Who’s watching Big Brother?
The show that kicked off the reality TV boom is coming back – but should it? The creators and stars of the original series consider the impact of a cultural disruptor
Words: Phil Harrison “
CULTURE | SCREEN
By now, almost every aspect of modern life has been filtered through eliminative reality TV formats. The search for love. The search for gainful employment. The universal human desire to spend more time in the company of Alan Sugar. In 2023, jaded by the emotional excesses of Love Island and the comical indignities of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, it is amazing to remember exactly how analogue and stark the beginnings of reality TV were. But that doesn’t mean those beginnings weren’t monumental. They were, in television terms, epochdefining. Big Brother is set to return for a second reboot this autumn and, in the pyrotechnic light of the shows it has spawned, it’s possible that the revival will seem underwhelming. Over the course of summer 2000, the show took spectacular flight – and TV has never been quite the same since. But what was it like for the unwitting pioneers at the heart of the first Big Brother? And how did we get from there to here? As befitting the social experiment it apparently was, the first season of Big Brother was austere. The look was “penal chic”. Food and booze had to be earned. “We actually had the feeling in the first few weeks that nobody was watching it,” recalls Anna Nolan, runner-up in the first series. “It was so gentle. They were asking us to bake bread and learn morse code. There were chickens and a vegetable patch!” Ruth Wrigley, who produced the show, remembers a distinct tentativeness coming from higher up. “People forget this but it was commissioned to go out at 11pm at night. Originally, it was only three days a week and scheduled around the cricket. One of the key battles I won was convincing them that this had to be on every single night.” Necessity being the mother of invention, the show quickly began churning out technical innovations. “It seems old-fashioned now but the key thing about that first series was we turned the episodes round in 24 hours,” says Wrigley. Making a show and broadcasting it the following evening had never been done before – it would usually take four to five weeks. That was revolutionary.” Of course, none of this would have mattered if the product itself wasn’t making waves. Inside the house there was a taciturn Irish farmer (Tom), a skateboarding former nun (Anna), a buff scouse builder (Craig) and a tofu-fixated aspiring yogi (Sada). There was also a stick of human dynamite, in the shape of “Nasty” Nick Bateman. But here, too, there was an element of happy accident. “As we got close to signing off on the cast, we realised that the one thing we were missing was a white, heterosexual, posh male!” says Wrigley. “Nick was our last choice and we weren’t really that sure. He ticked a box. Which goes to show how little control you really have!” The ructions that ensued gave the format wings, and his calm, principled leadership made a star of season one winner Craig Phillips. “Nick came from a very different background from me and most of the others in there,” says Phillips. “He was very welleducated and he made more money than anyone else there. I think he just thought he could outsmart us.” The kitchen table showdown (after Bateman was discovered trying to rig the eviction process using – the sheer horror of it! – some forbidden paper and a pen) remains a startling watch. It self-generates many of the traditional tropes of British drama. It’s unembellished and lengthy as most of the housemates take a turn in the prosecutor’s stand. Cameras zoom in to incredulous and guilty faces and stay there. Nolan points out that the eviction controversy wasn’t Bateman’s first or even worst deception. “The story about his partner dying in a car crash, he told quite early on. There was a level of deviousness about him that he was willing to take to quite an extreme place. If you’re telling that story, people are going to want to look out for you. You’re demanding a huge amount of attention.” Speaking to the show’s host, Davina McCall, after his eviction, Bateman admitted: “I think perhaps this kind of environment has brought out the worst in me.” While he was the first reality TV contestant to feel this way, he probably wasn’t the last. But in some ways, Bateman made a beginner’s mistake. He attempted to manipulate the other housemates but forgot that the whole nation was his judge and jury. He’d acted as if he was simply a contestant on a gameshow. It was becoming clear that Big Brother was much more than that. It was the defining TV format of its era, in embryo. “Big Brother had a massive idea at its core,” says Wrigley. “Watch and judge. Who is evicted? You decide. That’s taken for granted now – people pass judgment on Twitter, vote on their phones