I’ll be honest. I was a little wary when I first got the invitation. A chance to go behind the scenes of arguably the most influential TV shows of the noughties? Count me in. Except that, well, Big Brother doesn’t hold quite the same appeal as it used to. In all fairness, few programmes even make it to their twelfth year. And they certainly don’t manage to leave an indelible decade-long imprint on the public consciousness. But there it is, still taking pride of place in the schedules, like a stubborn red wine spill that no amount of Vanish will shift.
During the show’s first few years I was an unapologetic fan. Pulled in by the promise of lesbian nuns and manipulative city boys with bad skin, I loved the social experiment angle, and marvelled at how its canny producers could make compelling TV out of a cockney tripping over a coffee table, or a bald law student throwing up on a kiddie’s roundabout. Then something changed. The contestants became self-aware, like Skynet all over again. Only instead of waging a machine-led war on humanity, they lined up to debase themselves in front of an increasingly disbelieving audience. By the time Kinga went into the garden and redefined the term ‘box of wine’, audience tolerance was decidedly on the wane.
Big Brother’s popularity was always predicated on its ability to fuel those all-important water cooler conversations. So as audience numbers dipped, loyal viewers found fewer and fewer people to talk about it with. The water went unsipped, and the housemates faded into obscurity, even before they’d left the compound.
I don’t know whether to be relieved, or disappointed that I haven’t spent more time in police interrogation rooms.
So here we are in year twelve, and I’m standing in the cold at Elstree, waiting to meet Jamie East – creator of Holy Moly and co-host of Big Brother’s Bit On The Side– who’ll be my guide for the evening. The show is now a flagship title on Five, and has undergone something of a makeover during its defection. Most notably, we now get constant reminders of the contestants’ names flashing up on screen whenever they appear, in case we’re suffering from anterograde amnesia. It’s like watching Memento restaged as a reality show.
Having sorted out guest passes and a chaperone, we surrender our mobile phones and enter the compound. The first thing that catches my eye is a yellow sign over the main door that reads “Warning, demolition in progress.” I’m unsure as to whether it refers to construction work on the set, or what’s happening to the housemates’ reputations as they dress as chickens and try not to s*** themselves. As we enter the gloom of the camera run which circumnavigates the entire set, I find my voice has dropped to a barely audible whisper. I’m petrified of saying or doing anything that will alert the housemates to our presence. Which seems a little unnecessary, given that the entire floor is creakier than an orgy with the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. With the hushed tones, labyrinthine corridors and men standing in corners watching other people with focused intensity, it’s like visiting a Berlin darkroom. Or so I’m told.
Jamie’s used to being in here, and confidently throws open a black drape to reveal Aaron and Faye on a special date. I discover later that this was a prize for Faye successfully completing a secret task called ‘Diss and Kiss’. Staring through the window at the awkward couple who are clueless about our voyeuristic interest, we realise that their date has been catered by Nandos. And by the looks of things, the Macho Peas aren’t a hit. In fact, they’ve been placed on the floor at the side of the table. See folks - the devil’s in the details.
Leaving the happy couple to their rapidly cooling dinner, we move around to the main part of the house. Each time Jamie sweeps open another drape to reveal the brightly lit space beyond, I keep expecting to see a penguin swimming past the window. Or at least the pale-faced kid from Salem’s Lot. I’m immediately struck by how small the house is – on TV it makes the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse look pokey, but in real life it’s more like a student bedsit. And to say that the housemates have been in there less than a fortnight, it’s already a dump. Fingers crossed that Shake ‘n’ Vac is working on an Agent Orange special edition.
The rest of the housemates are eating a home-cooked meal, and bizarrely, I can smell it. As inconsequential as these details might seem, it's a powerful reminder that the characters I’m watching through the window are real people living their lives. We’ve been standing here for five minutes and Jamie tells me that he often finds himself staring transfixed at nothing in particular. Suddenly, I notice that Heaven is looking directly at me, and she doesn’t look happy. Admittedly, she never looks happy, but she seems really p***** off that I’m watching her. And then I’m back in the room, realising that she’s just watching herself in the mirror. I don’t know whether to be relieved, or disappointed that I haven’t spent more time in police interrogation rooms.
There it is, still taking pride of place in the schedules, like a stubborn red wine spill that no amount of Vanish will shift.
Once our circuit is complete, Jamie invites me to look around the main production office. Countless screens are relaying camera feeds from every corner of the house, and the producers are seemingly oblivious to the action taking place. Then again, maybe two blondes giving each other half-hearted pedicures doesn’t qualify as must-see TV. In the corner is the Big Brother booth, the sound-proofed office where producers address the house as the big guy himself. I notice a series of ‘How To’ guides on the wall, to help them counsel the housemates through any problems they’re encountering. Number one appears to be ‘constipation’, which I can totally understand. Although most of the Big Brother experience wouldn’t faze me, going about my ablutions in a room with a CCTV camera (even one pointing away from me) would have me corked like a French vintage. And if I managed to survive the whole series, forget about Senokot, they’d have to saw me in half.
Later on, after watching a block rehearsal of Bit On The Side and sharing a beer with Terry Christian, I’m invited to join the studio audience for the show’s live recording. The rest of the crowd seems to be regulars here, and scream with excitement when first evictee Tashie enters the studio to take her place on the panel. It’s strange that they could be so thrilled to see someone who, ten weeks previously, could have been serving them in Domino’s Pizza. Tashie’s come dressed to impress, in a pair of denim shorts so tiny that, when she bends over in front of me for a bell-ringing task, I can see bogeys.
As the show progresses, I suddenly realise three things in rapid succession. Firstly, leather jackets and hot studio lights make for an uncomfortable mix. Secondly, I can’t whoop. The studio managers might encourage the audience to go crazy, but the best I can manage is a half-hearted lip-synch, letting my fellow fans make all the noise. And finally, Big Brother has got its hooks in me. Here we go again…
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