On 18 July 2000, the first episode of Big Brother debuted on Channel 4. Ten complete strangers agreed to live together under constant surveillance, in a bid to last as long in the infamous house as possible and bag themselves £70,000.
What followed was a game-changing TV phenomenon.
Big Brother’s unique premise meant there was already some intrigue around its launch, but no one in those early days could have predicted how the show would eventually change not just the TV industry, but the face of celebrity culture in just a few short years.
Before long, millions were tuning in nightly, and Big Brother swiftly became an instant – if temporary – fame machine, with many hopefuls seeing the show as an opportunity to snatch those all-alluring 15 minutes of fame.
Big Brother’s eventual first winner Craig Phillips had a rather different motivation for signing up, though.
Craig became aware of Big Brother after watching a documentary about the original Dutch version of the show. At that time, he was fundraising for Joanne Harris, a family friend with Down’s syndrome, who needed money to pay for a heart and lung transplant.
“I had no ambition to be famous in any way,” he tells HuffPost UK, on Big Brother’s 20th anniversary.
“But I thought, ‘If I get on this programme and win, I’ll get £70,000. It sounds easy enough, all I’ve got to do is live with 10 other people’. And I was wrong – it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.”
I thought, 'no one's heard of Big Brother, no one's going to watch it, so who cares?'
He continues: “I didn’t go on for any other reason, I just thought it would be a quick and easy way to win a lot of money. I was set on trying to get a quarter of a million pounds for Joanne Harris. I just thought, ‘no one’s heard of Big Brother, no one’s going to watch it, so who cares?’.”
As it turns out, Craig was wrong on that front, too. By the first eviction, the show was being watched by 3.4 million people, a figure which had shot up to an estimated 10 million by the time the live final came seven weeks later.
Obviously, with no contact whatsoever with the outside world, the original housemates had no idea just how popular the show was becoming, which potentially explains one of Big Brother’s earliest outrageous moments, in which several of the housemates – including Craig – stripped off, covered themselves in wet clay and painted the living room with their bodies.
Recalling of the attention-grabbing incident, Craig says: “We were getting a bit bored in there, and it was only the first week. We were just having a laugh, we never even thought it would get put out to the public.
“We just thought ‘if they’re editing bits out, they’re gonna edit in the actual pottery’ – not necessarily thinking they’d be showing us naked and painting each other’s bodies with clay, then pressing ourselves against the walls.
“No one had ever seen it, so we were all a bit naive going into it. Not that I’m, making excuses, and I’m certainly not sorry I did it – it was just a bit of fun. It was a bit like when students all get in their halls of residence and they’re all taking the piss a bit.”
Still, uninhibited though he and his housemates may have been, Craig says he “never really got used to” being on camera for every minute of the day.
Whenever people used to say 'I forgot the cameras were there'... that's a load of bollocks.
“I wouldn’t say you ever switch off from the cameras. You see them, you hear them, and you’re reminded by Big Brother that you’re being filmed” he remembers.
“You’re aware the cameras are in the bedroom, they’re over the top of your head when you’re sitting on the toilet… sometimes when we were lying in the bedroom or the conversation dropped, we’d hear camera-men pulling cables or changing the lenses or dropping things behind the mirrors, and the odd cough here and there. And we were so isolated in there, it was quite refreshing to hear other people.
“So whenever people used to say ‘I forgot the cameras were there, I didn’t mean to do that, I didn’t mean to say that’, that’s a load of bollocks, to be honest. You do know they’re there, you just cope with it. For me, I just tried to ignore them, get on with it, and try not to behave too stupidly.”
Craig was also at the centre of what was undoubtedly the series’ most headline-grabbing moment, which saw contestant Nicholas “Nasty Nick” Bateman ousted for cheating.
In the lead-up to the incident, Viewers had already seen Nick making up lies to keep his fellow housemates on his side (including the death of a fiancée), as well as trying to influence the nomination process, which went directly against Big Brother’s rules.