and so on. But back then, programmes didn’t do that. You didn’t have the ability as a viewer to affect the outcome of a show.” This was the key to its diversification. It produced human drama that was all the more intense for being unscripted. And viewers could then wield true power and affect the unfolding narrative. The consequences were striking. Phillips recalls needing a security detail for months after the show ended. Meanwhile, Nolan remembers walking into a pub in Walthamstow, north-east London, “and the whole pub stood and applauded!” This format, or variations of it, was clearly going to run and run. Over subsequent years, Big Brother tried a myriad of variations – evil, sexy, excessively drunken – to keep the buzz alive. Housemates became homogenised. Questions arose about voyeurism, exploitation and duty of care. And careers were made from appearances on the show – which fed into the next developments. Ruth Wrigley worked on the first iteration of Celebrity Big Brother (which was initially conceived as an element of the 2001 Comic Relief fundraiser) and recalls the dawning realisation that, cast properly, the show was infinitely adaptable. “The D-listers were incredible,” she says. “We knew it would work when Chris Eubank came into the living room on a scooter, in a kaftan.” From here, it was a short step to another new format – Wrigley was also at the heart of the initial rise of the scripted reality of The Only Way Is Essex. “In terms of the direction of celebrity culture there are two big turning points,” she says. “Magazines like Hello! and Heat were running out of things to do with ‘real’ celebrities. And people from Big Brother filled that gap. So they got their 15 minutes and whatever they were paid. And Towie took it to another level – those magazines could not survive without reality stars.” In other words, the culture became symbiotic and self-sustaining. It also, inevitably, became formulaic. There is a paradox at the heart of reality TV. The situation the first Big Brother housemates found themselves in was compelling, not in spite of but precisely because the people involved were relatable and recognisable. In terms of casting, this everyman normality couldn’t be sustained beyond the first couple of series. But, equally, the kind of extremity eventually produced by the show became unpleasant and boring. Accordingly, there are big questions for the producers of the latest version. “If they’re going to change anything for this new series, they should take things back to basics,” says Phillips. “Try not to interfere and try not to make it nasty. If it rolls out with no arguments, go with that. I do feel as if it lost its way. They put more and more money behind it, they got more and more extreme people involved. As a viewer, I personally feel a little bit offended by that because it presumes everybody wants to watch people fall out.” For Wrigley, it’s more fundamental. “I hope they’ve got a big idea,” she says. “The first series had this very big idea at its core: Who wins? You decide. So what is the next iteration? What power are you giving to the viewer? Love Island is a good example of a show that speaks directly to its generation. Who does the new Big Brother speak to?” For better or worse, we are about to find out. The reboot of Big Brother will air this autumn on ITV2. thing is that it helped me keep my shit together in jail.” In the end, the demos resulted in a reported $3-4m deal. The huge figure has led to accusations that Fike was an “industry plant”: a manufactured blend of pop, rock, rap and cheekbones – except with added authenticity via his face tattoos, struggles with addiction and jail time. “All I know is I’m pushing forward regardless of expectation,” he says. “When you look at somebody like fucking Harry Styles, that’s just a well-oiled machine, they really just have perfected a formula that is fitting for this one guy or this one idea.” The role of Dominic Fike: Pop Star is one he has attempted to play on songs with Brockhampton, Halsey and Justin Bieber. He even covered Paul McCartney’s The Kiss of Venus; the song was released as the lead single from the remix album McCartney III Imagined and drew lavish praise from the man himself. “I spent a couple of days taking a crack at it after it was confirmed to be a real opportunity,” Fike recalls. “You’ve got to fact-check things like that. It’s like [a pop-up] you’d see on your computer: ‘You’ve won a million dollars!’” Fike, who is of Filipino, Haitian and African-American descent, grew up in the retirement town of Naples, Florida. Both his parents were heroin addicts, although his father was barely present. His mum was in and out of jail and her frequent absence meant he and his siblings had to take care of each other from a young age. Fike’s traumatic childhood was exacerbated by his own “overdoing it” with drugs and alcohol. “Whatever drug I would do, I’d do too