Three weeks and two days in the 'Celebrity Big Brother' house

Hardeep Singh Kohli

Hardeep Singh Kohli on his time spent under the watchful eye of the nation's most famous reality TV show

07 October 2018 08:30

Microcosms meshed with macrocosms; the intimate imitated the epic; something became everything; and everything became nothing. Welcome to the myriad madness and mayhem that is Celebrity Big Brother.

I know exactly what you are thinking.  ‘Hardeep, you are hardly a celebrity…’ I can only concur.

Reality TV. There is not one scintilla of irony in the oxymoronic nature of a form of broadcast television that couldn’t be less real, couldn’t be more affected, created and controlled. Rightfully, I stand accused and convicted of having committed crimes against the television they call reality. I was on Celebrity Big Brother.

Up until this summer, I had eschewed every inquiry and shunned several suggestions to embrace the new world order that had transformed the Reithian vision of television from a medium that should inform, educate and entertain into primetime TV that was at best bland, and at worst viciously voyeuristic.

There had been opportunities to be jungle-bound with Ant or Dec; but I prefer my jungles less contrived and brutal, and more concrete and Brutalist.

Sex masquerading as love on a tropical island, under the glare of legion lenses and unsympathetic editing, would never have been my thing; as a middle aged man there is no shortage of angst when it comes to performance in the bedroom department. I don’t need public (as well as private) romantic rejection.

And I’m always going to be more comfortable with a full breakfast grill than being full on with Bear Grylls.

No. Reality Television was simply not something for me.

Yet here I sit, exactly three weeks and two days on from the end of my exacting three-week and two-day voyage into the hearts of darkness. I did it. I (sort of) survived the post Orwellian odyssey. And then I thought I would write about it. I love writing; I have been a columnist for years; the blank page is my friend, a friend that soon fills up with words and clauses and sentences and, hopefully, sense.

But not this time. For once in my life I knew not what to write. Perversely there was no shortage of incidents and accidents, hints and allegations; it had, by all accounts, been a rather  ‘front-page’ affair. But as I left the constructed house in Elstree to return to my tenement flat in Glasgow’s east end, it felt as if those twenty-one days had happened years ago; I felt the most unexpected sense of dislocation and discombobulation. For those unfortunate souls that watched, it appears that I had quite a unique experience in the house. And while I have many hours of network television appearances under my ever-lengthening belt, there is nothing that comes close to CBB.

I can’t pretend that I hadn’t been prepared for the maelstrom that I was walking into, head on. I have been working in television and radio for almost three decades; I produced and directed before venturing on the ‘wrong’ side of the camera and adopting the mantle of ‘presenter’. (I had never been keen to present; most TV presenters I had worked with had been a bunch of Muppets; I fitted right in). I knew exactly how to edit a narrative sympathetically. I also knew how easily that same narrative could be bent into a much less flattering version of events. That’s the thing about the art and craft of TV; none of it is real. It’s all a construct. The TV that I had wanted to make was driven by a journalistic truth, an endeavor to uncover and present that story to the viewer. If you read that sentence back to yourself, you will understand how such high-minded ambitions were crushed by the uber-entertainment, high velocity, jeopardy driven programmes like ASBO Teen to Beauty Queen, The Only Way is Essex and Geordie Shore. In a multi channel era where viewing patterns and habits were fractured and increasingly more personalized, these shows managed to keep alive the idea of ‘appointment viewing’.

I had spent the better part of two decades waiting for my industry’s obsession with filming ‘ordinary’ people in ‘extraordinary’ situations to wane. I was convinced that the airtime inhabited by the unsuspecting being manipulated by the unrepentant would be unsustainable. Surely this was only a fleeting fad, a temporary trend before normal transmission resumed.  The late 1990s saw an explosion of reality, spawning the yet more oxymoronic ‘scripted reality’ genre in 2000. It was unarguably the trend-setter, the benchmark for everything that has since followed it.

I did it. I (sort of) survived the post Orwellian odyssey.

The original Big Brother was a genuinely exciting development in television at the time. You ought to know that our screens had been deluged with makeover formats and the shiny floor shows still described as ‘light entertainment’. Reality’s return was akin to punk: big, brash and bawdy. The notion of a social experiment, delivered by the edgy and adventurous Channel 4, did not just capture the zeitgeist; it imprisoned it in a house for 64 days.

But the box-fresh novelty of the format soon became all too familiar. Channel 4 valiantly attempted updates and reboots, until the brand moved to Channel 5 – ironically the channel that now makes some of the edgy and exciting TV that the fourth channel built its reputation on. It seems many lifetimes away from winners like chirpy Scouser Craig Phillips and Brian Dowling. Both went on to have respectable careers in mainstream TV, Dowling becoming the first ever openly gay Children’s TV presenter on SMTV Live. As you read down the list of occupations held by entrants to the ‘civilian’ version, you soon find the farmers, call centre workers and waitresses replaced by models, belly dancers and porn stars.