In an episode that was recently revisited as part of the celebratory Big Brother’s Best Shows Ever series, Craig spoke to the rest of the housemates individually about Nick’s behaviour, before confronting him as a group.
Craig admits he had never actually seen the episode in question, aside from a few clips, until E4 repeated it in 2020, noting: “It was a little bit cringe-y, but I did kind of get a clearer insight into how much of a cheat and a liar Nasty Nick was. Without seeing [the episode]… I underestimated how blatant he was.
“So that was a bit of a surprise... quite an upsetting and disappointing surprise for me, but certainly interesting.”
He recalls: “[When we confronted him], he tried to put up a bit of an argument. We’d have respected him a bit more if he’d just held his hands up and said ‘I’ve been an idiot, this is what I’ve done’, [but] he left it until we – I’m not saying dragged it out of him – but we had to basically bring him evidence and confront him.”
I even went to Big Brother at one point and said, ‘If Nick is not kicked out, I’m going home'.
At the time, many viewers noticed that Craig took the Nick situation more seriously than many of the other housemates, but as he points out: “I’d gone in there to win this money for this young lady and all of a sudden, I’m up against a cheat. And I only wanted to play fairly, basically.
“So, for me, I was starting to get a bit wound up… I think I even went to Big Brother at one point and said, ‘if Nick doesn’t go, if he’s not kicked out, I’m going home. I’m not staying in a programme if it’s not going to be fair’.”
In the end, Nick’s behaviour led to him being shown the door, but even though it was the outcome Craig wanted, he recalls there being a sombre mood when his housemate was ejected.
“That was quite a morbid day, saying goodbye to him,” Craig reveals. “We did feel sorry for him, because we were concerned that if the programme had got big, how would he be received outside? It was a morbid day, not a nice afternoon. It was like a funeral feeling.
“Little did I know, it was enhancing my profile, and making people warm to me. And that could be the reason I went on to win, but honestly I don’t know.”
Despite being nominated for eviction more times than any of his housemates (including the five consecutive weeks leading up to the final), as time rolled on, the thought began to occur to Craig that the coveted £70K could soon be his.
“We never knew how we were getting perceived outside, he says. “But it got to about two weeks before the end, and I suddenly thought ‘you know what, I’ve won this’.
“I’d been up against who I thought were the tough competitors, and they were all kicked out. And I woke up one morning – I don’t want to sound cocky, but it was a nice feeling, two weeks left, and all the big boys have been kicked out, and I had a sudden confident feeling that I could win.”
Of course, the feeling was right. The first ever celebratory Big Brother final was a fitting end to what had been a huge series, and it was difficult not to feel excited on Craig’s behalf as Davina McCall led him out of the house to a fireworks display in his honour – and an extra £70,000 in his bank account.
As it turned out, though, Craig’s buzz on the night was cut short very quickly.
“It was a big celebration for everybody else on the last night, but not for me, that’s for sure,” Craig recalls. “What you saw on television, me coming out of the house, meeting Jo, and seeing my family... then getting up on stage with all the other Big Brother housemates and the fireworks – that, for me, only lasted five minutes.
“The moment the cameras stopped, I was rushed away by bodyguards. Literally dragged off, put into a vehicle, police escort, whisked away to a big hotel. And it was scary, it was like I was being kidnapped… it was all rush-rush, not many people were talking to me or explaining to me what was happening and why.
“All I wanted to do was see my friends and family, you know? I’d been cooped up for 64 days, I wanted out, I wanted to have a party.”
Instead, he was sat down with Big Brother’s psychiatrists, who calmly tried to explain how big the show had become during his time away from the outside world and, as Craig puts it, “how I was going to have to adapt to things”.
It was a big celebration for everybody else on the last night, but not for me, that’s for sure.
“It was quite a nerve-racking thing, when you’ve got a psychiatrist telling you that you’ll be on the front page of every national newspaper, and every radio station and every news bulletin was talking about you,” Craig says. ”[The psychiatrist]’s words were ‘you’ll be the most talked-about person in Britain’.
