March 2021 marks 20 years since the debut of a show that would end up changing the face of reality television.
Although it would go on to become a TV juggernaut in the years that followed, the very first series of Celebrity Big Brother was actually a rather low-key affair, particularly when you compare it to the over-the-top and in-your-face sagas that series would turn out to be.
With only six famous housemates and a limited running time of just a week, the first series of CBB was much more modest than latter years, but still definitely captured people’s attention, with as many as 6.6 million tuning in over the course of the series.
But while CBB would be inescapable at its peak, how much do we really know about that very first year?
Cast your mind back 20 years, and we’ll jog your memory…
1. Following the success of Big Brother’s UK debut in the summer of 2000, it was decided that a charity series for celebrities would take place in aid of Comic Relief
Because it was for charity, the celebrity housemates didn’t receive a fee for their involvement, and a portion of the money spent on voting went towards Comic Relief.
2. This Comic Relief special marked a unique TV event between BBC One and Channel 4
The grand finale was broadcast live on Red Nose Day on both BBC One and Channel 4. Yes, it’s hard to imagine it now, but the show that would eventually spawn the infamous “David’s dead” saga and feature housemates like Chantelle Houghton, Charlotte Crosby, Megan McKenna and Alex Reid was, at one point, broadcast live on BBC One.
3. Because it was for Comic Relief, the series only ran for a week
It also only featured six housemates, introduced by Davina McCall on launch night as “TV golden girl Anthea Turner”, “former world champion boxer Chris Eubank”, “Brookside’s bad girl Claire Sweeney”, “miserable funnyman Jack Dee”, “for all you girls out there, Boyzone’s very own Keith Duffy” and the not-exactly-acceptable-in-2001 “Fat Girl Slim Vanessa Feltz”.
4. For most of Big Brother’s UK run, the same house at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood was used every series – but that wasn’t the case in 2001
Big Brother’s first two series – and first celebrity run – actually took place at a specially-built house in Bow, East London near 3 Mills Studios.
This was actually where the first series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK was also filmed, but like Big Brother, they also moved to Elstree Studios for subsequent years.
5. The Big Brother house barely changed from the civilian series
Despite there being only six housemates, they were still split up into male and female bedrooms, and the living quarters remained the same low-quality decorations.
One big change was that the purple Diary Room chair was swapped out for a red one, in keeping with the Comic Relief theme.
6. And there was certainly nothing luxurious about the celebs’ living quarters
Back in those days, the celebrities had to hand-wash their own clothes, bake their own bread and had full use of a vegetable patch to grow their own greens. And of course, there was also the matter of the chickens to look after, where they got their daily eggs.
7. Unlike the luxury shopping budgets future CBB casts would enjoy, this lot only had £1.50 a day each to live off
Big Brother would supply them with emergency supplies of chick peas and rice if they ran out of food, though.
8. During launch night, Davina bragged that the housemates would be tracked 24/7 by 26 cameras
This might sound like a lot, but this figure had risen to 67 cameras by the time Big Brother came to a close in 2018.
9. In keeping with those early days of Big Brother the tasks were a bit of a snooze-fest
Later series of CBB would feature separate teams whose entire job was coming up with and executing elaborate tasks, that would both keep the housemates busy and entertain viewers. This was seemingly not the case in the early years, though, with challenges during CBB’s first outing including designing a pair of pants for a fellow housemate, trimming hedges into shapes and memorising facts about one another.
Rewards then included an extra £18 towards the shopping budget (truly breaking the bank) and a quick blast of Westlife’s Uptown Girl, that year’s Comic Relief single.
10. Things were also a lot less fiery during that first Celebrity Big Brother
The original CBB wasn’t exactly a love-in between the famous contestants, but there was only one notable row, when Chris and Vanessa clashed over parenting, which preceded him becoming the first star to be evicted.
This is a stark contrast to future series of CBB, where shouting matches would often break out before the famous housemates had even unpacked.
11. It might have been a less explosive series than usual, but there was still some drama when a tabloid newspaper tried to break the rules
The Sun managed to drop a load of leaflets containing information about the outside world over the garden wall on the celebrities’ fifth day in the house.
Because of CBB’s strict rules about outside contact, the housemates were quickly ushered into the girls’ bedroom while the pamphlets were disposed of.
12. Of course, rowing with Chris Eubank wasn’t the only incident that Vanessa was involved in during her stint on CBB
This year’s CBB was probably best remembered for Vanessa’s behaviour on day four. But what exactly went on?