The national scandal that was Nasty Nick was soon surpassed by rows about racism, vote rigging and bullying – and who can forget Jade Goody’s surreptitious nocturnal fellation of PJ? The selection of contestants erred towards the stunt, a volatile mix of personalities to which the flame was applied. You wouldn’t pick people that would be good at stuff; where’s the fun in that? Create car crash chaos by casting characters designed to clash. The unquenchable thirst for fame for the sake of fame, coupled with the initial success enjoyed by previous winners of such shows, meant that there was never a shortage of punters prepared to expose everything in the hope of getting rich and becoming a celebrity.

A producer friend of mine from Glasgow, a woman of wit and worth, referred to the development of the genre in her own inimitable way. ‘Here’s a fiver, punter. Away and make a cunt of yersel.’ I prefer my own description; ‘schadenfreude television’. Upon reflection, I think the use of a German polysyllabic word gifts the genre more sophistication than it deserves.

‘Bread and Circuses’ was probably my most oft repeated phrase during my three-week sojourn in the last ever series of Celebrity Big Brother. And while the poet Juvenal was berating what was to become the fall of the Roman Empire, a fall that saw the citizens distracted by the bloodlust of The Coliseum, there’s a parallel to be found in a form of entertainment that is anti-intelligent, anti-talent and anti-anything that might be worth celebrating.

Thirteen strangers set sail, a ship of fools, whose number would dwindle by a combination of peer disapproval and public dislike. The premium rate phone lines had replaced the down-turned thumb, but the result was the same. What the viewers don’t fully appreciate is that none of us have any sort of contact with the outside world: no phones, tablets, watches or newspapers. Many of my nearest and dearest had me down as a nomophobe.

‘How will you survive without your Samsung? No Twitter, no Instagram, no Spotify,’ worried one close friend. To be honest, I was looking forward to the break. Over the entire period I only instinctively went for my phone on less than half a dozen occasions. The greatest frustration wasn’t the (blessed) lack of social media; in an age where people refuse to accept facts, I could have done with an internet search engine.

The lack of music was by far and away the greatest shock. Not only was there no music to play, we were forbidden from even singing songs; housemates were constantly reminded that commercial music was not be sung (and therefore not to be paid for by the production company). I resorted to singing ‘Abide with Me’, ‘Lead Kindly Light’, a few Hindi film sings and the occasional rendition of  ‘Caledonia’.

It’s difficult to try and explain the ecosystem of the house; it’s almost constantly changing. As housemates are evicted the fluidity changes and morphs in unexpected ways. Almost all of my fellow contestants seemed to have a guard up, offering a version of themselves rather than their real selves. I was perplexed at the singular lack of appetite for any kind of meaningful discussion. Had I not been a man approaching fifty, with a relatively successful career and a sense of my own abilities, the experience could quite easily have broken my spirit. Bear in mind, we are living every minute of every hour of every day; the viewers are shown an edited version. I was nominated for every available eviction. Of the total number of nominations given, mine accounted for almost half. While my housemates seemed keen to see me gone, the British public kept me in the house far beyond my expectations. Having survived three head to heads, I fell at the fourth. I finished exactly halfway; six behind me and six ahead. And I couldn’t have been happier to leave.

It’s the most curious of feelings to re-emerge into reality from that other ‘reality’. I had absolutely no idea how I had been portrayed. None whatsoever. When I went in, I had imagined that the social media response would end up being an equal split: 50% love, 50% hate. The longer I remained, saved by the public vote, it made sense that there would be more positives than negatives. Nothing could have prepared me for the tsunami of support I received on my return.

It transpired that, while my fellow travellers were not the least bit interested in social justice, gender equality and issues of race, quite a lot of the great British public were. It was heartening and precisely the reason I decided to go in. There is an audience that want to discuss and debate politics, society and the world.

All I know is that, however else one tries to characterize it, being part of Celebrity Big Brother was, for me, a life altering experience. Apart from sharing with the viewing public the array of my bodily functions (snoring, farting and burping), I felt somewhat vindicated. I travelled into the heart of my darkness, into the hinterland of primetime and I returned, more Williard than Kurtz.

Travelling on the Number 6 bus from Alexandra Parade may be a little trickier; having a sneaky lunch at Celino’s is a challenge;  but in a world where we are defined by the oppositional, tagged and labeled by the politics of identity, it feels good to have managed to connect with a viewing audience that yearned for something different.