“It’s scary, you know, I can recall hearing what he was saying to me, but I wasn’t fully digesting it. You try to process that in your mind, that all of a sudden the whole country knows your name, but where do you go from there? What do you do? It’s quite a scary thing to digest. So I’ve got to say that wasn’t the best night.”
He adds: “I had a briefing with press officers and had people telling me security would be with me 24 hours a day, and they’d be chaperoning me around, that I couldn’t go home [because] the press would be chasing us. And how do you deal with that?”
After four hours, in the early hours of the morning, Craig was allowed a visit from his cousin, Steve, which is the moment he was given his first opportunity to really celebrate.
“When Steve arrived, the agents and the security guards were like please don’t try and leave the building or anything, if you want anything come to the door and the security can relay it to whoever’,” he says.
“We were in this big massive suite, two or three thousand pound suite, with this massive bed in the middle. And basically, you know that scene in Rocky III where Rocky and Apollo are on the beach? It was a little bit like that, two grown men bouncing up and down on the bed and hugging each other, and screaming and shouting.
“And then, we had the bodyguards knocking at the door – and we thought we were going to get told off for making too much noise, but they just brought in two lovely steaks and a few bottles of champagne and beers and things like that. So we enjoyed a lovely meal, at about four o’clock in the morning.”
The psychiatrist's words were ‘you’ll be the most talked-about person in Britain'. What would you do if someone told you that?
Even that wasn’t to last, though, and before long Craig was given some clothes to change into and told he had to head back to the Big Brother house for his first press conference.
He jokes: “I was like ‘oh shit, I haven’t had any sleep yet’. And we’d been drinking! From that day, my life changed, and that was basically my life for the next 97 days – security picking me up early in the morning, taking me everywhere I needed to be, chaperoning me around. Chaperones, press officers, stylists – it was a bit of an entourage that travelled around.”
Although Craig has made the most of his time in the spotlight, presenting numerous DIY and home makeover shows in the last 20 years, he maintains that fame was not something he ever sought out.
In fact, had he not made it onto the first series of Big Brother, he admits he probably wouldn’t have tried out for any future years, because of how famous the contestants ended up becoming.
“When I went on Big Brother, I didn’t want to work on TV, I didn’t want to be known or recognised or famous in any way, it just kind of turned out that way for me really,” he says.
“When you see [later] series, they knew they were going to be household names when they came out. So I probably wouldn’t have applied, I’d have viewed it a little bit differently.
“And people say to me now, ‘if you didn’t want to be famous, why did you go on that programme?’ But I didn’t know we were going to be famous after going on that programme. I went on to win the money!”
Because of the permanence of celebrity news stories in 2020, and the rise of social media, Craig admits that he thinks the current crop of reality stars, made famous on shows like Love Island, have a tougher time than the early stars of Big Brother.
The old saying was ‘news today is chip paper tomorrow’, whereas nowadays it’s not, is it?
“In those days, the old saying was ‘news today is chip paper tomorrow’, whereas nowadays it’s not, is it?” Craig explains. “News today, it’s there forever, because everything ends up online somewhere down the line, where it can be regurgitated at any time.
“It’s very different with reality personalities nowadays. In the middle of their shows, they’re racing for their million followers on Instagram, and they’re getting abuse. They’re getting the followers – what they want – but it’s a double-edged sword, they’re getting the problems that come with it. So, I think the pressure is on them a little bit more now.”
Still, although he may be a reluctant celebrity, it’s clear that being part of a show that was “the birth of reality TV” is something he’s proud of.
“There’s never been another format that’s done the track record that Big Brother has. Its legacy will be remembered as the pioneers of reality TV, the first ones to make relative nobodies into super-famous people,” he says.
“The whole country has just experienced major lockdown for the first time in their lives – they’ve had a little taste of what we went through, so I could see it coming back now. And I think it would go down a treat.”