This July will mark 20 years since Davina McCall launched the first ever series of Big Brother, and ahead of a special retrospective show (due to air this weekend), I’m feeling incredibly nostalgic about it.
With many of us still stuck indoors after weeks and weeks on end, the most influential reality show of all time feels more relevant than ever.
And with the dust now settled on those last few Channel 5 runs, we can start to seriously pine for a well-handled, back-to-basics comeback.
I for one was obsessed with Big Brother. And when I say obsessed, I mean O-B-S-E-S-S-E-D. I was so into it that I once intercepted the post so my dad wouldn’t see how many times I called to vote on the phone bill (as if he wouldn’t end up having to pay it anyway).
I was so into it that I stuck posters up around my school telling people to evict or save certain housemates. And I was so into it that, in a GCSE mock exam circa-2004, I instead sat and wrote out a set of predicted nominations so I could figure out if my favourite housemates were in danger of leaving that week.
I stayed with it through the Channel 5 years too, or at least most of them.
Emma Willis was just as brilliant as Davina (remember her interview with noted homophobe Winston McKenzie? Or her facial expression during that ‘chat’ with Roxanne Pallett?).
Even though my excitement definitely waned over the last few series, some of them were among the best ever.
See, even though it got more complex and twist-heavy as time went on, Big Brother was – at its core – an extremely simple format: lock strangers in a house, see how they interact, vote them out one by one.
And like The X Factor in its heyday, or Love Island now, it just gripped millions of us. Friday night evictions were a must-see event (‘GET GRACE OUT!’), comedy moments would go on to become evergreen memes (hello, Gemma Collins in CBB17!), and – most interestingly – the relationships between different housemates, and different groups of housemates, would give us plenty to analyse and discuss.
It wasn’t just pioneering in terms of its format, either; or the way in which it completely set the pace for all reality TV in years to come. In the early days in particular, its success depended on bringing together housemates from different walks of life, resulting in some truly exciting representation.
Given the current exhausting media discourse around trans issues and around Brexit, it’s uplifting to think that – back in 2004, when many of us were far more ignorant – Madeira-born trans woman Nadia Almada not only won, but became one of the most popular people in the country.
Who else remembers her iconic one-off single A Little Bit Of Action? Because I sure as hell do!
The public crowned another trans winner in 2012 when Luke Anderson was the clear victor of season 13. And we voted in two gay male champions: Brian Dowling in season two, and Cameron Cole in the 19th (and final) civilian run.
Out lesbian Anna Nolan was the runner-up of the first ever series, and who will ever forget the euphoric moment when drag queen Shane Jenek/Courtney Act triumphed over evil – sorry, Ann Widdecombe – in the penultimate Celebrity season in 2018?
Dowling’s win, in particular, felt huge. Although I was nowhere near fully realising my own sexuality at the time (I was 12), I can certainly remember his journey and immense popularity striking a chord.
I can even kind of remember being encouraged by the fact that my mum was among the 4million who voted for him to win (I, full disclosure, voted for Helen).
Other winners included Pete Bennett, who was credited by the Tourette’s Syndrome Association for ‘[putting] Tourette’s on the map’; model Sophie Reade, who overcame assumptions that she’d be out by week three and plastered over lads’ mags by week four; and Sam Evans, who was born with 70-80 per cent hearing loss.
It must be said, though, that when it came to race, Big Brother’s track record on diversity massively slipped – and if the show were to return, that’s one area in which producers (in terms of casting and editing) and viewers (with our votes) would both have to do better.
While run-of-the-mill straight white men often made it to the final (and often won) just for being inoffensive and looking nice with their shirts off, Brian Belo was the only black winner across 19 ‘ordinary’ and 21 Celebrity cycles.
On the Celebrity version, Indian superstar Shilpa Shetty was the only woman of colour to even reach the final two – and she had to endure horrific racist bullying along the way.
Meanwhile, only three black women ever made it to the final of CBB: two of them (Lisa I’Anson and Traci Bingham) were chucked out in sixth place, and Tiffany Pollard – who should have won the legendary 2015 run for ‘David’s dead!’ alone – came a disappointing fourth.
On the civilian series, BIPOC women have never finished higher than third place; and while I didn’t see the series on which Deborah Agboola competed, I can very confidently say that Makosi Musambasi and Gina Rio should have been in serious contention for the crown.
One of my favourite writers, Yomi Adegoke, wrote in 2017: ‘Unlike white contestants who are depicted as coming from various walks of life, if we appear at all, the “black woman” is a character.
‘Her inclusion is to exacerbate stereotypes, whether it’s hypersexuality (Makosi Musambasi, Biannca Lake), anger issues (Alexandra De-Gale, Charley Uchea) or just sheer invisibility (Pauline Bennett, Vanessa McIntosh).’
So, provided there are improvements made to the casting process (and hoping the public don’t give their votes exclusively to white people), I’d love to see Big Brother back – especially the civilian edition.
It’s been long enough for us to miss it, and I think there’d be a real appetite for a return.
Bring back the Diary Room! Bring back Marcus Bentley’s dulcet tones! Bring back Davina and Emma!
With the world continuing to be an exhausting, stressful place, this kind of escapism is just what we need.
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