A phenomenon when it first aired in the summer of 2000, public indifference eventually brought an end to Big Brother. The show – which transformed the nature of TV and celebrity – was dropped by Channel 5 after its 19th series ended in November. There are no more scheduled for now, but a revival at some point in the future feels almost inevitable.
Even as average viewership dwindled to an all-time low of 1 million for its final edition, Big Brother remained a cultural touchstone – a key, and undeniably resilient, feature of the televisual landscape. Despised by some, loved by others, and in the end largely ignored by pretty much everyone, it seemed to plough on regardless. The show’s belated passing saw it mourned by loyal fans, and its legacy widely discussed by the media at large.
Big Brother ushered in a new age of television, where the public were given the power to decide contestants' fates, and where ordinary people could be plucked from obscurity to become famous simply for being themselves. It was a tantalising prospect for participants and observers alike, and spawned a slew of imitators in the now ubiquitous "reality TV" genre.
There was a stark contrast between the first series and what followed years later. The whole show initially looked and felt rather different from the brash pantomime it would turn into. Tucked away in a late-night slot on Channel 4 when it launched, Big Brother soon became something of a national obsession, despite the lack of hype, creative editing and confrontation we would come to expect.
"It was the first big, mainstream reality show," says executive producer Ruth Wrigley. "I think it was low-key because so much else about it was new. The whole concept. Everything. From how it looked, to what it was asking. How it was made, to how it was consumed. You're asking people to watch and judge, and that hadn't happened before."
The first series established new ground. The contestants had never seen the show before, so they went in without any guidelines or former contestants to compare themselves to. "They had no idea how it looked or how to behave," Ruth explains, "and it became a bit more problematic further down the line when people going into Big Brother knew what it was and how to play the game, so would present a version of themselves. They knew what they were doing."
Big Brother first launched in the Netherlands, where its early success on a small digital channel caught Ruth’s attention while she was working for Bazal Productions. She championed its cause and the idea of a UK version gained traction due to a takeover by Endemol, the company responsible for the original. Channel 4, with its fondness for experimental formats, was tempted to take the plunge.
"The other thing that people forget about Big Brother is that the first series was on at 11 o'clock at night," says Ruth. "It was a late-night, risky social experiment. It wasn't a big, in-your-face entertainment show. The term 'reality TV' didn’t even exist. The show won loads of awards, but they were for things like best entertainment show, best features programme, best factual. Nobody knew what it was."
After initially scheduling Big Brother for three shows a week, scattered around their cricket coverage, Channel 4’s commissioning editor Tim Gardam ultimately agreed to broadcast it every night, except Saturdays, for the duration of its run. It was a huge commitment for him, and the housemates too. Out of more than 45,000 applicants, ten were chosen to take part in a strange new show for which there was no precedent. Anna Nolan was one of them.
"I was bored senseless in my job," she says. "I was really at a crossroads and didn't know what to do with my life. The appeal of it was just that it was something completely different. The Dutch show, which was the very first one, just sounded fascinating. I suppose I thought I could do it – I could survive – and I liked the idea of getting involved in a social experiment.
"Deep down, I suppose I was hoping for a big change in my life. I wanted to experience something new, but I really wanted a big shift in what I was doing and where I was going. I thought it could be an opportunity to open doors and introduce me to a brand new world. When I went in I was working as an office administrator, so I had absolutely nothing to lose."
Although Anna had a sense of the programme's potential, those closest to her didn't. "They were really not bothered. They couldn't comprehend what the show was, so there was general apathy all-round. I invited some friends out for drinks the night before, and to do this big reveal about what I was doing. I think they let me speak for about ten seconds and then they moved on to something else. Nobody could really grasp that it was of any significance at all."
The original housemates were unwitting pioneers, feeling their way through a process nobody quite understood. They would spend up to 64 days in the Big Brother house, having their every action filmed and broadcast to a nationwide audience. As well as the nightly highlights show, there was a live stream running on the Channel 4 website.
"Lots of people, and lots of journalists in particular, took the stance that it was going to be like watching paint dry. Or, if you were the Daily Mail, it was Sodom and Gomorrah. They went into some kind of apoplexy about how it was the end of civilisation as we know it. That people would just be having sex all day, every day," recalls Ruth.
