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Oh Brother... It's back... but should it be? Matt Thomas wonders if we've all really had enough of reality TV giant, Big Brother.

IN television terms, 10 years is a long time. Actually, in any kind of terms it's a long time, but when you're talking about a world which unfolds in little half-hour-long slices it's a very long time indeed.

There's no denying that it's an impressive feat for Big Brother to be looking the big 10 square in the face, but with reports of gradually sliding viewing figures over the last series, down from 5.3 million viewers on the first night to 3.5 million by the last installment, is it the all-pervading cultural phenomenon it once was? Former housemate and Miss Wales Imogen Thomas thinks so.

"I still love watching it," says the Cardiff-based star of BB7.

"Especially the opening night, that's when you start you really get excited about it.

"I think if anything the last few series have been upping the drama, and that's what we want isn't it? "We all love a bit of drama." That might be one of the show's biggest problems these days. We're well beyond the point at which anyone could mistake it for the "social experiment" it was supposed to be.

Not that there was much danger of that happening in the first place, let's be honest.

Experiments are what you do if you need to find out what happens at the heart of a black hole, or how to cure the common cold, or whether the light inside the fridge goes out when you close the door.

It's a way of acquiring new information. Sticking 15 variously dull, crazed or fame-hungry punters in a glossy shed doesn't really cut it as an experiment in my book.

What hypothesis were they hoping to prove? Whether people get cranky if they aren't allowed to go outside very often? If forcing fully-grown adults to nothing but eat beans might have a bit of a negative effect on their well being? Whatever value could be found in this format has long since been extracted - or has it? Elaine Penn, features editor of TV Choice magazine, will be tuning in to see the new batch of housemates on Thursday.

"It's still great watercooler TV,"she says.

"You can be sure that it's something you'll be able to discuss with your friends at the pub or at work..

"It's quite a communal, familiar experience.

"People still love to watch the housemates making fools of themselves." That aspect of the show is still pretty amusing, it has to be said. In between the various controversies, the fighting, the racism, the death threats, the hours of simply lying about in a near-vegetable torpor, there's still the occasional glimmer of entertainment..

It's largely derived from pricking the egos of the house's more monstrous inmates, as in the last season's kangaroo boxing match, which saw preening chef Rex go head to head with preening PE teacher Dale in a test of strength.

The look of disappointment that ended up plastered across Rex's was exquisite, and made all the more so by the fact he was wearing a foam kangaroo costume as well as a comical expression of absolute woe.

That's the essence of the programme, I suppose. It shrinks the world of the contestants to such an extent that every tiny little event takes on a much larger significance than you might think reasonable or even possible.

It doesn't really reflect the world we live in, or comment on it or satirise it or even really relate to it in anyway. In terms of escapism, it's the ne plus ultra, the dernier cri, le beau ideal and lots of other fancy foreign words. It sucks us in to a world where 24-hour coverage, albeit with a 15-minute delay in case anything untoward kicks off, of absolutely nothing happening at all is considered worthwhile, and people actually watch it.

Quite impressive, you have to admit.

It's this lack of novelty that is simultaneously Big Brother's greatest strength and weakness. People now know that when they tune in, they'll get to see some people being made to look silly by doing pointless and degrading tasks, followed by some people looking angry about the fact they haven't got any food and then some footage of those people asleep/dozing/snoozing/having 40 winks while the credits roll.

You can plug right in at any juncture, without worrying whether you've missed a crucial plot twist or an exciting phase in a character's development. There is no plot. There are no characters. Just a succession of things that happen to a bunch of people.

And it's not only the viewers who know what's going to happen. It's the housemates as well. They know exactly what's expected of them. As soon as they become part of the audition process they know they have to come up with some unique selling point, some quirk, something, anything to make them stand out.

When they get in there, they know they have to immediately start shouting and not let up for the duration of their stay.

Despite, or perhaps because, of all that, we still have a voracious appetite for the show.

It doesn't seem likely that it's going to be leaving our screens any time soon, especially since it is now so widely recognised as a way to get a leg-up onto the fame ladder and a vital cog in the celebrity machine that drives so much of our culture these days.

So over this summer, as for the nine summers that went before, you're either going to like it or lump it as the nation once again goes Big Brother mad.

There's really no other way.

The Big Brother Launch Show is on Thursday at 9pm on Channel 4..


Rachel Rice, from Cwmbran, leaves the house after winning Big Brother last year
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 30, 2009
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