Last Sunday, E4 kicked off its 20th-anniversary celebrations for the reality series Big Brother with Big Brother: Best Shows Ever. It began with a classic from the inaugural run: the eventual winner, Craig Phillips, confronting the original BB villain, “Nasty” Nick Bateman. Twenty years later, the showdown has lost none of its skin-crawling, adrenaline-juicing power.
On day 35, the housemates – down from 10 to seven – gathered around the kitchen table and sprung Bateman with a surprise interrogation. His crime? Trying to manipulate the nominations for exiting the house.
“Sorry I have to say it, Nick, but [I’m] very disappointed,” Phillips said, thus beginning the most superb telling-off in the history of British TV.
Phillips accused Nick of “plotting a very dirty plan”, and finished his cross-examination with a dramatic line of questioning: “Please explain to me – what’s your game? What’re you playing at? What’s your motive, like?”
Of the 9,000 hours of footage captured for that first series, these were the 16 minutes that made Big Brother. They shaped what the show would become – and all the reality TV that would follow – as each subsequent series dreamed up increasingly manipulative twists, hoping to create a bust-up as gripping as Craig vs Nick. Future housemates would forever accuse each other of “playing a game” (though few, if any, ever were, except when following Big Brother’s crafty machinations).
The scene gave Channel 4 its highest ratings in five years and won the series for builder Craig, who proved he was one of Big Brother’s good guys when he donated his £70,000 prize to the fund for a friend’s operation. It also handed Phillips the first taste of Big Brother winner fame. After the obligatory interview with Davina McCall, he was bundled into a car.
“It was mayhem when I came out,” Phillips tells me today. “I was quickly rushed away. It felt like I was being kidnapped – groups of bodyguards pushing me into a people carrier, people everywhere, cameras coming after me, police escorts front and back with sirens and lights on. Everybody wanted a piece of me.”
After being smuggled into a hotel, Phillips was met by the series’s psychoanalyst, Brett Kahr, who told him: “Tomorrow you will be on the front page of every national newspaper. You’ll be the most talked-about person in Britain.’”
Beginning on July 14 2000, Big Brother was adapted from a Dutch series, which had been broadcast the year before. The UK version lasted for nine weeks, created with 26 cameras, 55 microphones and 10 housemates.
In contrast to the manufactured drama and gaudiness of later series, Big Brother 1 looks amazingly dull and lo-fi now. The house was flimsy, like a student dorm made from cardboard and leftover pastel paint; the tasks were simple, such as making pottery or riding an exercise bike. The excitement levels peaked with a small (and quickly extinguished) kitchen fire.
But watching people do nothing was strangely gripping. It felt like a genuine experiment in human behaviour, and a game-changer for entertainment technology: the action (or inaction) in the house was shown non-stop online.
“I’d sit on that couch and think to myself, ‘How on Earth can you make a TV programme out of this? Who would watch this rubbish? This is boring!’” laughs Phillips. “I was very naïve. I had no concept of the power of editing.”
Speaking on Inside Big Brother, a documentary produced back in 2000, executive producer Ruth Wrigley recalled how horrified the programme-makers were by the housemates’ behaviour: stripping off, shaving their heads, drinking andplaying up to the camera.
“People in that situation could pretend to be somebody else for probably seven to eight days,” agreed Jon De Mol, co-founder of the original Dutch series. “And then the mask would fall off and the real personality would be shown.”
The one housemate whose real personality wasn’t revealed – not to the fellow contestants, at least – was Nick Bateman. By the time he was ejected, Bateman had already become a tabloid villain, dubbed “Nasty Nick”.
Nick – a public schoolboy and (at the time) junior stockbroker – had a game plan. “That came into play before I entered the house,” said Bateman afterwards. “It was a game show… people might be naively thinking it wasn’t, but we were there on a game show and people were there to compete.”
Bateman schmoozed the housemates with duplicitous tactics and boldfaced bull. He fibbed that he’d been in the Territorial Army for three years (a lie quickly undone when he huffed and puffed and fumbled his way through an assault course task); he claimed he’d been a male escort; and – the biggest whopper of all – he spun a tragic story about a car crash that killed his (fictitious) wife.
Bateman also played housemates against each other by claiming he had visions of who would go and who would stay on eviction nights. “He was supposed to be the best educated and he earned more money than all of us, so he claimed,” says Phillips. “He’d gone in there presumably thinking he could outsmart us, by twisting what he was doing and cheating and winning us all over.”
