Big Brother returns: we look back at the biggest moments, the controversies and the stars

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For better or for worst, it’s official: Big Brother is coming back to British screens, relaunching on ITV in 2023.

The show ran on Channel 4 for 18 series but its average viewership kept falling and it was axed in 2018. At its peak in 2002, the show had 5.8 million viewers, but by the last series, it had dropped as low as million.

Over its 18 years and 253 housemates, Big Brother became an intrinsic part of British popular culture, producing some of the country’s biggest celebrities, most-talked about moments, and provoking genuine discourse about racism, sexism and sexuality.

For those who may have, somehow, missed it, the show sees a group of complete strangers (or in the case of Celebrity Big Brother, strangers to each other) put together in a house with no access to the outside world. The ensuing drama is watched by the British public over the week through the hundreds of cameras placed around the property, who double up as judge, jury and executioner, and vote out contestants. This leads to the infamous ‘live evictions’ as the show goes on. The contestants are putting themselves through the spectacle in order to win a possible cash prize.

For many, Big Brother’s return brings up a tonne of memories - of intense interactions, lovable characters, less-lovable characters and hysteria. To mark this momentous moment in pop culture, here are some of the show’s most memorable controversies, biggest moments and the stars who made a real impact.

 (Celebrity Big Brother / Channel 4)
(Celebrity Big Brother / Channel 4)

Unforgettable moments

George Galloway pretends to be a cat

The current leader of the Workers Party of Britain was on the fourth series of Celebrity Big Brother in 2006. There was quite an odd moment when the politician pretended to be a cat, licking milk out of the cupped hands of fellow contestant, actress Rula Lenska. Six years later, he was still explaining it away, writing in The Independent that the antics “were actually the same stunts that BBC presenters and celebs get up for Children in Need”.

Vanessa Feltz scribbles

Just three days into her stint on Celebrity Big Brother in 2001, British television personality Feltz already seemed to be feeling the pressure: she started scribbling on the dining room table in chalk and screaming, “F**k off.” At the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival later that year, Feltz explained, “It was a blinding moment when I suddenly realised that there was no Big Brother. It was just a researcher.” As a joke, she recreated the infamous scene during lockdown.

Mario and Lisa get engaged

During the ninth series of the show, Lisa Appleton entered the Big Brother house with boyfriend Mario Marconi. But the duo left as fiancés after Mario’s successful proposal. It all went down with him standing on a heart-shaped plinth in the garden wearing black tie and holding up signs, à la Love Actually, asking for Appleton’s hand in marriage. Very sweet.

Gemma Collins chooses a blow dry

Remember when Gemma Collins, beloved British icon and former The Only Way Is Essex star, chose to have a professional blow dry, meaning that her housemates were unable to use both hot water and hair appliances for the rest of the day? Outrageously selfish behaviour, but, admittedly, hilarious.

Denise Welch pulls down Karissa Shannon’s trousers

In 2012 Playboy Playmate Karissa Shannon was furious after English actress Denise Welch pulled down her trousers. She threatened to take legal action against the show, saying, “You’re going to show my ass on TV, that’s for sure. I’m not cool with that so I’m going to sue you guys. My management’s not going to be ok with this.” Glamour model Nicola Mclean stepped in to help her, later saying, “I genuinely believe if a man had done that he would have been kicked out.”

“David’s dead”

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in the entire series, this 2016 scene was a case of mistaken identity. David Bowie had just died and his ex-wife, mother of his child and contestant Angie was notified of his passing. American producer David Guest was ill in bed - the scene is set. Angie returned to the house, sharing with Tiffany Pollard the ambiguous news that David had died. Tiffany broke down and did not keep the secret, instead sharing the news with fellow housemates that David Guest had died. Frenzy ensued.

Cameron comes out

19-year-old Cameron Cole won the final season of the series before it was axed. But he’ll always be best remembered for coming out on the show. His news was met with incredible warmth from contestants and viewers alike, and it was, for once, a tender moment to come out of the reality TV show.

 (Celebrity Big Brother / Channel 4)
(Celebrity Big Brother / Channel 4)

Most controversial moments

Donny Tourette’s escape

After just two days inside, the Tower of London musician had had enough. He scaled the fence with the help of H from Steps – surely a major moment in British music culture history?

