Fans of reality TV don’t exactly have to look far to get their fix in the current schedules. While famous contestants continue to be put through their paces on shows like I’m A Celebrity, Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing On Ice, the mammoth success of Love Island has also ushered in a wave of new shows that put everyday people back into the spotlight, including dating formats like Married At First Sight and Love Is Blind, and other hits like Race Across The World and The Traitors.
Before all of them, though, there was Big Brother.
Originally running for 11 seasons on Channel 4, the game-changing reality show threw a bunch of supposed “regular people” in an extreme environment, and invited us all to tune in and watch what happened next. The results were captivating, and Big Brother quickly became appointment viewing in the early 2000s.
Over the course of its first decade on the air, Big Brother became as well known for its every-day relatable moments as its jaw-dropping extremities, mixing the mundane with the extraordinary, and regularly made household names of its previously-ordinary “housemates”.
After it left Channel 4, the show was revived for a further eight seasons on Channel 5, as well as 14 more celebrity editions, which produced some of the most outrageous reality TV moments of the last decade.
Speculation about a reboot has been rife pretty much ever since the Channel 5 finale aired, and was exacerbated even more when the show’s 20th anniversary fell in 2020, at a time when most of the world was experiencing its very own version of lockdown living.
Eventually, it was ITV2 that picked up the classic format, bringing the show back with a new presenting team of Will Best and AJ Odudu at the helm, on the same channel where Love Island went from being a cult favourite with under a million viewers to a Bafta-winning TV heavyweight with international impact.
“I think five years is a good gap, right?” Will tells HuffPost UK when asked why now is the right time for a Big Brother revival.
“We’re living in very different times. Discourse has changed, people’s opinions have changed, the way people interact with each other has changed, and we’ve all had a year of our own Big Brother experience when we were all locked down ourselves anyway.”
While the news of Big Brother’s return was mostly met with excitement – or, at least, intrigue – some fans had their concerns.
By the time the old Big Brother house at Elstree Studios closed its doors for the final time on Channel 5, the show had become a rather different beast to the “social experiment” that began on Channel 4 at the turn of the millennium, and some purists were adamant the revival shouldn’t just become a Love Island carbon copy (ITV2 has previously tried to replicate the Love Island effect on shows like Survival Of The Fittest, Bromans and The Cabins with varying levels of success).
According to Will, though, fans needn’t worry. In fact, it sounds like he had the same concerns when the idea of hosting Big Brother was first put to him.
He explains: “When I was first having conversations with ITV and the production company about getting involved, my questions straight away to them about whether I wanted to do it – I mean, obviously I wanted to do it – but the things that I wanted to know straight off the bat were like, ‘are the housemates going to be actually representative of the UK now’?
“Big Brother is the only reality show where you don’t need to have a talent, you don’t need to be single, you don’t need to be an influencer – all of these things that we’ve become so used to, none of that matters. So are we going to have a proper cross-section of British society? And I was assured, ‘yes it’s going to be real people’, and ‘yes the nature of the housemates means that this is going to have that social experiment feel’, which also means it’s going to feel very unproduced.”
“When you think back, Big Brother is this amazing kind of mirror to society, really, isn’t it?” he says. “Over the years, some of the big characters, some of the things people talked about, some of the dramas, even the housemates themselves, it provides this amazing snapshot of what Britain is like now. And not just for young people, but for everyone.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see who the housemates are, how they interact with each other, and how the rest of the country takes to them. I can’t wait.”
However, by Will’s own admission, “the world has changed a lot” since Big Brother’s heyday, and given the show is now into its third incarnation, fans may be curious as to exactly how ITV plans to put its own stamp on what is already a well-oiled machine.
According to Will, the key this new version will be the fact that Big Brother is, above all, “an entertainment show”.
“It’s going to be fun,” he insists. “Big Brother is at its best, when there’s drama, and when there’s emotional stuff, but also when it’s funny.
“You remember Fight Night and all of those big moments, and you remember some of the controversies, Roxanne Pallett and punchgate and all those sorts of things – but you remember all the comedy moments as well. You remember Alison Hammond breaking the table, you remember ‘David’s dead’ which managed to be both serious and funny. And it’s best when it’s all of those things.”
“There is no broadcaster in the UK better placed to maximise the potential of Big Brother than ITV,” he adds. “I just don’t think it could be in any safer hands.”
When we speak to Will towards the end of September, he’s fresh from the first Big Brother production meeting, and he’s excited – albeit slightly daunted – at the prospect of getting stuck in.