On the outside, the tabloids whipped up a rumour that Nasty Nick had smuggled a mobile phone into the house. The Sun even claimed the secret phone was strapped behind his testicles – an eye-watering prospect, considering the size of mobile phones in 2000. There was another rumour that Channel 4 had planted Bateman in the house to stir up trouble. The Sun launched a “Kick Out Nick” campaign, and even dropped leaflets into the BB garden via a remote-controlled helicopter.
Writing in his 2009 autobiography, Phillips wrote, rather amusingly: “Nick struck me as a bit of div at times.” But the scheming worked. Bateman was the only housemate to not receive a single nomination. “Obviously, I played the game correctly,” Bateman later told Davina McCall.
Phillips recalls the house was “a close knit unit” but, like Bateman, he was under no illusion about why they were in there. “We all wanted to win,” he says. “It’s a load of b—–ks when people say, ‘Oh I wanted to go in for the experience.’ I didn’t go in to make friends or any of that. I went in because I wanted to win this programme.”
Five weeks in, housemates Tom McDermott and Mel Hill tipped Phillips off about Nick’s scheming. Nick had been scribbling down names and attempting to steer nominations. “It was more upsetting the more I thought about it,” Phillips recalls. “We made plans to be friends outside and go places and do things. I felt betrayed and humiliated on the telly.”
Phillips and housemate Darren Ramsay searched Nick’s suitcase. “I don’t agree with this,” said Craig, while Darren rummaged through Nick’s belongings with zero qualms. They found a hidden pen and scraps of paper with names written on. “I feel like going out and knocking him out,” Phillips half-joked at the time. A producer pulled the plug on the internet feed, afraid that Phillips really would hit Bateman. “They forgot, in a panic, to turn it back on,” said Ruth Wrigley. It caused the press and fans to speculate that there had been a punch-up in the house.
But Craig, cool-headed, suggested that he and his housemates sleep on it. “It was a horrible night,” he says. “The next day it was a tense, quite morbid feeling in the house. I thought, ‘Let’s keep everyone calm, have a cup of tea, and try and be adults about it. We’ll sit around the table and iron it out – we’ll give Nick a chance to explain.’”
Tension inside the house were already making bust-ups inevitable. “Every day there was a niggle, a debate about something going on. And it was starting to heat up a bit,” he says.
“It was only a matter of time before something big happened. It might not look big now – he was only writing a name on a piece of paper! – but for us in there it became really, really big.”
Craig would demonstrate one of life’s most enviable skills: a well-controlled confrontation. It’s impressive to anyone who has ever practiced an argument in their head, then become all wobbly-voiced when the moment came.
“I can’t recall planning what I was going to say,” says Phillips. “I knew the night before that I wanted to spell it out – what I’ve seen, what I think and how he’s let me down. That was all eating me up. It was sad, really. The way I was brought up with my family and friends, loyalty means a lot. He didn’t see that the same way.”
The most delightfully perverse pleasure of Big Brother is to be a silent party in the taboo conversations – the back-stabbing and slagging-off – and inevitable escalation. To see the whisperers and back-stabbers get rumbled, while standing back and watching the fallout guilt-free, borders on sadistic entertainment.
Watching the scene back, it’s reality TV at its finest. Bateman at first denies the accusation, but his eyes glaze over with the realisation that the game’s up: there’s nowhere to hide and no pre-planned excuse ready. “I looked up and tried to calculate, ‘Is he right? Does he really know?’” said Bateman on the Inside Big Brother documentary.
“We were all saying, ‘Nick, no, you can’t deny it anymore!’” Phillips remembers. “But he was still denying it, and in the end, he semi-admitted it in different ways.”
Nick tries to palm it off as one of his visions, but trips himself up with lies. The tension is broken by the unintentionally hilarious Darren, who seems more outraged that he hasn’t been included in Nick’s schemes.
“Nick hasn’t shown me any names,” Darren says, hand clutched to his chest with barely-concealed envy. Minutes later, after the conversation has moved on, Darren is still incredulous. “You’re seriously writing down names, Nick,” he says, with a tone usually reserved for finding someone beside a body holding a bloody knife. “You’re showing people names, that’s what you’re doing.”
“He felt left out!” Phillips laughs.