Well, after finding out she’d been nominated for eviction, the presenter began scrawling words like “incarcerated”, “ambushed” and “restricted” on the kitchen table with chalk that had been provided as part of a task.
She went on to cover the whole table with her writing, and when Big Brother attempted to intervene, she responded: “No. Fuck off.”
When fellow housemate Keith Duffy commented she was “starting to scare him”, she said: “Good. Just enjoy it.”
After her eviction, Vanessa admitted she was surprised at how much had been made of the moment, claiming it came after a realisation that “there was no Big Brother… it was just a researcher”.
“I thought I had suffered enough,” she said (via The Guardian). “I have lost my husband and there was sod all to do anyway except watch Anthea wash up and clean.
“So I started writing words on the table like ‘defenestrated’ and ‘inured’ and then I had a look and I said I thought ‘it looks awfully Conran’ but you didn’t see that in the edit. Instead you saw me looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.”
13. She later poked fun at the moment in the early days of coronavirus lockdown back in April 2020
14. Vanessa can’t have had too bad a time in CBB, as she ended up returning almost a decade later
Vanessa was the only star from her series to return for Ultimate Big Brother, an all-star special to commemorate the show leaving Channel 4. She was a late addition to the show, surprising the existing housemates when she entered in bridal attire as part of a nostalgic wedding-themed task.
In 2021, she told HuffPost UK: “When they asked me to come back and do the Ultimate in 2010, I said, ‘oh I can’t possibly’, and they said, ‘why not?’, and I said, ‘well, because I’m bound to crack up, weeping, gnawing at the carpet and foaming at the mouth’.
“But I was fine the second time around, absolutely fine.”
“I’d made a bit of psychological progress over the years,” she added. “So that was good.”
15. Anthea Turner staged a return to the Big Brother house too
Although she didn’t appear in Ultimate Big Brother, Anthea did return to the BB house in 2010, to treat the housemates to some breakfast in bed as part of a “perfect day” put on for them by Big Brother.
16. Claire Sweeney was the most popular celebrity in the house with her fellow contestants
She was the only one of the six celebrities in the compound to go the entire week without being put up for eviction by her fellow housemates.
17. But it was Jack Dee who proved most popular with the public, winning the whole show (despite not exactly enjoying his stay in the CBB house)
Speaking to Graham Norton in 2015, the comedian said: “It’s been an enduring nightmare throughout my career ever since we did that. When we did that, no one really knew what Big Brother was, we’d only had one series of it, and they hadn’t had Celebrity Big Brother, and they rang me and said ‘will you do it?’ and I said ‘well, who else is doing it’... I was tricked into doing it. I thought it’d be great and that I’d be in with people that are better than me and that I could learn from, and I ended up with…”
“These people,” Graham then offered, showing a picture of Jack’s CBB housemates.
“It was a complete nightmare, because I hadn’t watched the show [previously] and absorbed it and realised what I was letting myself in for,” Jack added.
18. In fact he tried to break out on more than one occasion
After attempting to tunnel out of the CBB garden proved fruitless, Jack ran out of the CBB front door to briefly see his wife during Anthea Turner’s eviction on the penultimate day, and was quickly ushered back inside the house.
Years later, Jack told Michael Parkinson: “I was beginning to regret being there, and I just spontaneously found a way of getting out. The security was rubbish – it was pathetic. All they had to do was keep six luvvies in a house for a week, and they blew it!”
He continued: “Having tried to dig my way out, I tried the back gate… and it opened. So, I went out there, and there were security guards doing what they usually do – playing cards. And I slipped past.”
“I escaped out of sheer desperation,” Jack later explained to Graham Norton. “I was on the roof at one point.”
19. Jack claims he has refused permission for clips of CBB to be shown
Graham Norton said in 2015 that Jack has a “lockdown” on CBB clips airing on TV, to which he responded: “Mhmm… the reason I’ve never given permission is because they just want it for ‘best clip ever’ shows type of thing, and that’s just not what it was about.”
20. That first Celebrity Big Brother inspired numerous international editions – although it didn’t cross the Atlantic for almost 20 years
Celebrity Big Brother ran for 18 years and 22 series – three more than the regular run of Big Brother – but it never took off in the States until fairly recently.
America launched its own version of Celebrity Big Brother in 2018, featuring contestants like former Trump advisor Omarosa Manigault, RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Ross Mathews, singer Tamar Braxton, media personality Dina Lohan, Mean Girls star Jonathan Bennett and swimmer Ryan Lochte.
India’s equivalent, Bigg Boss, ran for a number of years, which was briefly hosted by CBB champion Shilpa Shetty.