I am indebted to my former colleague, Iain Murray, for reminding me not so much that Peter Bazalgette – the impresario behind Big Brother – is the great-great-grandson of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, but of what they have in common. It seems that genetic inheritance, if dominant enough, will out. Sir Joseph was an eminent Victorian engineer, one of whose grand achievements was the construction of the London sewerage system. Peter’s great achievement has been mapping the cesspool of the human soul, via reality television.
The first was undoubtedly a philanphropist, who happened to work for money. The other, I’m not so sure about. Gifted, witty, an after-dinner speaker worth paying money to hear; commercially adroit; along with David Elstein one of the most intelligent and perceptive commentators on the current media scene; a first-class psychologist. Yes, all these things are true. And yet the key adjective that comes to mind is “cynical”: not in his manner, but in the nature of his achievement. It’s the kind of cool, cultured cynicism of the Roman aristocrat of yesteryear, who – personally disdainful of animal bloodshed and human sacrifice in the arena – nevertheless proves a superlative organiser of the emperor’s “bread and circuses” entertainments programme designed to keep the unwashed masses compliant.
Bazalgette didn’t invent Big Brother, and he certainly didn’t come up with reality TV (although he has, in his time, been a fertile inventor of TV formats). Where he was smart was in grasping the reality format’s potential, back in 1999. To fill the void of values, in the wake of declining conventional ideological beliefs and the collapse of social deference, we have celebrity culture. That is to say, having destroyed the old idols we feel bereft and have to seek out new ones to worship. But where to find them? Magazines, from ¡Hola! to Heat, provide only limited production value; nothing by comparison with television when it comes to manufacturing instant stardom and providing gratification for our voyeuristic instincts. In this egalitarian age, the compelling thing about these instant wannabe idols is that they are just like you and me. All right, they may scream a bit louder, they may be more self-obsessed and emote a great deal more than the rest of us, but on one thing we can all be agreed: they, like us, have feet of clay. And in that we have the essence of their entertainment value.
Taking things a stage further, Bazalgette was quick to realise he held the whip-hand with our political, media and cultural elites – the “twittering classes” of which he is a renegade scion. They might sneer at what they saw, but by degrees they found themselves sucked into Big Brother’s maelstrom whether they liked it or not. And often they did not: it was a humiliating experience. Germaine Greer, for example, proposed herself as a human experiment, but found she couldn’t take the relentless exposure. On a personal note, Bazalgette’s most triumphant moment must surely have occured when he had to turn down haughty media grandee Jeremy Paxman for an interview with ousted BB candidate George Galloway MP, because it broke the House rules. As for the newspapers, he had them in the palm of his hand. Declining circulations and a loss of young readers meant they had no option but to cover the climax of a BB series on their front pages.
And where the newspapers led, the political class surely had to follow. “It is entirely legitimate to regard politics as a popularity contest,” Bazalgette once wrote. “After all, what you think of the person you are going to entrust power to for five years is pretty crucial. And in the close-up age of Big Brother and Heat magazine, our expectations are raised.” A pretty flip explanation, you might say, for the appearance of Galloway or Christine Hamilton, wife of the disgraced Neil, but you know what he means.
Last and not least, Bazalgette was on top of the multimedia implications of reality TV right from the start. Only formally was BB a television show. It also embraced internet and mobile audiences, 24/7. In that lay a further little goldmine, surplus to Channel 4’s sponsorship and advertising revenue extracted from the TV programme.
I remember Bazalgette – at the Marketing Week Madrid Media Conference in 2001 soon after BB first aired – confidently predicting the eventual collapse of its blockbuster viewing figures. He, at least, was under no illusion about its ephemeral appeal. And, to prove the point, he has long since moved on from production company Endemol. Now viewers are down to 2 million, Channel 4 is finally calling time. But if BB is dead, the reality entertainment concept – or something very like it – is destined to live on.