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Big Brother series 1 opening credits
The opening credits of Big Brother series 1

Rewatching the first ever series of Big Brother can teach us a lot

Both about reality TV, and more importantly, about ourselves

Last week, in a bid to fill the gaping hole in my evenings/life where Love Island once was, I decided I’d take a trip down memory lane and waste even more of my time by re-watching the first series of Big Brother. Aside from the desire to have an indulgent snoop around that iconic house again, I wanted to suss out the ten housemates chosen from over 20,000 applicants to be gawked at by the British public for nine weeks starting in July 2000. I was only 11 when the episode first aired, so naturally, these people seemed geriatric to me then. Really, the startlingly ordinary housemates’ ages actually ranged from 23 to 37: the same age bracket my friends and I fit into now.

Even though the Big Brother housemates look and sound very similar to the people I know today, the difference in our life experiences are extraordinary. The housemates had reached their mid-to-late 20s without their lives being impacted by the internet. They were fully-fledged adults who had never really seen reality TV before, didn’t have smartphones (the Nokia 3310 wouldn’t come out until September of that year) and, statistically, only 1 in 4 of them would have had access to the internet at home. The idea of constant surveillance, that cameras and machines would track their every movement, was considerably more unusual to them than it is to us. 

Sue MacGregor points out on the Big Brother episode of Radio 4’s The Reunion that because the show streamed the events in the house online 24-hours a day, it was subsequently: “the first programme on British TV to harness the enormous power of the internet.” But how did men and women engage with each other in this strange limbo period of pre- and post-internet, with no prior knowledge of what reality TV could be, or do?

After the soon-to-be iconic dark rumble of Andy Gary and Paul Oakenfold’s catchily-named “Big Brother UK TV Theme”, the pilot begins with the housemates chauffeured in individual shiny black Mercedes to a “remote location in east London” (Bow, before it moved to Elstree Studios for the second series). Right from the off, you realise that these people are unsure of how they’re supposed to act. Rather than presenting themselves as ready-made soap opera characters, they’re filmed inside their cars nervously grinning at the camera and saying: “Hi mum!”. It’s a stark difference to contestants in later series, who knew exactly how they should be crafting a first impression for the public to feast on.

As they enter the somewhat shabby house over a rickety bit of flooring with a handful of confused family and friends waving them in, the voiceover of Marcus Bentley, whose Geordie drone went on to define an era of television, introduces the show. “The ten housemates are Darren, Nicola, Craig, Anna, Nicholas, Caroline, Andrew, Melanie, Sada and Thomas. They’ve volunteered to share their lives with the nation over the next nine weeks. A production team of over 100 people work 24 hours a day. They are able to control how the house operates, from turning on the hot water (cut to someone pressing a button that reads ‘hot water’ in Comic Sans), to opening and closing doors. They monitor over 26 remote cameras, six microphones and five manned cameras hidden from view behind mirrors. Big Brother is always watching.”

Watching ourselves in 2018, when we’re used to reality TV contestants looking buff, bronzed, and amazing in swimwear, it’s weird to see that the people entering the house are just so, so average. They all wander in sporting classic, plain clothes of that era: long sleeved jumpers, factory-distressed jeans, clunky trainers. The door shuts behind them and they awkwardly, soberly move around and introduce themselves to each other. They’re honest and friendly, none showing signs of pretense or egotism.

It’s a little alarming that today, this behaviour seems odd. Then again, we’re so used to performing our own meticulously-cultivated personal brands on so many different platforms (not to mention IRL) that maybe we’re less used to just being ourselves than the housemates were. In the short clips of the cast filmed in their hometowns pre-entry, the majority of them say that the reason they think they’d be great in the house is the fact that they’d make others happy. They weren’t necessarily going in there with the desire to be the main attraction, a trait you would be hard-pushed to find in reality TV stars of today.

On the first day, the group collect chickens’ eggs, chat about who’s vegetarian (Sada, but she’s more than happy to have olive oil and spaghetti if it’s bolognese night), the girls choose their bedroom and the boys get settled into theirs. As night falls, they all sit together under blankets on sofas, leaning on each other. Nichola is knitting. The IKEA coffee table is littered with wine in plastic cups and detritus. A few of them are puffing on straights indoors and no one seems to mind. They’re so at peace with one another. It is, as we would say in 2018, very pure.

