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Patrick Freyne: I suspect some of the Celebrity Big Brother participants booked beds on Airbnb - the producers thought, good enough

Louis Walsh and Sharon Osborne both seem grumpy. They have either been conscripted against their will under new legislation or they’re each here so they can pay an unexpected bill

It’s time once again for Celebrity Big Brother, which, as you know, is a reality-television show named after a character in George Orwell’s Celebrity Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a totalitarian surveillance state that governs future Britain. I haven’t read Celebrity Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I’m guessing it’s about a totalitarian surveillance state run by the panellists on Blankety Blank: Bobby Davro, Cheryl Baker from Bucks Fizz, Big Ted from Playschool, and Rod Hull and Emu. (The future is a felt beak pecking a human face, forever.)

It doesn’t matter, though. All you need to know about the literary Big Brother is that he’s a lovable (Winston Smith certainly loves him), all-knowing off-screen character, like Wilson on Home Improvement, Her Indoors on Minder or God in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

The reality-television spin-off of George Orwell’s Celebrity Nineteen Eighty-Four starts, as it often does, with Will Best and AJ Odudu chattering away happily while standing too close together on a small podium. He is in an ill-fitting baggy suit he borrowed from an older relative, and she is dressed in what looks like a shiny burgundy wetsuit, as though she were plucked up by a net while scuba diving and dropped on set. This is plausible.

I’m watching the programme on Virgin Media Two. I’ve lost track of who broadcasts Big Brother in the UK. I know it moved from Channel 4 to Channel 5 to ITV, but I can’t remember what happened after that. For all I know this might be security-cam footage of a local community-theatre production of Celebrity Big Brother.


No matter. AJ and Will are marshalling the traditional baying mobs of Big Brother fans in what looks like an alley behind a Tesco. You can literally see the road markings and the perimeter of what seems to be an industrial estate. As you’ll know from harsh experience, nothing good happens in the alley behind a Tesco. Behind AJ and Will beams the sigil of the whole Big Brother enterprise, a big electronic eye dotted with overly busy design features. Think of the Eye of Sauron but with evidence of infection.

Behind them is an entrance into which the celebrity contestants enter one by one, after which plumes of flame erupt dramatically. For a moment I worry they’re being incinerated. Then I realise that I don’t really mind if they’re incinerated. And then I realise that they’re not being incinerated at all: they’re just entering the famed residential panopticon from which most of the series is broadcast.

Our first celebrity housemate is the sometime X Factor panellist and Osbourne family matriarch Sharon Osbourne. We meet her first in the gold-plated cube wherein the housemates are placed in order to tell us about themselves and to pose in a manner that can then be used out of context by the editor. “I am Sharon Osbourne, and I am the original reality-television star,” she says, in the same manner that I imagine J Robert Oppenheimer said, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

She’s quickly joined by her former X Factor panelmate Louis Walsh, who seems grumpy. They both seem grumpy. Nobody has told them that this is meant to be a joyful occasion. They have either been conscripted against their will under new legislation or they’re each here so they can pay an unexpected bill. They are soon ordered to hide in a secret den, from which they must spy on the other celebrities who enter the house before choosing three to put up for eviction. They engage in this jape with all the enthusiasm of grown adults who have other things on their minds. Louis instantly almost jeopardises the whole project by calling out “We’re in here!” when others enter Endemol’s kaleidoscopic fun prison. We sporadically go back to this duo, who watch their housemates on a television while making beautifully banal conversation. “I like takeaways,” says Louis. “I can do a baked potato,” says Sharon.

What constitutes a celebrity has changed a lot. I suspect some of the participants this year just booked beds here on Airbnb and the producers thought, good enough. I’m pretty sure Colson Smith, for example, is just Interrailing. The others are doomed souls on a never-ending death trudge from one reality-television location to another. There’s Lauren Simon, who represented the institution of marriage on a show called The Real Housewives of Cheshire and who promises to flirt with disembodied Big Brother in a slight to her house-husband. And then there’s Levi Roots, the Dragon’s Den escapee, who refers to the eponymous sibling as a “brother from another mother”, thus evoking Orwell’s next book in the series, Nineteen Eighty-Four: Big Brother from Another Mother.

There’s Fern Britton, who is not a patriotic fern but a television presenter. And there’s Ekin-Su, from Love Island, who confides in Fern, and has the graceful presence of a diplomat on a trade mission. Before the series is out she will, no doubt, have negotiated a deal between the sexy hunks of her native romance archipelago and the googly-eyed voyeurs of the Big Brother house. There’s also David Potts, whose résumé includes reality-TV shows so obscure that they sound like local employment schemes. Furthermore, for reasons known only to him, he is wearing no trousers. “His fruit and veg are hanging out,” notes Sharon Osbourne, wisely, poetically and with great sadness. In a later episode David gives us an insight into his worldview when he says, “If you want to come to me with your opinion I’ll listen to it, but I don’t give a f**k.” Which is how I respond to editors.

The most thoughtless inclusion is Kate Middleton’s uncle. Gary Goldsmith, who pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife in 2017, introduces himself with a reference to being a “bad boy”, which feels like a pretty shameless, obfuscating way of acknowledging a horrible reality. The casting departments of some contemporary reality shows don’t care who they platform any more: pandemic-mishandlers like Matt Hancock, dog-whistling right-wing demagogues like Nigel Farage and, now, domestic abusers. It’s all the same to them, apparently. Sometimes I think that Orwell, if he were alive, wouldn’t agree to be on Celebrity Big Brother at all, despite the obvious brand synergy with his books (particularly Nineteen Eighty-Four: Brand Synergy for Dystopian Content Creators).

Home of the Year (Tuesday, RTÉ One) is also back on air, and that brings me much more joy. It involves Hugh Wallace, Amanda Bone and Sara Cosgrove snooping around annoyingly beautiful homes while judging them and judging each other and occasionally trying the absent owners’ aftershave. “I’m sure the homeowners won’t mind me having a little squirt,” says Hugh to the camera, and I’m not even going to try making a joke about that, in case it makes the ghost of Kenneth Williams sad.

The only tweak to the format I’d suggest is that in future series I don’t think they should get permission from householders to inspect their houses. This would add some danger to the trio’s aesthetic judgments. The design boffins could still say things like, “I’m really enjoying the wallpaper – it’s enveloping but it’s not suffocating,” and, “The restrained exterior of this home did not prepare me for the opulent interior,” except they’d be saying it while vaulting over a back fence with gardaí in pursuit.