Jade Goody’s silent eviction

One of Big Brother’s biggest stars, Jade Goody, was evicted from Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, amidst major controversy. The 25-year-old was accused of racial intolerance for her treatment of Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty. Channel 4 decided that there should not be a crowd present during Goody’s exit, so she was met with silence. 82 per cent of viewers had voted her out. The star said in her interview that she was “embarrassed and disgusted” by her behaviour. Two years later Goody died from cervical cancer.

Roxanne Pallett’s accusations

At the time the 2018 incident became Ofcom’s second most complained about interaction (just behind Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty’s). English actress Roxanne Pallett went into the diary room alleging that Ryan Thomas had punched her “like a boxer would punch a bag”, but cameras showed that no such scene had taken place. Instead, it looked like a playful spar.

Thomas was given a formal warning which he accepted, but Pallett didn’t stop with the accusations. It swirled into an ever-expanding drama provoking national conversations about violence and allegations.

Christopher Biggins is removed

In 2016 English actor Christopher Biggins was removed from the house after making what the show called “a number of comments capable of causing great offence”. Days earlier on the show he had said that bisexual people were “the worst type”. His removal was a real shock despite the comments, simply because Biggins had been the bookies’ favourite to win.

 (Channel 4)
(Channel 4)

Memorable contestants

Nicholas Bateman

Bateman worked as a broker in London before going on the first season of the show. He became known as Nasty Nick by the British tabloids who accused him of being duplicitous. Eventually, producers apparently tipped off contestants about his two-faced behaviour, and he was later asked to leave by the show when it was found out he had been trying to influence the contestants’ weekly eviction votes.

Nikki Grahame

Grahame was loved and scorned for her behaviour as a contestant on the seventh series of Big Brother: she had temper tantrums, could be incredibly dramatic in the Diary Room (remember, “Who Is She?!”) and had a romance with fellow housemate Pete Bennett that half of the nation seemed to get behind at the time.

Grahame had battled with anorexia her whole life, which made some viewers question why she had been allowed to appear on the show – producers knew she would be mercilessly scrutinized. She died in 2021 from the disease.

Pete Burns

Pete Burns appeared on the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother - he was famous for being a member of the English pop band Dead or Alive that made the track You Spin Me Round (Like a Record). When he entered the Big Brother house, the became embroiled in a fur coat drama: he boasted that his was made of gorilla, which is illegal, causing producers to confiscate the item.

A Hertfordshire police spokesperson at the time said: “Hertfordshire constabulary will take positive action to investigate any allegation of criminal activity.” It turned out that the coat was monkey, which was apparently legal, and Burns was reunited with his furry outerwear.

Pete Bennett

Bennett won the seventh series of Big Brother, but viewers criticised the show for exploiting his Tourette’s Syndrome. The Tourette Syndrome Association (TSA), which was initially troubled by his part on the show eventually said it had “put Tourette’s on the map”.

 (ITV /This Morning)
(ITV /This Morning)

Most successful contestants

Craig Phillips

The show’s first-ever winner is also likely to be its biggest earner of the non-celebrity version of the show. The bricklayer, who gave his £70,000 prize money to his friend with down syndrome so she could have a heart and lung transplant, apparently built a property empire, created a construction training academy, and made a tidy sum from his 2009 book Building Beyond Big Brother.

Alison Hammond

These days Hammond is so successful that most viewers don’t remember that she actually competed in the third series of the show, back in 2002. To be fair, she was the second housemate to be evicted – a real shame given Hammond’s effervescent presence. Upon her exit, she almost immediately became a presenter and reporter on ITV‘s This Morning, a role she has kept ever since.

Kate Lawler

Lawler won the third series of Big Brother in 2002. She then became a DJ on Capital FM, co-presented the Channel 4 breakfast TV show RI:SE, wrote a twice-weekly Big Brother 7 column for The Sun, took part in 2005’s Love Island, and co-presented Kerrang! Radio’s breakfast show, then Drive!, the station’s afternoon show. Then, in 2016 she joined Virgin Radio, where she has since hosted afternoon and drivetime shows.

Jade Goody

Although Goody spent many of her last years on earth mired in controversy, she also managed to cash in, even purposefully selling her story and writing memoirs as she was dying, so that her two children had a hefty estate to inherit. She succeeded: she reportedly had earned as much as £8 million through her various business deals upon her death.

Big Brother will return in 2023 on ITV2 and ITVX.

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