Sure, it’s only day one – but this seems like the biggest difference in terms of how reality TV was then compared to how it would be now. As one YouTube commenter notes, the show was a documentary first, gameshow second. Today meanwhile, most reality programmes feature, if not encourage, clashes of opinions, drunken quarrels, or tipsy flirting. (Think about shows like Ex on the Beach, where ex-partners are introduced in order to thwart budding relationships). The first housemates, though, nestled together on the eve of a revolutionary night of TV, just exhibit genuine human interaction. 

The girls head off to bed at 11pm, leaving the men – who begin farting at one another before wiggling their willies around next door. The next day, a pottery wheel is gifted to the housemates so they can make their own crockery as their first challenge. It’s all pretty boring – even on day two the housemates spend most of the day having a nap or kicking a football around in the garden.

But then, something remarkable happens: Nichola – an artist from Bolton – takes her clothes off and paints her naked body in wet clay from the potter’s wheel, before pressing herself up against the walls in the living area of the house. Melanie and Anna (a lesbian ex-nun), watch, calmly giggling and encouraging her. Nichola’s body makes a large brown imprint on the wall. The other girls start adding handprints. Darren comes in and, rather than seeing his new housemates covering the place in mud and getting angry, smiles and gets involved. He rallies the rest of the men, who take it in turns to pull their pants down on live TV, paint their arses and decorate the house with mud, happy to create art together.

“It’s hard to picture this spontaneous, happy-go-lucky attitude being present in anything in 2018. Love Island gave us nothing like this”

Later, they cut each others’ hair, do head massages, and Caroline plays her saxophone on her own in the garden. All smiles, all laughter, accepting one another, taking ideas and running with them. It’s hard to picture this spontaneous, happy-go-lucky attitude being present in anything in 2018. Love Island (which is essentially the same format: people who don’t know each other spending eight weeks in a house) gave us nothing like this. Yes, that could be the producers feverishly editing out anything that didn’t involve the housemates talking about their relationships with one another. But you can’t help but think how much better the show would have been if we were treated to a little bit more of what we saw on Big Brother 18 years ago. Were the stars of Love Island defined by the editing process rather than their personalities, or moulding themselves around the public’s potential opinion of them (not to mention potential endorsement deals) awaiting them on the other side of their journey?

Of course, the honeymoon period of the first few weeks of Big Brother 1 soon dissolved into moments of hardship and unpleasantness. The body-painting sessions were replaced with the housemates trying to come to terms with having to eject a friend from the house in the weekly nominations for eviction. Anna actually wrote a song on her guitar in the house called “It’s only a Gameshow” which they would sing together when they were finding it emotionally distressing to betray someone they had formed a relationship with. Then there was Nasty Nick who made a name for himself by conning the housemates into voting each other off in order to save himself. Even the confrontation they have with him is remarkably measured, each articulating their experiences and giving him a chance to tell the truth. 

Besides Nick, the housemates were sad when they waved goodbye to each other, and nine weeks in, the final three genuinely seemed to be rooting for each other to win. It’s hard to find these attitudes in reality shows these days; there’s an undercurrent of deception, desperation, and unpleasant insincerity. Participants are now acutely aware of how the mighty can fall and the favoured can prevail once the competition is over. 

As the world changes, humans of course change with it. It is incredible, though, to see what a difference 18 years can make to the way adults in their twenties and early 30s can be and act. We could never recreate what that first series of Big Brother did because we’re all far too aware of our personal brands, how to appease the public, what would make the papers, what makes a “favourite” and what kind of behaviour can invite rape and death threats over social media. With the simultaneous arrival of the internet and reality TV, the way we interact with one another or perform to the world has shifted forever.

Regardless of how peaceful they begin, reality shows more often than not descend into chaos. Romances blossom, fights erupt, wall-climbing (literally) ensues. We don’t watch these shows religiously because we want to see people having a nap or watering the vegetable patch. We watch them for the Kinga wine-bottle moments, or the race rows that end up being national headlines, or the love stories which blossom in real-time before our eyes.

Big Brother gave us all of that. It gave us something we had no idea we’d become so obsessed with. What no one could have predicted is what a beast it would turn into – but it’s nice to look back on the time when it was somewhat unblemished. Watching the first episode is a stark reminder of the different nature and characteristics of people just like us just a few years ago, before we knew what we know now, before we carried personal mic-and-camera-equipped computers on us 24/7, each becoming the Big Brother of our own lives. Perhaps it’s a good incentive to glance back in time and try to remember to be a little more like them.