What do The Irishman (2019), An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), and Celebrity Big Brother Season 8 (2011) all have in common? Very little beyond their length and challenge of emotional endurance. While the former pair of critically acclaimed auteur films will undoubtedly forever be referred to in their directors’ canons, CBBS8 may be lost in time, disregarded amongst the Orwellian social experiment that spanned 448 seasons and 54 countries.
Reality television is debated for its contribution to and reflection of society, versus the damaging mental and physical impact on both contestants and audiences alike. Its labelling as ‘cinema’ in the age of the discoursese would likely be laughed at, but looking at Celebrity Big Brother Season 8 in the context of 2011 is a true time capsule that I fear will be buried and forgotten.
It’s been a decade since 2011, a year that in itself could be argued as a cinematic event due to the prevalence of digital video coverage of the year’s events on television and the increasingly streaming-dominated broadband internet. Being from and growing up in the SWANA region, you grow accustomed to a postcolonial version of 24-hour news cycles, and approaches to understanding the region. World globes sold in UAE antique shops would have the word ‘Israel’ covered in black marker, and the news agencies like Al Jazeera would report on daily explosions in Baghdad. Tensions and cross-region solidarity were catalysed by the Arab Spring and the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The Arab Spring is a complex and nuanced narrative that would be difficult to summarise in a mere few hundred words, but what’s important to note is that while the Spring was framed as a rebirth, it led to the devastating Arab Winter, the rise of somehow even more authoritarian and alt-right governments, a series of civil wars seeing millions dead from crossfire, fighting or genocide, and the birth of the devastating caliphate of Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levante – ISIL or ISIS).
2011 also saw a Big Brother and its sister programme Celebrity Big Brother rebirth via Channel 5. No longer appearing annually on the edgy and alternative programming of Channel 4 that it had once dominated, the franchise grasped for airtime and attempted to keep its head above water with one of the shortest celebrity seasons to air, and an all star cast including the likes of Tara Reid, Jedward, Amy Childs and Kerry Katona. The cast also included a standard set of unknown celebrities like Lucien Laviscount (Grange Hill), Pamela Bach-Hasselhoff (Baywatch star and subsequent ex-wife of David), Sally Bercow (married to the former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow) and Bobby Sabel (a still unknown model that was likely placed by producers to spark a romance with other contestants), all of whom I can assure you did not see their careers rejuvenated anew, despite taking part in groundbreaking television events such as the legendary Day 19 task set by Big Brother to ‘sort M&Ms into their separate colours’.
What makes the season stand out, and potentially deserve a formal archiving, is its fascinating preservation of time. Arguably every season of Big Brother does the same, particularly with celebrity contestants encouraged to take part for self-promotion (or redemption, we love a scandal). Most seasons find themselves imprinting on their time: Big Brother has brought us the likes of Jade Goody and Alison Hammond, both individuals that will forever be remembered in British pop cultural history. However, Season 8 stands out as the first, and possibly only, season that fascinatingly had its time imprinted in its very fabric. The celebrities themselves are unusually unknown, with the exception of Jedward who have somehow remained relevant through their online activism regarding music industry mistreatment, Israel’s attacks on Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and condemning the Pope. However the other contestants are fairly limelight-less to this day; rather, the season itself took place in 2011, an arguably significant year in recent Arab history. While it doesn’t directly discuss 2011 topics like the Egyptian revolution, it does make the strangest allusion via the cameo appearance of Mohamed Al Fayed, one of the most famous Egyptians, once owner of Harrods and Fulham F.C., and most notably the father of Dodi Al Fayed, Princess Diana’s partner who died in the 1997 car crash alongside her.
Al Fayed’s appearance as a pharaoh in episode four reveals the celebrities lying on the ground, wrapped in bandages undoubtedly historically accurate to the mummification practices from 2000 B.C.. Their task is to stand up. The winner is the fastest to stand up. At the end of the day a certain number of the fastest celebrities to stand up get to have a party. Despite the awards being placed in order of speed, Al Fayed is needed to judge the competition in order to determine which contestants stood up the fastest. I won’t spoil who wins for you.
Perhaps this scene is not a direct metaphor for the Egyptian Revolution, but Al Fayed’s cameo seems to be completely random in the context of Celebrity Big Brother. Unlike the brief mid-season appearance of Anton Yelchin, there to promote that year’s Horror Comedy Fright Night – which in itself is the oddest memorialisation of the late young actor – Al Fayed’s contribution seems to be completely random. Was he possibly chosen as the most famous Egyptian living in the UK at the time? If they had waited a decade could it have been Mohammed Salah dressed as a pharaoh? And why choose an ode to ancient Egyptian history at all? Were the producers attempting a subliminal act of solidarity with the Egyptian people, sick themselves of seeing the Arab region’s struggle to stand up for themselves in a society bound by repression and poverty, overseen by authoritarian and abusive systems? There is no rhyme or reason to the task, but you’re left feeling remarkably uncomfortable by the end. Beyond the awkward misrepresentation and trivialising of an ancient society, Al Fayed’s actions recoil you from the screen, in particular when considering his history of sexual harassment allegations and completely illegal work practises towards his female employees. From his inappropriate touching of contestants – mostly directed at Tara Reid – to handing out his business card to all the celebrities before his departure, his actions remind me of the patriarchal system Egypt still struggles to leave behind. The concept that money and power – even if it’s given to you in the form of a judge in a competition to see who can stand up the fastest – can and will be abused.
The Arab Winter was a reminder that rebirth and revolution comes at a price. What may seem like liberation can quickly be taken advantage of given the right strategy. Celebrity Big Brother is just another piece of British culture that can be difficult to understand, and even harder to explain. Why did it exist? And why did it exist for so long? No one seems to consume television the way the British do, it becomes an all consuming nationwide cinema event. Gogglebox is proof within itself that the only thing a Brit loves more than watching. is watching themselves watch TV, and it makes you wonder if Big Brother held on for a little longer before it’s timely cancellation, would it have reached the levels of a Love Island Boxpark screening? Probably not. But it’s still an important cultural artifact that will outlive us and stand definitively as a marker of the era. It gives hope that one day Jedward and Arab Spring will be uttered in the same breath, and I hope we’re lucky enough to see through both narratives until they come to a close.