“David’s dead!”: how the 2016 Celebrity Big Brother fiasco predicted the terrible year to come

Did we ignore the warning signs?

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David Bowie has been dead for a year. It still feels weird typing those words out. And judging by the outpouring of tributes and memories of Bowie that surfaced on 10 January, most of the world still feels moved by his passing.

But today is 12 January, and the first anniversary of perhaps an even more significant pop culture event. Yes, one year ago today, Celebrity Big Brother posted footage of Angie Bowie informing Tiffany Pollard of her ex-husband’s passing by saying, simply, “David’s dead.” An absolute shitshow followed.

The confusion stems from the fact that David Gest had taken to his bed due to illness: Tiffany assumes this is the David that Angie is talking about. She screams, runs around in confusion, and tells every other housemate about Gest’s apparent passing. When she discovers him in the bedroom, alive and almost-well, she has to be physically restrained from chasing after Angie Bowie, who runs into the diary room in tears, another shock piled on top of her grief. Housemates mutter than Angie must be “sick” to make up such a lie, before the one or two other housemates who have also been informed of Bowie’s passing try to subtly explain what’s happened.

All this, in just seven minutes of absolutely insane TV.

In the sweet, prelapsarian time of January 2016, this was an unthinkable horror for many. Viewers were quick to condemn producers, naming it bad taste to air the farcical scenes just two days after Bowie’s passing.

But in the harsh glare of January 2017, squinting at the wreckage of the last year, it seems like a warning. Doesn’t this short clip foreshadow everything that was to come in 2016? Death, horror, false information, disbelief, tears, and, finally regret? The Big Brother house is a microcosm: here we see 2016 in miniature.

Let’s start with the catalyst: the death of beloved celebrity. We could not know on 12 January how many more of these would come: Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Prince, Harper Lee, Victoria Wood, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Ronnie Corbett, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds. But the passing of one David here quickly becomes confused with another: suggesting that no one is safe. Perhaps the strangest element of all of this is that, sadly, David Gest really did die just a couple of months later.

Next: shock, confusion, and a healthy dose of denial. This summer saw a lot of all the above. What actually happens if we leave the EU? Could a reality TV star really become a presidential candidate? Amidst the screams, there were those people sticking their fingers in their ears and singing to themselves determinedly (See our very own piece, “Calm down. Trump won't be President — and Britain won't leave the EU”.) Tiffany’s howls of denial (“No he’s not!” and “You’re joking!”) seem all too familiar in a world where millions of people woke up to the news that Donald Trump was the President Elect of the United States.

This clip is a demonstration in miniature of the power of fake news. Tiffany’s hysteria catches like wildfire, igniting the whole house: Christopher Maloney and Darren Day are horror-struck. Here, suggestion is as good as fact: Tiffany repeatedly insists that Angie said the words “David Gest is dead,” even though it never happened. And people believe that, too: even after speaking to Angie about the mix up Daniella believes Angie must have lied, insisting, “She needs to be taken out of here, that is fucking sick. Speaking ill of other people like that is sick.” Jonathan Cheban whines, “I’m not well with crazy people, I don’t have that in my life.” Everyone believes that Angie must have maliciously made something up to hurt Tiffany. No one is able to establish fact from fiction, everyone talks over one another, and the loudest voice reigns.

And so, we end up here, crouching on a sad little corner of post-apocalyptic astroturf, gazing at our own reflection, wondering, “How did we end up here? How did we cause all this?” If 2016 was the six minutes and 50 seconds of farcical clamour, 2017 begins with the slow realisation of our own complicity in mass hysteria: and we are all Tiffany Pollard.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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