Saturday, 20 June 2009


Each year since 1999 when summer approaches, the creme de la creme of our youth, the elite of the future of the occidental world, flocks in masses to huge television soundstages. Soundstages transformed into Beverly Hills villas revisited by disciples of Zsa Zsa Gabor's personal designer. And us, O privileged ones, are invited to witness their most interesting and valuable moments, thanks to the legion of cameras dispatched around their chosen place of transhumance.


Like it or not, television producer John de Mol - the man who initiated the Endemol empire - changed television programming for ever when he launched Big Brother (the title comes of course from the novel by George Orwell) in 1999 on Dutch channel Veronica, with its daily observation through a myriad of cameras of a group of people isolated from the outside world. Sold in around 70 countries, the format is a global phenomenon.

Big Brother arrived in France during spring 2001 on private channel M6 (rival of France's leader network TF1), adapted under the title Loft Story and produced by a subsidiary of Endemol. The first edition of the programme generated a ton of articles and litterature as the first modern reality tv show of the History of French television. Loft story remains famous here for a certain scene in the swimming pool and as the epitome of vapidity on the small screen. To be perfectly honest, a French series called Voisin, Voisine raised vapidity as the ultimate form of Art a decade earlier but it is wrongfully seldom remembered.

After its second season the format of the French adaptation jumped to TF1 and underwent many variations and ups or downs before a true revival in 2007 as Secret Story, with French presenter Benjamin Castaldi (former presenter of Loft Story on M6) as its master of ceremony (1). On friday 8 June, three weeks after Big Brother UK (now in its tenth series), began the third season of the show.


Each housemate of the Secret Story house has as a secret - hence the title - worthing €10,000 (and they're not MPs) that he/she must hide to the others. When an housemate thinks he has discovered the secret of another, he must buzz and the two are confronted in the invisible presence of the mysterious La Voix ("The voice") - imagine the Mysteron voice with some sense of humour. The housemate whose secret is threatened must indicate some elements without giving out his/her secret, then the buzzer confirms or not his bet with a portion of his money whose amount is chosen indicated by La Voix (excepted if the buzz is "free"). The answer is given later in front of all the housemates, if the buzzer is right he wins the amount of money of the other, if he loses the "buzzed" wins the bet. Note that during the series, each housemate can win money with "missions" given by La Voix.

The "secrets" of this season are: one of the housemates is millionaire, one has been homeless, one is a virgin, one is bisexual, one has survived the 2004 tsunami, one has been wanted by Interpol, One has the IQ of Einstein, one has been the mistress of a Golden Ball footballer, one can channel Dalida (2), and one has been candidate for the city council of Marseille. But there are some twists: a "celeb" is undercover amongst the housemates... a "celeb"?! Calm down dear readers, the "celeb" is Rachel Legrain-Trapani (er, who?), Miss France 2007, and the Miss France beauty pageant is a property of Endemol, producer of the show. Anyway, the Miss disguises as a student named Rosa.

This is not the only twist: the four housemates arrived are in fact intrus ("intruders") and they live in La maison des intrus, an hidden house where they spy the official housemates. Other twist (no pun intended): one of the female housemates, Alicia, is in fact a cross-dresser named Didier, and his wife is also a housemate. Two female housemates from Lille are the "best worst enemies" and didn't know that they would meet again in the house. And another housemate arrives next week and has a secret in common with an other. Your humble servant needs a therapy now.


The casting of Secret Story 3 is as brilliant as a Peter Kay parody. Let's begin with the "Intruders": Romain, 33, future ex-hubby of former Playmate Shauna Sand! Angie , 32, model. "Assumed bimbo" with her two chihuahuas Gucci and Angel (« I don't know if the synthetic carpets are made to receive dog poos », candidly asks Benjamin Castaldi). The two arrived in electric cars on the theme of Beverly Hills, 90210. Léo, 20, self-proclamed villain. Kevin, 21. Quotes: « I know I'm handsome. I'm often told that » and « Image is primordial ».

Then came the "true" housemates: Sabrina, 19. Skater boy Bruno, 19. Cindy, 26, proud to be "sexy" (Quote: « Does it mean that we'll have to spleep together? »). Undercover Miss France Rachel Legrain-Trapani as "Rosa" (« You'll have to hide it as long as possible » says the presenter). Didier, 26, the fitness instructor who loves to cross-dress as Alicia, and his wife Elise, 25. Jonathan, 23, and his "Strategy of the Phoenix" (Beware, spirit of Sun Tzu!) Daniella, 22, medical receptionist born in Portugal. "Best worst enemy" duo from the north of France, Emilie (21) and Vanessa (21), arriving separately to discover in private that they are both in the show and that they'll have to act as best friends - problem: they're not method actresses.

Globe-trotter Maija, 29, from Vancouver, who lives in a R.V. François-Xavier, 20, amateur of equestrianism and unashamed fashionista (« Me? I find "Popular" really, really atrocious »). Elizabeth, 53, the "Fugitive" wanted by Interpol during two years. But no big deal, she just followed her hostage taker fiancé in 1975 - « It must be something linked to her age » says a charming intruder. And finally, Nicolas, 28, a belgian medium. Quotes: « It [his secret] can frighten, I've not many friends » and « My motto: to be vicious in order to win ».


Even Davina McCall couldn't save Big Brother UK series 10 from absolute boredom. Actually the fate of the British version has been sealed by Diversity, winner of BGT this year. The dance group reflects a more positive image of Brit youth than the noble 2009 housemates of the Elstree studios house (an involuntary impersonator of Nigel Havers in the Privilege Car Insurance advert, a Wolferine lookalike...) In France, TF1 and Endemol gamble high on a programme whose concept originated 10 years ago, and not only the future of the Big Brother franchise on the French territory. Because TF1 clearly finishes its annus horribilis with the end of the 2008-2009 season.

With recession the budget is meant to be reduced but curiously it doesn't show, as the sets of the Friday live show and of the Secret Story house are still huge and spectacular - compared to its French counterpart, Big Brother UK even looks cheaper! Presenter Benjamin Castaldi seems to enjoy his time and he is very supportive of the show. The Big Brother formula is definitely exhausted and nothing basically differs the 2009 French casting from the usual character figures of the global editions since 1999. But there's more twists and turns in Secret Story than in a French soap opera - in fact TF1 should ask Endemol the next time they'll try to launch a soap (3) - and there's La Voix, the voice, the true star of the show. Dominique Duforest, former radio host during the Golden age of FM and renowned television coach.

The opener of Secret Story 3 made an excellent start vs Pékin Express (the French version of The Amazing Race) on M6. One out of two French citizens will not go on holidays this summer (because of credit crunch), will it help the show? Do we really want to watch the fine fleur of our population under the scrutiny of the BB cameras during these hard times of recession? In the History of Reality tv there's a before and an after Susan Boyle, perhaps "voices" could buy the genre one or two more seasons. What's next for Big Brother or Secret Story? Big Brother's got talent? A Clue Big Brother with housemates investigating a murder mystery? Time for bed, said Zebedee.

(1) Son of an incredible French actor named Jean-Pierre Castaldi, the man who pushes Roger Moore out of the jet plane in Moonraker (1979).
(2) 1933-1987. Singer born in Egypt, huge star in France.

No comments: