A few days ago, I was rooting through an old pile of unlabelled video tapes. (Incidentally, has anybody yet had to explain to a small child what these bulky, noisy, obsolete slabs of plastic are?) All manner of odds and sods were there, including, for some reason, several hours from the first series of Big Brother, shown in the summer of 2000.
As luck would have it, the recording I found was of the episode that propelled BB from being an interesting media experiment, to a bizarre cultural phenomenon - the downfall of Nasty Nick. In case you don't remember, Nick was the posh City boy who was discovered to have been plotting against his housemates, and was ejected from the house. Following the original broadcast moment by moment, it's difficult to see exactly what he was doing wrong, apart from being friendly to individual housemates, and then bitching behind their backs. In the end, it appears that his mortal sin against the Gods of Endemol was illegal possession of pencil and paper.
In retrospect, what was interesting was his justification for his actions, and the response of his housemates. He said that he saw the whole thing as a game that was to be won, and he was prepared to do anything to win it. Craig and Melanie and the boring Irish one and the others were dumbstruck. They were friends, weren't they? How could he have been so two-faced to friends? When Nick made his final, contrite speech to them, after being told of his imminent expulsion, it was important for him to clarify that he liked them all, and hoped they'd be friends in the outside world.
I'd followed the first BB quite closely, but became pretty bored thereafter. I thought at the time it was because the novelty had worn off. But, looking back to the first series, there's an intrinsic difference. From the second series, housemates know what being on Big Brother is. In the first one, they were just some people, thrown together. They'd never been viewers or voters, so didn't know what emotions could be stirred up by the Channel 4 press office and the silly-season tabloids. Intriguingly, in the post-mortem with Davina McCall, Nick lets slip that he'd seen the original show in the Netherlands, and that's what had made him want to appear. So maybe he knew what was going on.
Moreover, the producers seemed content to suck it and see. They'd selected a bunch of people of varying backgrounds, and let them get on with it. They probably knew that Nick was ambitious and political, but (unless they were playing a very subtle game) his actions caught them by surprise as well.
In subsequent series, everyone knew what the stakes were, even if they weren't all bright enough to acknowledge a game plan. But the producers over-egged the pudding by provoking conflict and encouraging politics. The Nasty Nick story warmed up our water-coolers because he seemed like the devil incarnate by comparison with his contemporaries. Now everyone's a Nick, and the only reason they don't smuggle writing implements into the house is because they wouldn't know what to do with them.
The original Big Brother, all chickens and home-made party costumes and Scout-like assault courses, was a contemporary Eden. But the snake wasn't really Nick, any more than he was Satan. The snake was everyone who watched it, and worked out how to play it, and applied to get onto the next show. Just as in the Bible, the snake represented knowledge and self-awareness. (I know this means Davina is God, and that Geordie bloke is something akin to Milton, but bear with me.) Nick was Adam, cast into the outside world without even the sustenance of an Eve. One of the most extraordinary moments in the episode is when Nick admits to a dumbfounded Anna that the moving story of his wife's death in a car crash had been a complete fiction.
This death of innocence is what turned BB into a vile, manipulative freakshow, where the only seedy pleasure for the viewer is the knowledge that you're not as grotesque and stupid as the drooling peasants on display. The producers selected the nutters and the cretins, and the Heat-friendly self-publicists selected themselves. But by the beginning of the second series, the whole concept had lost something more important than its innocence, or even good taste. Paradoxically, as the competitors became aware, the show lost touch with reality. Which, for a reality TV show, is a bit of a problem.