“There’s a lot of pressure on this show. And I get nervous about everything, any job,” he admits. “I’m a bit of a worrier. So up until yesterday, really, the show itself has been this massive abstract concept.
“But yesterday was the first time, we were all sitting down in a big room and talking about things like the running order of the launch show, and the exact tone of the evening live show that we’re going to be doing every night. And it suddenly felt real. And like, ‘oh, shit, this is going to be so fun’.
Contributing to that sense of fun is the fact he’ll have his good friend AJ at his side. The pair have now been close for almost a decade, and their natural chemistry is what led to them landing the co-hosting gig.
“I have this weird thing with AJ where I can’t remember the actual first time I met her,” he explains. “When I met her for the first time, I felt like we were mates already.
“She’s one of those people, we just clicked really well. She’s so funny and warm and lovely that I can’t remember not being mates with her.”
In fact, the duo’s paths first crossed on the 4Music show Trending Live in the mid-2010s, and Will says that in the years since, they’ve “worked together as much as we can”, even “putting each other forward for things that we’re on”.
“We did Release The Hounds together, do you remember that? That was absolutely mad,” he says, referencing the short-lived ITV2 show that saw celebrities being put through their paces in physical challenges before, as the name suggests, being chased by a pack of dogs.
“Not only have we had good times together, fun nights out and hanging out loads, we’ve also been chased through a forest in Lithuania by crazed dogs,” he jokes. “We have a friendship that is forged in the fires of terror.”
Still, despite their close-knit friendship, Will and AJ initially had to hide from one another that they were in the running for the Big Brother role, due to the “secrecy” at those early stages of the process.
“There was some cryptic stuff, and then the final stage was a chemistry test,” he recalls. “We basically ran through in a studio what a launch show might look like, and then what a spin-off show might look like. We had producers pretending to be housemates, and a little live audience.
“They did it really well, it was quite an intense day. And that was what they made their decision based on. So, ITV saw us together, and I think they thought, ‘OK, this could work’.”
Will and AJ’s Big Brother tenure marks the first time the show has been fronted by two co-hosts, and at the time of our interview, the behind-the-scenes team is still ironing out exactly what that’s going to look like.
Will offers: “We’re quite different, me and AJ, we’ve got quite different styles and personalities. I think we would do interviews together quite well, because also we’re just naturally interested in different facets of things and people.
“But this is not a heavily produced show – so we don’t know what is going to happen. Different interviews will have different tones, and call for different things. So, there might be some where it makes sense for just one of us to do it, or some where it makes sense for both. I think having two gives us a lot more freedom, in a way.”
“It’s amazing to be following in the footsteps of these incredible presenters who we obviously massively look up to,” he says. “[But] as AJ always says, we’re not trying to be the next [anyone]. We are the current us. So, we’ll see.”
With more than a decade’s experience already under his belt, Will is certainly no TV novice.
His major presenting debut came in 2010, when he and former Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh co-hosted the music show Kiss My Pop, and after hosting Channel 4′s weekend teen strand T4, he later fronted Dance Dance Dance for ITV in early 2017.
However, Big Brother is now by far the biggest show on Will’s CV, and he says it’s simultaneously “exciting”, “humbling” and “nerve-wracking” to have been given the opportunity – particularly as he acknowledges that the presenting world is a notoriously “hard space to be in” right now.
“I remember when I first started out, being a presenter was kind of a ‘thing’,” he recalls. “Then, there was a period when suddenly all of the big presenting jobs were going to pop stars.
“Then, there was suddenly a thing where they were all going to comedians. And then, there was suddenly a thing where they were all going to YouTubers, and then reality stars, and just being somebody who is, hopefully, quite good at presenting, sort of drifted and became less in vogue. But maybe that’s kind of coming back round.”
Of the adventure ahead, he enthuses: “This is, like, serious, serious telly. It’s like a 200-person crew making this show. But that’s one of the most fun things.
“When I look back at the sorts of things I’ve done in the past, the jobs that I’ve enjoyed the most have always been the big ones. Not because of [the] bigger profile or anything like that, but because I just love making telly when there’s hundreds of you all pulling together to create the best possible product for the viewers.
“Then, when you add to that, the fact that it’s a massive show that I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid, like, it’s a real pinch-me moment, you know?”
Big Brother returns on ITV2 at 9pm on Sunday 8 October, followed immediately by companion show Big Brother: Late & Live, hosted by Will Best and AJ Odudu.