him the prize.
Julie gained immediate status as a gay icon (minor second class), exhibiting traits often seen in Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Liza Minelli. Now 70, clad in leopard skin, foul-mouthed, desperate to be loved by all as a ‘huge star’ yet unable to keep up the ‘nice nanna’ act under the pressure, she went from fan-favourite to the recipient of the Five Minute Hate over the course of the series.
And all the while, Julian made her cups of tea, physically supported her while she walked around, gently cajoled her to eat something, entertained her with dirty jokes (“I stayed in a gay hotel once, called The White Swallow”) and put up with her bitching about the other contestants without joining in. The public, who had been expecting Julian to be the swishing Diva, were second-footed to find a quiet, introspective and kind man behind the outrageous stage act.
Yet, in another age, Julian would not have been a winner, but would have been another entry in a sad litany of doomed British gay celebrities, and eventually the subject of one of those artfully done BBC4 documentaries about tragic comedians. He so nearly lost it all. In 1993, while appearing in the British Comedy Awards, he glibly remarked that he had been fisting Norman Lamont backstage. Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. The tabloids shrieked in rage and tried to ruin Julian’s career, with Garry Bushell in The Sun starting a particularly nasty campaign to have him banned from television.
But times had already changed by then and despite a brief respite from the media glare, Julian was soon back on television. Who talks about Norman Lamont these days (other than to comment that Julian said he fisted him)? And who talks about Garry Bushell? Maybe he should revive his career by appearing on Celebrity Big Brother. I’d love to see him gunged.