The reality was quite different – oddly compelling and curiously uncategorisable. Part high-minded social experiment, part lowbrow voyeurism, it didn’t fit neatly into any existing genre. Indeed, it was often referred to as a gameshow by reviewers, and even the housemates themselves. Nevertheless, millions would watch every day.
"It was a brave new world of TV making. I think a lot of viewers tuned in because it was something completely new and different," says Gigi Eligoloff, one of the ten show producers for the first series. "You were seeing people in a new way, and one that was perhaps more authentic than ever before because it wasn't cut for entertainment; it was cut to reflect what was happening.
"It was about representing those 24 hours in however many minutes, and being true to that. What was lovely was that you could tell stories in a very slow and measured way, and people could see human behaviour unfolding in all its weird shapes and sizes, and moods and tones. That was a real joy for the programme makers and viewers at that point."
Although the audience figures in those early weeks were impressive considering the nature of the programme, its channel and its time slot, the "Nasty Nick" incident took Big Brother to another level entirely. Caught trying to influence his fellow housemates’ nominations by writing names on pieces of paper he'd hidden away, Nick Bateman became an infamous hate figure. The number of viewers doubled, to 6.9million, for the day of the reveal.
"It seems pathetic now that he was on the front page of every newspaper, reviled as the devil – 'Is this man evil?' – and all he'd done was lie, be a bit two-faced and written a few names on a piece of paper. Those sort of things wouldn't even be noticed today in a reality show, but it was the national conversation," says Ruth. "The world went mad. He came out of that house and I was going to a press conference with him and people were banging on the van. There were crowds in the streets like you'd got a mass murderer or a pop star with you."
For Anna and the other housemates, the controversy was a welcome distraction from an enclosed and often mundane existence. Beyond the shopping, the weekly task and nominations, there wasn’t much scheduled activity. The "Nasty Nick" dispute seemed to invigorate everyone.
"That was brilliant in terms of how we were all so upset, and offended, and disgusted. We'd been cheated," laughs Anna. "It was Shakespearean drama at the lowest level – over a pen. But god, we had nothing else to be thinking about. There was nothing else going on in our world so this meant everything to us.
"We'd been playing by the rules, and somebody hadn't, so it was war. The confrontation was so exciting. I was quite nervous about confronting somebody, with the potential for them to be booted off the show. I'd say the producers were high-fiving each other for days on end. It couldn't have been any better for them. It was great fun, when all I'd done for the previous four days was wash knickers."
Nick’s rule-breaking saw him removed from the house, and Craig Phillips, who had led the inquest, became the show’s moral centre and the favourite to win. It was a stirring morality tale and a triumph of casting – the errant public schoolboy exposed by the good-hearted Scouse bricklayer.
Craig would go on to claim victory, beating Anna by the narrowest of margins in a final that was watched by 10 million, as 7 million votes were cast. Both the finalists have since worked in TV. Anna has been a presenter and a producer, realising the change in her life that she’d hoped for when she speculatively sent in her application form 19 years ago.
"I had a very positive experience. It worked out well for me. Others, it didn't work out for. You can have a very tough time. You can get incredibly lonely. You can be misunderstood. You can feel bullied. You might expect too much from the whole experience. But I had a wonderful experience. It was year one; I had nothing to compare it to. None of us would get onto year four or five. We didn't have the over-the-top, outgoing personalities that came into the show years later."
Big Brother was a groundbreaking success, garlanded with awards and critical acclaim, but, as Anna says, there was a certain purity and innocence to the first series that could never be repeated. In retrospect, there was also something charmingly understated about it. None of the tawdriness and over-engineered drama that characterised a programme chasing ratings, and its own tail, as time wore on.
For the most part, those involved in Big Brother’s early days still speak fondly of their experiences and how it felt to be at the centre of such a perfect storm – an innovative format suited to a new digital age, intriguing characters placed into an unusual and demanding environment, and a developing scandal that ensured reality TV was here to stay.
"I'm really proud of what we did," says Gigi. "It changed the landscape of television – some people might say for better, some might say for worse – but it was something that was truly revolutionary. Something that was truly different. I think it's very rare to see TV that does that anymore."
"I think it was probably my career highlight," adds Ruth. "I've done some other big shows that I've really enjoyed, but it was the best thing I've ever done in terms of what I learned and what I got from it on a professional and personal level. It ended up sort of becoming a caricature of itself, but I'm still very proud of the work I did on it."