Borehamwood’s Big Brother

Bobby Davro

Bobby Davro - Credit: Archant

Still attractive millions of viewers after 15 years, reality TV show Big Brother, based in Borehamwood, continues to grab the headlines and captivate an often gob-smacked audience. Rebecca Day speaks to those who have been in the goldfish bowl

Kate Lawler

Kate Lawler - Credit: shutterstock

Love it or hate it, Big Brother has weaved its way into the tapestry of UK culture since it first rocketed on to our screens 15 years ago. Millions of viewers have tuned in year after year like hordes of nosey neighbours to watch the housemates laugh, cry, backbite and fall in love from the comfort of their sofas. Although the themes and scenarios change with each series, one thing is guaranteed - for a couple of months the housemates will remove themselves from normal society and enter the Big Brother House at Borehamwood’s Elstree Studios to have their every move monitored and discussed by a national TV audience. And it’s happening again now, with the latest Celebrity Big Brother: UK vs US series (some contestants are pictured).

The first two series were filmed in east London before a purpose built house-cum-studio was created at Elstree Studios in 2002. It has remained a Hertfordshire staple ever since. In that first year in the county the series was won by Kate Lawler, the first woman to do so, and attracted the biggest audience to date, bringing in an average of 5.8m viewers per night.

Before taking part in the show, Kate worked in IT in an investment bank in London and dreamed of being a trader. Despite the popularity of the format, she says she didn’t really realise what she was letting herself in for when she took her first tentative steps into the house. ‘I was extremely naive and I honestly don’t think I realised just how big the show would be in 2002. Dealing with the fame you experience post BB was a bit of a struggle.’

After winning the show, Kate carved out a career for herself as a TV and radio presenter; working on Capital FM and Channel 4’s breakfast show RI:SE, before hosting her own show on Kerrang! Radio. Reflecting on the show that created her big break, she says. ‘Every time BB comes around again on TV, I always watch the opening night and remember back to when I was walking into the house with my family cheering me on.

Austin Armacost

Austin Armacost - Credit: Archant

‘I was a nervous wreck, walking towards a swarm of photographers with my small silver suitcase, wearing a red England t-shirt and jeans. I also reminisce about all the funny moments I shared with my favourite housemates, Alison Hammond, Jonny Regan and PJ Ellis - friends for life.’

Kate still wonders what it would be like had she pursued her dream to be a trader, but is grateful for the career opportunities Big Brother opened up to her. ‘I’m eternally grateful for everyone who voted for me to win. With the winnings and subsequent work that followed, I was able to pay off my parent’s mortgage, my sister’s wedding and put a deposit down on my first home. I always wanted to DJ and so buying my first set of decks felt fantastic. I love presenting and working in radio especially, I’m very lucky to still be doing what I enjoy.’

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Helen Adams from Cwmbran in South Wales, rose to fame when she came second on Big Brother in 2001, thanks to her fun-loving personality and hilarious one-liners. ‘It was hugely exciting to be a part of,’ she says. ‘As it was only the second series there were no expectations and you had no idea if anything would come of it or if anyone was actually watching.

‘You soon forgot the cameras were on 24/7. The parties were the most fun. I was only 21, so for me it was all about having a good time, which made the experience all the better. I did miss my family and friends though, that was definitely the toughest part.

‘The public reaction was great - people were so nice and have been ever since. People speak to you like they have known you for years, which was a bit strange, but it was nice to know they like you as a person.’

The experience ‘opened up a lot of doors’ for the hair stylist and mum-of-two, but she remained grounded. ‘I don’t think going in the BB house changed me at all. I believe everything happens for a reason in life, so I am grateful for the opportunity and couldn’t be happier with where I am today.’

Ally Farrell, showbiz reporter for The Sun newspaper and ‘huge’ fan of Big Brother, secured a dream job as digital content producer on the show between 2012 and 2014. This involved updating all the show’s digital platforms including the website and social media. He describes the job as ‘manic but fun’ as everyone who works there is a big fan of the show. He adds, ‘You don’t realise what a ridiculous amount of manpower, money and work goes into putting 15 people in the house until you get there. It’s a gigantic production. The set outside the house, where they do live evictions, is tiny compared to how it looks on screen but the entire production village is huge.

‘Eviction nights were wild. I would often go out and meet the crowds of super fans queuing up outside to take pictures of them and interview them.

‘On my last shift I finally took the plunge and decided to go on Big Brother’s Bit On The Side, after years of saying “no way”. My boss decided it would be funny to make it known to Rylan – the presenter - that it was my first time on live TV, so he proceeded to do his best to humiliate me in front of thousands of viewers, squeezing my cheeks and getting Luisa Zissman from The Apprentice to cradle me as if I was a baby. Despite the embarrassment, that was probably the highlight.’

Celebrity Big Brother UK V US series is currently showing on Channel 5.

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