“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
This Orwellian concept, outlined in 1984 alongside the all-seeing eye of Big Brother, accurately describes my mental state when I heard about the fate of the godfather of modern reality television.
It’s true, Big Brother the show isn’t what it once was. But what it once was, in television terms, is still groundbreaking.
Channel 5’s decision to axe both the civilian and celebrity versions of the show perhaps was inevitable. The format has proved remarkably resilient over the past 18 years, surviving what many thought would be a terminal leap from Channel 4 to Channel 5 in 2011, continuing to command media attention for the right and the wrong reasons – but it has felt, for some time, like it has been flagging.
- Big Brother producers “excited about future possibilities” for the show in the UK after Channel 5 axing
It’s become harder to distinguish the ‘celebrities’ in CBB from the ‘civilians’ in BB. The themes of the seasons have become increasingly high-concept while simultaneously convoluted. And although audiences by Channel 5 standards have remained respectable, Big Brother has largely failed to capture the imagination of a new generation of reality fans in the way that Love Island has over on ITV2.
That said, it’s hard to forget the splash the show first made in 2000 when John de Mol’s ‘social experiment’ first hit our screens. The idea of ten people being sealed away from the world for 64 days in a custom built house in east London captured the imagination of both the public and the media.
The show harnessed the emerging power of the internet to stream the housemates 24 hours a day on the web, while Davina McCall (and the voice of Marcus Bentley) brought us regular TV updates on Channel 4. Viewers would ultimately decide which of these fairly ordinary members of the public won the £70,000 prize. It was an instant success, with an average audience of over 4.5 million watching series one, rising to nearly 6 million in series two.
Big Brother created tabloid heroes and villains and household names. Its alumni include Jade Goody, Alison Hammond and Brian Dowling – but much more than the people it elevated to stardom, the show quickly became a blueprint for a new age of television.
Yes, there had always been ‘normal people’ on television, but in the past they had usually been showcasing a talent on Opportunity Knocks or New Faces, or showing off their knowledge on quiz shows. The people on Big Brother were becoming famous simply for being on the telly, being ‘themselves’.
In an age of YouTubers and Instagramers and social influencers and Love Island and Towie and Geordie Shore, this sounds unremarkable – but in the early noughties in the UK, this was something to write home about.
Big Brother wasn’t just making stars of the housemates: it made Davina McCall a household name, while E4 spin-off presenter Russell Brand thanked the channel for “taking the risk of employing an ex-junkie twerp” when he left the show after three years, saying, “Big Mouth has afforded me opportunities that are too exciting to turn down.”
The inspired twist for the reality behemoth was the launch of its celebrity sister show. Beginning as an understated and very short-run show in 2001 (how could you get celebrities to give up more than a few weeks?), CBB quickly became almost as popular as the original social experiment.
Only six celebs went into the house for that first run, and they only stayed for eight days. Won by Jack Dee, who shared the space with Keith Duffy, Anthea Turner, Vanessa Feltz, Claire Sweeney and Chris Eubank, this was a far cry from the sprawling, glossy, big budget series of CBB that Ryan Thomas won just a few days ago.
CBB, like its civilian alter ego, was an instant hit, and just like the original show it grew quickly in size, scale and ambition. For many years to come it became the go-to place for media intrigue, controversy and sensation. From politicians acting like cats and celebrities talking to chickens to accusations of racism and sexism – the show always delivered.
And just as Big Brother made it normal for TV viewers to watch people with no discernible talent doing nothing, Celebrity Big Brother made it normal to have people famous for doing something doing nothing on the telly.
Welcome to almost every entertainment format on TV today.
Whatever you may think of the show – what it was, and what it became in the latter stages – Big Brother has been a huge influence on television in Britain and around the world. It made reality TV normal; it changed everything.
When you next tune in to an entertainment show, remember this: Big Brother is watching you… and more than likely, whatever’s on your TV was probably made by someone who watched Big Brother.