Here's watching you, Big Brother

Despite the tabloid sleaze-fest, will the reality TV show survive its move to Channel 5?

Here it comes, whether you like it or not.

Big Brother is approaching for its annual cavalcade of fame-hungry stage-school kids fighting, shouting, crying and shoving wine bottles up their vajayjays - but this time, there'll be a difference. This is Richard Desmond's Big Brother now it's on Channel 5.

I wrote a short while ago about how Desmond's publications have turned into an incestuous circle-jerk of cross-promotion in which it's hard to work out where the plugging ends and the actual content begins. And BB is going to be all of that, but turned up to 11.

It has already begun.

"We're starting to get really excited about the return of BB," says New magazine, ahead of the usual rather predictable celebrity flimflam in which it's reported that Cheryl Cole zeugmatically lambasted her sometime beau Ashely Cole on the phone: "You'll never be in my life, my home or my heart again".

Meanwhile, Star magazine says "We're all talking about Big Brother's return!". Are we? Apparently, we are. Well, when you're in the Desmond universe, we are.

OK goes with "Big Brother presenters finally reveal their shocking new celebrity housemates" on the cover, introducing a story in which, surprise surprise, the new celebrity housemates aren't actually revealed. But regular readers know by now that the coverlines aren't so much a description of what's inside the mag as a series of long-range salvoes intended to hit as many targets as possible. Brian Dowling, host of the new show, reveals that he would love to see "Britney Spears and the Octomom".

So now we know.

As well as all that, there's a handily-timed celebrity coupling of former Big Brother contestants - Alex Reid, crossdressing cagefighter and onetime husband of Katie Price, has become smitten with Chantelle Houghton, the celebrity who wasn't a celebrity, but then she was, but then she wasn't again. Never let it be said, by the way, that I'm snooty about this kind of publication because it contains some delightful prose:

When these two heartbreak refugees, drowning in the shark-infested waters of failed celebrity relationships, clambered aboard their love life raft and bumped lips for the first time, the nation raised a collective eyebrow and tutted,

splurges the intro, rather joyfully anticipating the cynicism. OK is well worth a read, even if you have no love whatsoever for the parade of beaming physogs within.

The stage is set, then, for an all-out assault from Desmond's assets over the coming weeks. The Daily Star has always prided itself (if "pride" is a feeling we can, hand on heart, associate with that publication) on plastering its pages with Big Brother whenever it turns up; and this can surely only accelerate as the frenzy begins; the Daily Express will no doubt show a great deal more interest in BB this time around, due to the Channel 5 connection.

There's nothing wrong or unethical with any of this, by the way; it's just that I think it might be interesting to see the way in which the rival publications deal with it. How are the Star and Express's non-Desmond-owned tabloid counterparts going to cope with giving what is essentially free publicity to a competing business? On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to pretend that Big Brother isn't there, either. Is there going to be some way of covering it without covering it? Perhaps we'll start to see a slew of articles on how BB isn't what it used to be, how it should have ended with Davina, how it's all gone pear-shaped since it moved from Channel 4... and perhaps it's not beyond the realms of imagination to think that these kind of articles are already being penned in preparation for the battle ahead.

As for me, I've always watched Big Brother, and I suspect that isn't going to change any time soon; whether it survives the transition from Channel 4 to Channel 5 we don't know just yet. But I think that the move might actually be a chance, to use that horrible phrase, to "reboot the franchise" and clear out the clutter. If it does fail, I have a feeling it won't be because of a lack of support from Richard Desmond's other assets.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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It’s obvious why Thais can’t resist our English footballers. But they want our schools, too

The only explanation is . . . our footer must be great and exciting to watch.

At Bangkok airport, sitting in the Club lounge, as I am a toff, I spotted a copy of Thailand Tatler, a publication I did not know existed. Flicking through, I came across a whole page advert announcing that RUGBY SCHOOL IS COMING TO THAILAND.

In September, Rugby will open a prep and pre-prep department, and then, in 2018, full boarding for ages up to 17. How exciting – yet another English public school sets up a satellite in Thailand.

But I was confused. Just as I was confused all week by the Thai passion for our football.

How has it happened that English public schools and English football have become so popular in Thailand? There is no colonial or historical connection between the UK and Thailand. English is not the Thais’ first language, unlike in other parts of the world such as India and Hong Kong. Usually that explains the continuation of British traditions, culture and games long after independence.

When I go to foreign parts, I always take a large wodge of Beatles and football postcards. I find deprived persons all over the world are jolly grateful for these modern versions of shiny beads – and it saves tipping the hotel staff. No young Thai locals were interested in my Beatles bits, but boy, my footer rubbish had them frothing.

I took a stash of seven-year-old postcards of Andy Carroll in his Newcastle strip, part of a set given away free in Barclays banks when they sponsored the Premier League. I assumed no one in Thailand would know who the hell Andy Carroll was, but blow me, every hotel waiter and taxi driver recognised him, knew about his various clubs and endless injuries. And they all seemed to watch every Premiership game live.

I have long been cynical about the boasts that our Prem League is the most watched, the most popular in the world, with 200 countries taking our TV coverage every week. I was once in Turkey and went into the hotel lounge to watch the live footer. It was chocka with Turks watching a local game, shouting and screaming. When it finished, the lounge emptied: yet the next game was our FA Cup live. So I watched it on my own. Ever since, I’ve suspected that while Sky might sell rights everywhere, it doesn’t mean many other folk are watching.

But in Thailand I could see their passion, though most of them have no experience of England. So the only explanation is . . . our footer must be great and exciting to watch. Hurrah for us.

Explaining the passion for English public schools is a bit harder. At present in Thailand, there are about 14 boarding schools based on the English public-school system.

Rugby is only the latest arrival. Harrow has had a sister school there since 1998. So do Shrewsbury, Bromsgrove and Dulwich College (recently renamed British International School, Phuket).

But then I met Anthony Lark, the general manager of the beautiful resort where I was staying in the north of the island. He’s Australian, been out there for thirty years, married to a Thai. All three of his sons went to the Phuket school when it was still Dulwich International College.

His explanations for the popularity of all these British-style schools included the fact that Thailand is the gateway to Asia, easy to get to from India and China; that it’s relatively safe; economically prosperous, with lots of rich people; and, of course, it’s stunningly beautiful, with lovely weather.

There are 200,000 British expats in Thailand but they are in the minority in most of these British-style public schools – only about 20 per cent of the intake. Most pupils are the children of Thais, or from the surrounding nations.

Many of the teachers, though, are from English-speaking nations. Anthony estimated there must be about five thousand of them, so the schools must provide a lot of work. And presumably a lot of income. And, of course, pride.

Well, I found my little chest swelling at the thought that two of our oldest national institutions should be so awfully popular, so awfully far away from home . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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