Some people just have it. You can see it radiating from Jade Goody from the very first moments of the audition tape (VHS, for this is 2002, children) she sent in to apply for a slot on the third series of Big Brother: star quality. A more downmarket, domestic version of what we usually mean by that, but there, unmistakably. No wonder the show’s creative director remembers the person who happened across it as they ploughed through the mail sacks that arrived by the dozens every day shouting “I’ve got one!” across the room.
Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain (Channel 4) was a 20-year-old dental nurse from Bermondsey, south London, who became the biggest celebrity reality television had produced, and whose success has probably not been surpassed since. She transmuted her 64-day stint inside the Big Brother house into a seven-year stretch as a tabloid and magazine darling, amassing love, hate and money in proportions that just about make the game worth the candle. It might well have gone on longer, but in 2008 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer that spread rapidly and killed her in March 2009 at the age of 27.
Last night’s first of a three-part documentary concentrated mostly on the making of her. There was footage of her most famous Big Brother moments – hysterically crying “Am I minging?” when she thought she had a verruca, getting fully naked during strip poker, and, of course, thinking “East Angula” was abroad. And then there was what the media made of that. The documentary deftly displayed and deconstructed the whys and wherefores of their immediate collective instinct to savage the 20-year-old as thick, vulgar, fat, ugly and make her the poster girl for all of society’s then-current (mostly drunken) ills.
It also slyly allowed some of the people involved enough rope to hang themselves. The creative director’s – Phil Edgar-Jones – smiling recollection of thinking as he put the phone down after calling Goody to tell her that she was going to be on BB3 –“This is either going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you or a complete disaster” – was a reminder of the cold calculations that lie behind every such production. Journalist Kevin O’Sullivan, still belly-laughing nearly two decades on at his own contributions to the anti-Goody furore (she was by this stage being habitually referred to as a slag, chav, baboon and pig, though O’Sullivan remains most pleased by his “Creature from the Black Lagoon” piece based on a picture of Jade getting out of the BB house pool) contrasted with Davina McCall’s tearful memories of being behind the house walls with the cameras and pressing her hands unseen against them and whispering “Be careful” to the careless girl on the other side of the glass.
Interspersed with the story of her media creation were interviews – pugnacious, full of pride, raging grief just below the surface – with the woman responsible for Jade’s first 20 years. Her mother Jackiey, a periodically violent drug addict for most of Goody’s childhood, was cared for by her daughter for most of it. Of life with Goody’s father (“He was a pimp”), she says they had a good relationship but, “he was a possessive control freak. If I said hello to you in the street, I know damn well I’d get a black eye when I got in.” Goody was three when she first watched in terror as he shot up in front of her and five when she rolled her first spliff. “She didn’t go into Big Brother for fame, you know,” says Jackiey fiercely. “She went in to get away from me.” Fellow housemate Alex, who waltzed with her as they waited for the final eviction, thought the stay was “a bit of a fairytale” for her.
As Goody’s background became increasingly public knowledge and it became clear that she wasn’t so much careless as simply, for the first time in her young life, carefree, sympathy grew, and more readily than the media had expected. Goody was far more of an Everywoman than they had realised and – even more importantly – could still shift as many newspapers in that guise as she had as a hate figure. An entirely cynical, hypocritical repositioning took place. They killed “the pig” and Goody emerged from the house a beloved heroine whose “authenticity” was worshipped. The good times and the money rolled in – we leave her at the end of the episode still on a high.
It was a fair and nuanced portrait of Goody and the machinery that surrounded her – sometimes operating independently, sometimes in harmony. And it captured the bleak undertow of it all; the brutality of her life, her manipulation and her premature death. It remains the most modern of fairytales.