Watch out Big Brother, the contestants are on to you


The other night, 10.336 million Italians tuned in for their weekly dose of Il Grande Fratello, the Italian version of the highly successful TV programme Big Brother.

In Italy, as elsewhere, the programme has proved a huge success, with its Thursday night special edition, on the Silvio Berlusconi-owned Canale 5, repeatedly claiming a 38 to 39 per cent of audience share.

Millions of Italians, it seems, have become obsessed with this extended, knock-out game as they follow the fate of the rival contestants via a televisual package strong on mindless banality, intellectual poverty and a touch of voyeurism.

An extra 70,000 viewers, for example, have taken out a subscription to Pay TV Stream so as to watch the Grande Fratello contestants for 24 hours each day. It seems that some people cannot see enough of this zoocage life in a purpose-built house, complete with swimming pool, hidden away in the Cinecitta studios once made famous by Fellini.

More than 1.5 million Italians regularly pick up their phone to vote in the fortnightly "cull" which sees one contestant summarily shown the door.

Not only TV ratings but also those of the internet site "Jumpy" have exploded, thanks to the show. "Jumpy", the internet portal run by Mr Berlusconi's Finninvest group, has moved from 16th to 5th in the listing of the most-visited Italian internet sites.

The success of the Italian version of Big Brother should hardly come as a surprise, given the programme's success in other European countries such as England, Holland and Spain.

Nor, at first glance, is there anything different about the Italian Big Brother - apart, that is, from the fact it is screened by the commercial television empire owned by Mr Berlusconi, currently centreright opposition leader and very possibly Italy's next prime minister.

More intriguing are the "tendencies" to have emerged from Italy's Big Brother', tendencies which say something about Italian popular culture today.

For a start, Il Grande Fratello has generated plenty of images of the female contestants in the shower or in various states of undress. At least one of the female contestants voted out of the programme has already posed naked for the cover of a prestigious weekly. One of the first questions routinely asked of voted-out females at their post-vote press conference is: Do you want to do a nude calendar? Those asked have so far answered: "Why Not?"

Italy is still a land where the cult of woman as object, the female body as bait still rules and where some of the basic concepts of feminism have yet to arrive. You either accept this, or you move on.

To my mind, the most interesting Italian development in the show is something else, something which happened last week when the contestants refused to play the game anymore. Rather than voting against one another, obligatory under the fundamentally cut-throat nature of the game's rules, last week's four remaining contestants produced a fixed vote which saw each of them get two votes.

The message was simple. We are all in this together and we are not going to betray each other anymore. The principle of solidarity, mediterranean-style, had won out over capitalist competition. Solidarity is a word that can mean different things to different people. I well recall a relaxed, after-dinner discussion with a group of adults when the subject came around to cheating and copying in exams. One mother recalled how, in her day, they had copied from one another during school exams as an act of "solidarity", to help one another out.

No one at the table seemed much shocked by the notion.

Doubtless, it has much to do with Italy's recent history of domination by foreign powers, but the temptation to combine together to defeat "the powers that be" (Big Brother, the tax collector, the state, the school examiner, the court judge, the car park attendant, the referee . . .) remains alive and well.

To the foreign eye, this tendency can at first seem unacceptable, prompting the conclusion that Italians are both systematic cheats and ungovernable.

This may be partly true, yet the instinct to maintain a healthy distrust of the various Big Brothers of this globalised world is maybe also a healthy one.