Peter Beresford says Big Brother contestants and care home
residents have quite a lot in common.
What a brilliant 21st century idea Big Brother is. It
costs little, grabs ratings and commands more tabloid front pages
than the most embarrassing minor royals. Get a group of girls
together in one bedroom; then put a group of boys in another.
Provide food, communal space, perhaps a pet, give contestants some
meaningless tasks to do, supervise a little, then wait and see.
Suddenly the penny drops. Big Brother is a social care
derivative. Its most obvious inspiration is group care living. The
ultimate irony of television’s most post-modern programme is that
it connects with one of the least valued and most contentious
traditions of social care – residential services. The whole genre,
Survivor, Castaway, Surviving the Iron Age and innumerable
clones, has the same emphasis on living together in artificial
circumstances away from other people. Even Friends
sometimes puts itself into the same frame.
Doubters should consider the similarities between programmes and
residential provision. There’s the same loosening of links with the
outside world and weakening of control over your fate. Both
programmes are about segregation, congregation and routinisation,
with particular events at fixed times and days. In both cases,
there is a frequent lack of privacy and locks on doors.
There are even the same family conferences. And of course,
there’s a similar prurient preoccupation with residents’ sexuality
and sexual activity (on Big Brother the aim seems to be to
encourage it; in residential services, to deny it).
Naturally there are differences too. With one may come fame,
with the other stigma. While Big Brother highlights
diversity, disabled and older people don’t seem to make it past the
door. Although TV often dominates life in residential care, there’s
no telly in the Big Brother house – just as no one watches
EastEnders in EastEnders. Supervision in Big
Brother is by high-tech CCTV rather than low paid care staff.
The only in-house expert is a psychologist and the narrative is
provided by Davina McCall and the editors rather than university
Maybe though, the crucial difference is that Big
Brother inmates seem to want to be there (even if this
sometimes raises deep philosophical questions about the nature of
informed consent), while use of residential care seems to have much
more to do with funding incentives and limits, policy priorities
Maybe social care and the programmers have something to learn
from each other. If service users got a fraction of the coverage of
Big Brother residents, then the problems of abuse and
neglect that dog residential services would soon disappear.
Interest in life for contestants after Big Brother might
be the cue for residential care to think about how service users
could best be supported to move on to independent living.
As for Big Brother, instead of keeping the person the
audience dislikes least the longest and making them the winner,
perhaps in future it could vote on who is most irritating,
objectionable and egocentric, and keep them in the house much
longer, after the others have all left.
Yvonne Roberts is on holiday.