Beneath the bluster and arrogance, Nick’s response is transparently human. He runs the gamut of emotions: trying to figure what they know; mentally scrambling to cover his tracks; denial and (sort of) confession; feeling sorry for himself; and excuse-making. It was all because he comes from a large and competitive family, he would later say.
With the walls of pretence down, he’s suddenly relatable – sympathetic, even. It was clear, even at the time, that there wasn’t a real game plan, beyond stirring things up a bit.
The scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time – as Big Brother itself did, in the end – and tips into a public shaming session as they start rifling through his suitcase. But the housemates would catch themselves and hand back what was left of Bateman’s dignity.
After a teary visit to the Diary Room – “I’ve made a mistake,” he admitted to Big Brother – Nick became the first, but certainly not the last, housemate to be ejected for bad behaviour.
The producers had known that Nick was up to something, but they didn’t want to confront him and reveal that the cameras had a blind spot. Interestingly, it transpired that the housemates had the real control. Scenes of Nick’s sort-of rule-breaking had been aired, but he wasn’t turfed out until the housemates demanded it.
When invited back into the house for the Ultimate Big Brother series, Nick explained that BB had given him the pen and paper before going into the house, and his notes were the “the biggest fallacy [sic] ever”. He hadn’t passed them around. “[I] did it more subtly than that.”
Phillips recalls that until that point he’d been portrayed by Big Brother as “quite lazy and sleeping a lot” and that he “suddenly came to life” after the incident. “I thought, ‘No I didn’t!’” he laughs. “That was just my ‘normal’. That was just before the incident and after it. I was acting no differently. It was a turning point for Big Brother’s editors.”
Craig’s controlled handling of the showdown won over the public (though not necessarily the rest of the house – he was up for nomination in the last four consecutive weeks). It wasn’t just the telling-off, but his empathy afterwards. Craig insisted that all the housemates pat Nick on the back and wish him well.
“We were concerned about him once he started to break down,” says Phillips. “This well-educated, controlled guy was crumbling. It was sad to see him go. To see a grown man cry is never nice.”
But the morbid feeling in the house was short-lived. “After he went it was horrible and we were moping,” Phillips recalls. “We weren’t talking about it, but it was a really flat atmosphere. So what does Big Brother do? Bring in a takeaway and one or two bottles of the cheapest wine.
“About four hours later it was as if nothing had happened. We’re all getting drunk on cheap rubbish. We’re buzzing and Big Brother is back in business. It shows how cheaply we were bought!”
In hindsight, Phillips was the antithesis to future Big Brother contestants. Most went in hankering for a modicum of fame, but Craig’s intention was to win the £70,000 for his friend, Joanne Harris, who had Down’s syndrome, to help pay for her heart and lung transplant operations in America. “I purposely didn’t tell a single soul while I was in there,” Phillips says.
Today he’s a celebrity home-improvement expert and one half on Mr & Mrs DIY with his wife Laura. He became friends with Nick on the outside.“This sounds bizarre but I ended up living with Nick!” laughs Phillips. “He had a house in London and because I was on the road all the time, I ended up hiring a room off him.”
Increasingly, Big Brother would play around with the format in future series, all in the name of creating tension and another gripping bust-up. It toyed with the eviction process; introduced new housemates; sent them on secret missions; withheld luggage; split the house; created secret rooms; and played clips of nominations (i.e. housemates slagging each other off) to everyone in the house.
For the later Channel 5 series, it was standard to begin each series with a twist. If BB was still on today, you could imagine housemates being given a blunt instrument and instructed to fight to the death. (The last housemate standing gets a luxury shopping budget!)
Reality TV shows everywhere followed suit, concocting formats to trap ordinary people in high-pressure scenarios and gawp at the fallout. Shattered kept contestants up for seven days; My New Best Friend tortured participants with extreme social awkwardness; The X Factor delighted in putting terrible singers on stage; I’m A Celebrity force-fed kangaroo bits to D-listers; and Love Island has always been more about the drama of break-ups than the joy of coupling.
While the first series of Big Brother wasn’t the best overall – the glorious Celebrity Big Brother of 2006, with Preston and Chantelle, Michael Barrymore and George Galloway pretending to be a cat will forever hold that crown – no future machinations ever created a scene as captivating as Craig v Nick.
Perhaps because it was free of all the trappings which came later: before the housemates had any inkling about the press or who was watching; before reality TV and celebrity culture became intertwined; before the tabloid headlines became the modern equivalent of pelting rancid fruit. It was – rarely for reality TV – absolutely real.