Anna Nolan recalls the birth of Big Brother

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

Image caption, Craig Phillips celebrates winning the first Big Brother with runners up Darren Ramsay and Anna Nolan

There was a period when Anna Nolan used to deny she was ever a contestant in Big Brother.

Nolan was the Irish ex-trainee nun who came second to Craig Phillips in the first ever Big Brother in 2000.

She admits she "lost interest" in the programme in its middle years. But as Channel 4 launches the 11th and final series of its flagship reality TV show this week, Nolan will be glued to the screen for the next 13 weeks.

"Big Brother stills rears its head and that's okay," says Nolan, who made the move into television presenting soon after her stint in the house. "I don't have a problem with it."

Although she's now associated with other TV shows in Ireland, and writes a regular newspaper column, Nolan says most people still ask: "Are you Anna from Big Brother?"

"I used to say no a few years ago, but then I though oh why deny that part of me? Now I proudly say yes."

Having been a pioneering BB housemate and now someone who works in broadcasting, Nolan brings a fairly unique perspective. So how significant does she think the programme been for British television?

Nolan doesn't hesitate. "I think it's been massive. It was the beginning of a whole new genre. It took audience participation to a whole new level. It gave power to the public."

'Back of beyond'

Image caption, Nolan presented the BBC show Anna in Wonderland in 2002

The first series of Big Brother launched on 18 July 2000 and ran for 64 days. "Nasty" Nick Bateman, Melanie Hill, Tom McDermott and Caroline O'Shea were among that first intake into the Big Brother house in Bow, east London.

"It was a prefab building. At one stage it was so cold they had to bring in heaters and there was an infestation of ants," recalls Nolan.

"It was in the back of beyond, there were perimeter fences like some kind of state penitentiary in America."

In those early days Big Brother was billed as an experiment in psychology and sociology.

But Nolan notes how the show changed over the years to appeal to a largely "tabloid audience".

"Every year the programme had to up the bar, making it a bit nastier, more manipulative, maybe a bit more aggressive, just bringing in different extremes every year.

"As a result of that many people have been turned off by it because it wasn't that social experiment it set out to to be."

Nolan believes the show becomes more interesting at the half-way mark when the number of housemates has thinned out.

"Before that it's just a big loud bubble bath of crazy people," she says.

"People think our year was different and there was a naivety and we were nice people - but we were exactly the same as all the others.

"In our year there were people like Nicola, Caroline and Darren who were big performers. Nicola brought out a single afterwards, Nasty Nick brought out a book, Darren and Mel wanted to get into television.

"So quite a few of the people who joined in the first year were clued enough to know this could work for them."

But did Nolan enjoy her time in the house?

"There were moments when I wanted to leave due to boredom, or people irritating me, or missing people at home. Did I enjoy it? It wasn't about enjoying it, it was about getting through it."

TV history

Nolan was part of that famous showdown when Craig Phillips challenged Nasty Nick over his attempts to influence the eviction nominations.

It became a piece of reality TV history.

"We didn't have a clue it was having such an impact on the outside world," says Nolan.

"We were just irritated and annoyed by it, but we didn't know that anybody would be tuning in to watch it really. It was just something small in our world that we wanted to deal with."

For someone who did not go into the house with a media career in mind, there is a certain irony that Nolan is now a well-known TV face in Ireland.

She is about to work as a producer on an RTE reality show Mission Beach which follows eight teenagers learning to be lifeguards in San Diego.

I ask how Big Brother has changed her. "Big Brother made me focus on where I wanted to go in life. I'd been a drifter for 30 years," she says.

She describes the end of the show on C4 as a good decision.

"I think the uber-fans will miss it, but I think Big Brother was of a time and that was the Noughties - and it's right that it should be put to bed. I'm going to watch all of it. I'm interested to see what their slant will be this year.

"Won't it be interesting if Big Brother is not about manipulation, but about love? But would the public love that?"

Big Brother begins on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 2100 BST.

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