diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 14, 2020

20 years ago today, on a derelict site beside the Bow Back Rivers, the first contestants entered the first Big Brother House. On the evening of Friday 14th July 2000 ten unknown faces were driven in limos to Three Mills Studios, then ushered out of a back gate and herded across a narrow bridge hauling their suitcases behind them.

On the far side was a compound containing a space-age bungalow, rapidly constructed over the last two months and fitted out with 31 cameras and 26 microphones. The contestants' entry was so low key that Channel 4 didn't screen it live, believe it or not, saving the footage for the official launch show four days later. But within weeks the house's inhabitants were famous, even infamous, and 10 million tuned in to watch Craig's final victory on Day 64.

Peter Bazalgette's production company had scouted several locations for the first Big Brother House, including Radlett, Elstree and Shepperton, but eventually plumped for a scrap of wasteland in Bow. This lay within cabling distance of the back of a major studio complex, and best of all nobody lived anywhere nearby. The precise location was at the fork of two tidal waterways - the Prescot Channel and Abbey Creek - just to the south of the Abbey Mills pumping station and facing the Twelvetrees gasholder cluster. The production team even did the housemates' weekly shopping in my local Tesco, alas just before I moved to E3.

The series returned to Bow in 2001, transmitted slightly earlier in the year so it was all done and dusted by the end of July. Newham council then asked for their land back, with the intention of returning it to natural habitat, so the producers upped sticks and relocated to Borehamwood. The original site has had a chequered history since then, with wildlife certainly not the top priority, and Big Brother superfan sightseers are no longer welcomed. I've been down to the Prescot Channel for an anniversary visit.

I first stepped onto the original site in 2003, wandering through an unlocked gate into an empty field. It was already hard to spot that Channel 4 had ever been here, with even the footprint of the original building entirely indistinct. Grass now grew up across coarse pebbly soil, and a single group of birch saplings thrust through what might have been the bedroom or the chicken run. I had a rush just being here, amid the unobserved seclusion of what two years earlier had been Britain's most scrutinised field. This could have developed into a wildlife refuge or a nice place for a kickabout and a picnic, but alas it never got the chance. [three 2003 photos]

In 2007 British Waterways announced they needed to close the adjacent footpath in readiness for a grand Olympic project. Three Mills Lock would provide a gateway for the eco-friendly delivery of materials needed to construct the Olympic Park, as well as sealing off prime riverside upstream from the vagaries of tidal water. I headed back before they sealed off the area, stood on Davina's Bridge one last time and then peered through what was now a firmly locked gate. The House had been reclaimed by scrubland, in part, while a broad swathe of mud dominated elsewhere.

Three Mills Lock transformed the Prescot Channel, even if hardly any boats have ever used it for its intended purpose. In 2012 a temporary footbridge was added where the original had been, much higher than before to cater for all those non-existent boats. This should have offered an excellent view of the Big Brother compound, except that this had recently been entirely bulldozed to make way for the Lee Tunnel, a massive sewage-based construction project. Material excavated from its massive shaft was now being stored and stacked where C4's daily drama had taken place, and Newham's dream of creating a nature reserve was officially dead.

The Lee Tunnel, itself the opening salvo of the ongoing Thames Tideway project, was eventually completed in 2016. This meant the footpath round the back of the old site could now be reopened, after the best part of a decade, with access now via a footbridge over Three Mills Lock. It was good to finally be back, if only walking past. But although all of Thames Water's building works had now been cleared away, a huge heap of excavated spoil now covered the area where the House had been, firmly sealed off behind a much sturdier metal fence.

Which is pretty much how things are today. A grassy hump in a quarantined field.

The Long Wall Path which loops round the old House is busier now, being a useful connection between Three Mills Green and the Greenway for walkers and cyclists alike. One side faces a river you can hardly glimpse, screened by trees and the most extensive invasion of Himalayan balsam I have ever seen. On the landward side is the original wooden fence, with a few of its slats missing allowing anyone to slip through, but only as far as the new metal fence which isolates the Big Brother site.

Not only has the first Big Brother House disappeared, but the land on which it sat has been entirely covered over and sealed off. Grass and saplings now colonise the spoil heap, in much the same way that they colonised the underlying soil after the House was first taken down. The footbridge that starred in every eviction episode has been removed to make way for a white elephant Olympic infrastructure project whose lock gates rarely open. And a futuristic dome now caps the shaft of the Lee Tunnel alongside, which has helped to relieve the Northern Outfall Sewer's Victorian engineering. One Bazalgette project lives on, while his great-grandson's groundbreaking media project has been entirely wiped away.

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