Record-breaking ratings for Big Brother 5 have confounded critics who said there was little life left in the reality show. As it reaches its climax tonight, Steve Pratt explains why the programme won't be shown the door.

Four years ago we spent the summer watching an ex-nun take up smoking, people stripping off to make body prints on a wall, a kissing game in the hot tub, and a chicken named Marjorie. Most outrageous of all, we witnessed a well-spoken City worker lie about his dying wife and be caught cheating.

At the time, these saucy shenanigans seemed the height of bad behaviour but, to borrow Al Jolson's famous words, "You ain't seen nothing yet".

The Machiavellian machinations of the man dubbed Nasty Nick and a few harmless fumblings were child's play compared to the X-rated antics of the current Big Brother housemates.

That a Portuguese transsexual with a nicotine addiction and raucous guffaw is poised to emerge from the house tonight as the winner of the 2004 edition of C4's reality show is testimony that the makers have given the fading format a shot in the arm that ensures its future.

This year's mother of all Big Brothers has proved increasingly addictive as the tears and tantrums, rebellions and recriminations have been played out inside the house over the past ten weeks.

Those who thought this might be the last Big Brother will have to think again. C4 bosses aren't about to axe a show that has given them regular ratings of six million a night and helped them beat BBC1's audience share on several occasions.

And, on Wednesday, a record 7.1 million people tuned in to to see student Stuart Wilson leave the house in a surprise eviction. The show gave Big Brother 5 its best ratings for a live eviction.

Some, and I was among them, were sceptical there was much useful life left in the idea borrowed from George Orwell's novel 1984 of observing a group of strangers in a confined space round the clock. But the makers promised Big Brother was going to be evil in 2004 - and he was, as the housemates found to their cost.

The programme has moved away from being reality TV into the realms of soap opera. In America, some reality shows employ storyliners to advise on manipulating events and people to cause love, hate, confusion and confrontation - all the stuff that keeps the ratings high.

This is only streamlining what's gone on from the start as the editors choose what we see in the peaktime programme. They can show housemates in a certain light or as a certain type by clever editing.

The Big Brother class of 2004 needed to be more outrageous than ever after the criticism levelled at last year's show whose winner, a religious virgin who ran a fish company, was hardly the stuff of the media's dreams.

How much better if contestants - which they must be called as there's a cash prize at the end - are quirky and temperamental. Researchers deserve a bonus for serving up a mix of housemates destined to rub each other up the wrong way, except Michelle and Stu who gave the programme its first adult bonk. They were beaten to the dirty deed by a pair of teenagers in the junior edition last year.

You had to admire Geordie Michelle, the mortgage advisor who wants to be a glamour model, as she constructed a love nest under a table so the prying cameras couldn't see her and Stu do it. All viewers witnessed were two pairs of entwined feet and some heavy breathing.

The nation turned against Michelle as she became increasingly possessive of her chicken Stu and showed signs of being a potential bunnyboiler. Given the chance in a public vote, a whopping 1.5 million viewers voted for her to leave.

On Wednesday, Stu was the surprising choice to get his marching orders after another public vote. Clearly, the nation doesn't adore the lovebirds as much as they do each other.

The ten tumultuous weeks have seen such activities as nude lawnmowing, steamy hot tub sessions, the infamous licking of jam from nipples, a violent row that resulted in police being called by viewers and more bad language than you'd hear in a Martin Scorsese gangster movie. This wild bunch have been only too willing to bare both body and soul under the glare of the hidden cameras.

Big Brother has done his best to be evil and warped by reducing the prize money when housemates failed the weekly task, taking away food and drink when they disobeyed the rules, and asking them to drink saltwater, cod liver oil and fish milkshakes.

The idea was to put the housemates under such intense psychological pressure that they'd lose their cool and lash out at each other. Mind games rather than physical tasks were the keynote this year.

There was conflict from the very start. Kitten, who described herself as a political activist, was evicted in the first week for refusing to obey Big Brother. Emma was evicted after a rumpus in which objects were allegedly thrown.

Housemates formed two camps, The Jungle Cats and the Harem. Marco, with his hand-clapping and giggles, was in a camp camp of his own. Former asylum seeker Ahmed was a loner who annoyed housemates by claiming to be too ill to do sentry duty during boot camp week.

And then, following student Stu's eviction, there were four. Nadia, the Portuguese transsexual, goes into the final tonight as favourite to win the public vote. She's certainly the most fun, even managing to keep her sex change a secret from fellow housemates.

She also has a human story to tell, of the trials and tribulations of leaving her family and having surgery to change her gender. She entered Big Brother because she wants to be accepted for herself, although it's debatable if having your most intimate secrets revealed in front of millions of people is the way to go about it.

The producers would only have rubbed their hands with glee more if she'd had an affair with Incredible Hulk Jason, who regularly spends four hours a day grooming himself. His naked bottom, being rubbed lovingly with cream or fake sun tan, has been seen more than often than Michelle's breasts. Any excuse and she gave them an airing, auditioning for her desired role as a glamour model.

Jason really shouldn't be there. He only escaped eviction when Victor and Shell's mock wedding descended into a barrage of f- and c-word verbal abuse. After arriving wearing nothing but a leopard skin thong and bow tie, preening air steward Jason has become a real misery guts and the most hated man in the house.

Quite how art student Shell has managed to stay in the house is a mystery too as she's generally regarded as too nice to incite the public to vote her a winner. But she has shown another side with lawn-mowing in the buff and that expletive-ridden barney with bridegroom Victor.

The most serious challenge to Nadia being crowned the winner is Hull hairdresser Daniel, a gay man who claims only to sleep with straight men. He's become the house mediator and master of the barbed insult.

But the bookmakers are confident that Nadia will romp home - following previous Big Brother winners Craig Phillips, Brian Dowling, Kate Lawler and Cameron Stout.

Her reward, apart from a large wad of cash, will be massive public exposure (although you may think you've seen all of her already) and a new career. Previous Big Brother winners, and even some of the losers, have found careers as TV presenters, or full-time celebrities at the very least. Others have returned to obscurity. How many can recall housemates such as Andrew Davidson, Caroline O'Shea, Stuart Hosking, Lee Davey or even last year's Stephanie Coldicott?

Somehow I don't think that a larger than life character like Nadia will return quietly to a normal existence away from the cameras.

* The Big Brother final begins on C4 tonight at 8.30pm.

Published: 06/08/2004