How We All Learned to Love Big Brother

As usual my brain is a swirling mass of contradictions, jumping about from subject to subject like a grasshopper on acid – except the grasshopper is probably a lot calmer. And more coherent.

Come on Reese you’ve been watching too many Pink Floyd videos again (true).

As I’ve already mentioned,  I’ve been teaching a summer school course on Celebrity Culture course to a group of American students. I’m doing that at the moment and thoroughly enjoying myself – being paid to ramble incessantly about reality TV, hegemony, Anthony Giddens and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some of my favourite things. And go and hang out by the Amy Winehouse death trees in Camden Square (picture taken shortly after she sadly passed away last year).

And I’ve also been thinking a lot about George Orwell, one of my all time favourite writers. He’s been in my mind since I walked past one of his many London dwellings – Orwell moved about a lot, as befits someone just renting rooms. I knew he’d lived in Kentish Town (all the best people live in Kentish Town) and also in Islington. I didn’t know he’s also lived on Portobello Road until I walked past another house with an Orwell blue plaque on it a couple of weeks ago – I was in the area doing some private tuition and fancied a bit of a stroll.

What this photo doesn’t show is that the house is currently a total building site – I wanted to photograph it the other day but it was raining and the touch screen of the iphone just couldn’t cope with a bit of British weather. All the signs are there that someone is hollowing out the basement – something that has become quite the fashion in more expensive parts of London and something that is one of the hallmarks of the super rich. Also known as a ‘banker’s basement’.

They’re building a banker’s basement in George Orwell’s old house.


I’d love to know what Orwell, a keen observer of class and social mores would make of the world we live in. What would he make of our Old Etonian Prime Minister, our increasingly unequal society and our news media that pumps out propaganda and ‘prole feed’ in a shameless fashion? The world in 2012 is superficially more more luxurious than the dystopian, totalitarian world of 1984 (basically a satire on post war Britain) but are we any freer than the wretches depicted in Orwell’s novel.

In many ways we are all Winston Smith and we all love Big Brother – even if we pretend that we don’t – as we all are in thrall to a system that makes us dance to its tune whether we like it or not.

Middle class ponces like myself may poo poo people who watch reality TV (how ghastly), read tabloids (how ignorant) or shop in Primark (how common)

but are we any better with our shiny Apple products, our neurotic checking of Facebook or Twitter and our pretentious love of ‘fine wines’ or ‘hand reared’ chickens? However we choose to consume, we are all consumers worshipping at the altar of either money or technology or both – you can’t really have tech without cash unless you fancy spending time in one of her Majesty’s hotels.

Even if we like to kid ourselves that we are somehow more ‘discerning’ than other people (a delusion) we are still consumers, our wants confused with our needs and vice versa. Orwell would not have been impressed, especially since he was very critical of the nascent consumer society of the 1930s, which forms a background to his work – for example, Gordon Comstock, the hero of Keep the Aspidistra Flying  works in an advertising agency (which he quits to work in a bookshop).


I rather liked this essay on Orwell by Douglas Kellner.

The following passage leapt out at me, perhaps because it neatly links Orwell’s Big Brother with the eponymous TV show. Here Kellner is comparing Orwell’s representation of television in 1984 – a constant oppressive presence that barks orders from the corner of your living room with TV as he sees it today:

Broadcast media in both capitalist and communist societies thus arguably function in quite different ways than in 1984. Structurally, they privatize, serialize, and depoliticize individuals by keeping them safely within the confines of their own homes rather than in public or social activity. That is, the very act of watching television privatizes individuals, and often subliminally
imposes images, role models, and values which shape individual thought and behavior — or merely distract individuals from social and political issues and problems. Television in 1984, however, massifies individuals, waking them up every morning, forcing them to exercise and to shout slogans during the obligatory hate periods, and robs them of their privacy through their surveillance functions. Thus while one could argue that television massifies individuals in
capitalist societies by involving them in quite similar news, sports, and entertainment, the fact of however limited choice in a pluralistic media system centrally distinguishes the nature and function of media in Orwell’s world from the contemporary world.

The idea of television privatising people – locking them in their houses in a one on one communion with the screen (ditto the internet) really speaks to me as does the idea of television distracting people from what’s going on and normalising the values  of the people who run our society – the obvious example is the fetish for competition in all reality shows, the obsession with winners and losers.

Obviously in reality world – as in life – things are a bit more complicated. The person who wins Big Brother or The Apprentice or I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here doesn’t always make the most money. Poor old Jade Goody didn’t actually win Big Brother in 2002 but she made a huge pile of cash because she knew how to play the game – or rather was a client of the successsful agent John Noel who saw a potential earner and took her under his wing.

Big Brother isn’t quite the ratings behemoth it was a few years ago and the show has moved from Channel Four to Channel Five. But it still has its fans and I had great fun taking the students up to be part of the studio audience for a companion show called Big Brother’s Bit on the Side.

One of the show’s presenters is a guy called Jamie East, who has known both my husband and me for a few years. He runs a gossip website called and is now a TV presenter.

The last time I saw Jamie – a couple of years ago – he just looked like a normal person. Now he looks like a celebrity – about 3 stone lighter with nice hair and expensive clothes. Jamie looks bloody fantastic and was pleased to be complimented on his appearance. But as he admits it is the product of no booze, no carbs and a workout with a personal trainer five times a week. Being TV skinny is  bloody hard work but to be part of the celebrity classes you have to play the game – if you can’t be arsed somebody else will be all too happy to put the hours in.

You win if you lose (weight) – if you let the pounds creep back on again, Big Brother will summon you to the diary room and have you evicted pretty sharpish. If you don’t conform to the values of what’s OK on TV you’re history.

Not a million miles from Orwell’s world.




This entry was published on June 26, 2012 at 8:45 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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