much of it – to [the point of] a neardeath, surreal experience. I just kind of thought that was how you did drugs – to go all the way there without dying,” he says. If Fike’s music has not quite turned him into a household name, the same “it” that made him catnip to label executives also caught the attention of Hollywood casting agents. And in Euphoria, Fike hit the jackpot. The show is arguably the defining portrait of gen Z and in Elliot, the mysterious guitar-playing drug addict who comes between Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer), Fike has found a perfect fit – not least because the role had striking parallels with his own situation at the time. Was he at all worried about managing his problem on the set of a show about drug addicts? “I was using at the time, but I wasn’t worried. I was more like … psyched!” he beams. “And then Sam [Levinson, creator and showrunner] was like: ‘We’ll get you a sober coach,’ and I was like: ‘Yeah dude, that’s fine: sober coach.’ I just did not care. I was pretty addicted to shit.” Fike’s Euphoria co-star Angus Cloud died of a suspected overdose in July. Like Fike, Cloud was cast despite having no previous acting experience and also struggled with addiction issues on set. Despite being high during several of his scenes, and almost getting kicked off the show as a result, Fike remained, and received rave reviews. While his performance may owe something to method acting, it’s clear Euphoria’s impact has been life-changing for him. If Fike’s music career to date has been less satisfying, it’s because his talent as a singer, rapper and guitarist only means so much when set against a three-headed Cerberus of limitations: his addiction issues; the imperatives of the pop “machine”; and expectations so lofty as to be more hindrance than hype. Press reaction to his music has, on occasion, been savage. Take, for instance, Pitchfork’s withering review of his 2020 debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong, which described it as sounding “exactly like a label executive’s idea of the future”. The reception to his recent second album, Sunburn, has been similarly mixed. There are undoubtedly steps forward such as Dancing in the Courthouse, an appropriately hazy rumination on his traumatic youth that moves from introspective verses to a defiant chorus, and the Rivers Cuomo-assisted Think Fast, which showcases Fike’s vocal range between strains of Weezer’s Undone (The Sweater Song). Elsewhere, the record is littered with decent, if occasionally anaemic, guitar pop, perhaps the result of Fike’s desire to get a bunch of tunes off his hard drive, having given fans hardly any new music since his 2020 debut. “I had an unhealthy relationship with releasing music into the public, and I needed to get over it,” he says. If Sunburn feels casual, well, that’s because it is. Of course, there is nothing wrong with releasing a loose, sunlit collection of radio-friendly pop, but it hasn’t shifted the units Fike would have hoped, peaking at No 30 in the US and No 56 in the UK. But the album’s underwhelming performance has not shaken confidence in Fike. There will be more music and another series of Euphoria to back up his undeniable talent. But what might genuine stardom mean for a young man with a history of addiction and a family background as complex and traumatic as Fike’s? For now, he is in recovery but he is clearly conscious that sobriety holds the key to the smooth functioning of the “Dominic Fike machine”. “If I have some coke, everyone around me feels it,” he says. “I’ll stop saying thank you, I’ll just be hungover. It really has a domino effect.” He even contrasts his situation directly with stars in the highest tiers of the pop galaxy: “I’m looking at all my peers and even referring to addiction, I’ll be hanging with my boy Justin [Bieber] and he’ll have a glass of tequila in his hand and it’s funny. I’ll be like: I wish I could do that … be this huge pop star and have a drink and not have a bunch of anxiety. But I fucking can’t do it: I tried.” There is an idea of Dominic Fike, one that so far has been defined by instability, addiction and the weight of other people’s expectations. To be that “well-oiled” machine as he calls it, he needs more time away from the spotlight: days in the studio, in the gym, or simply messing around at his computer, guitar in hand. The problem then is that between his origin story, his role on Euphoria and quite frankly, the face tattoos, there’s a danger he has already been typecast in real life. He is the mysterious addict with the Florida drawl and the sexy thick mane, seemingly sent here to drive teenagers and their algorithms wild. Whether a permanent stint in that role will allow him the space to pursue sobriety remains to be seen. If he can, there’s a danger that genuine stardom is imminent. Dominic Fike tours the UK from Monday to 24 September; tour starts Glasgow.