It’s been 20 years since Channel 4 launched a new TV show-cum-sociological experiment which saw a group of human guinea pigs agree to move into a purpose-built house for several weeks, with no contact with the outside world, and have their every move filmed 24 hours a day and broadcast to the braying British public. The show was, of course, Big Brother, and much like the authority figure from 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian classic novel it was named after, the housemates were at the mercy of both the show’s producers, who communicated with them as the voice of Big Brother, and the viewing public, who voted them out of the house one by one in what would become the ultimate twisted popularity contest.
Originally launched in the Netherlands a year earlier by John de Mol (who is also the producer behind The Voice and Deal or No Deal), the new millennium marked the turning point for the show as it began to be picked up by networks around the world and gave birth to a whole new cultural phenomenon: reality TV. Since then, there have been over 470 seasons of Big Brother broadcast in 60 countries across the globe, and it is still going strong in many of those markets, despite the UK version finally meeting its demise in 2018.
So what was the secret to its phenomenal success? On a basic level, it was an entertainment show that gave us characters to rival any fictional TV drama, including ‘Nasty’ Nick in the original UK series, tantrum-prone Nikki Grahame, who managed to break the internet before the internet was properly a thing with her “who is she?” diary room rant, and arguably the ultimate reality star, the late Jade Goody. But it also provided us with a deeper insight into the human psyche, showing what happens when ordinary people are removed from the civility of everyday life, and held up a mirror to the wider discussions going on in society by showing the experiences of people such as season five winner Nadia, who had transitioned from male to female.
Now editorial director at Bauer Media, Lucie Cave was working at the media company’s gossip mag Heat when Big Brother first launched in the UK, and the team decided to take a punt on making one of the contestants, Andy Davidson, its first ‘non-celeb’ cover star. Over the years, Heat, along with the tabloid section of the nationals, would help to shape the national conversation around the show, as well as invent a whole new kind of celebrity: those who are famous simply for being themselves.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was a fan of Big Brother and what it stood for. “When you look at the first few Big Brothers, they were actually far more risky and out there in terms of playing with people’s mental health and emotions than you could ever get away with now,” says Cave. “For example, the rich-poor divide in series three, or the strip poker game which saw Jade take all her clothes off. There was a public humiliation – which back then was seen as an acceptable social experiment – that would never be done now.”