diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The 20th series of Big Brother kicked off this week, with sixteen fresh housemate wannabes confined inside a brand new Big Brother House.

But where is that house, why will you never drive past it, and which much-loved teatime snack is manufactured in the same street, indeed...

Where is the new Big Brother House hiding in plain sight in London's best-smelling cul-de-sac?

A surprisingly high number of news outlets published a similar clickbait post at the weekend, promising to reveal "the exact location of the house". But if you clicked through to the article all they said was "Garden Studios, a newly built set in West London" before proceeding to showcase newly-released photos of the interior. I had to do a bit more digging to discover whereabouts in West London Garden Studios might be, and then I nodded, and then I popped down to have a look. I'd been inside both of the previous Big Brother houses so I couldn't miss out on the chance to see the third.

The first Big Brother house (2000-2001)
Three Mills Studios, Bow E3

Peter Bazalgette's production company 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.

I'd watched avidly, but by the time I came to investigate the site in 2003 it had been razed clean and I could only wander through an unlocked gate into an empty field. It was already hard to spot that Channel 4 had ever been here, with the footprint of the original building already 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. It was still possible to stand on "Davina's Bridge", across which evictees wheeled their suitcases on Friday nights. But Newham council's plan to return the site to natural habitat would soon be thwarted, first by the Olympics and then by sewage.

In 2007 the public footpath past the site was sealed off for the construction of Three Mills Lock, a futile attempt to provide waterborne access for the construction of the Olympic Park. Then in 2010 the site was earmarked by Thames Water as the western end of the Lee Tunnel, a giant sewer designed to end harmful sewage discharges overflowing into Abbey Creek. Material excavated from its massive shaft was stored and stacked where C4's daily drama had taken place, burying the site of Craig and Brian's triumphs forever beneath a hump of earth, and although you can now walk past the site again it's been firmly and permanently quarantined.

» My full report on the first Big Brother house, with 9 photos

The second Big Brother house (2002-2018)
Elstree Studios, Borehamwood WD6

After Big Brother's producers were given their marching orders from Newham they chose to settle instead at Elstree Studios, the world famous facility located at the less glamorous end of Borehamwood High Street, just round the back of the Tesco megastore. A fully secure semi-permanent corral was created, with a living area and garden surrounded by camera runs on all sides. It got a makeover every year but proceeded to be used for all the ordinary series, umpteen Celebrity versions and several spinoffs. Alison Hammond, Jade Goody and Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace all made their TV debuts here. But the general public generally got no further than the eviction party outside, so when the National Trust offered 500 free tickets as a promotional gimmick in 2013 I leapt in and grabbed one.

They took us in through the camera runs, the dark back passages shielded behind mirrored windows and dangling black drapes. And then we stepped into the actual bedroom, as seen on hours of TV, and the BB superfans amongst the group let out an audible squeal. Then they let us into the bathroom, bedecked with whatever that year's plumbing was, and also the garden with its hot tub, outdoor shower and mangle. The view from the treehouse spoiled the illusion somewhat, with the George Lucas soundstage poking over the perimeter wall, but you never saw any of that on the telly. When we were finally allowed inside the sacred central space they even wheeled out three recent housemates, but all from the Channel 5 era so I had no idea who they were. I couldn't survive ten weeks cramped in here, I thought, not with multiple egotists, nowhere to hide and scores of cameras watching.

The best part was probably when they invited us all upstairs, one by one, to sit in the infamous diary room chair. Sit here and stare into the lens, they said, and then a disembodied Big Brother chirped up and asked us questions. I proved stunningly bad at answering, so much so that my interrogation stumbled to a halt almost before it had begun, and was promptly ushered out after the taking of a souvenir selfie. Not only would I have hated being a housemate, I thought, but they'd never have invited me anyway. But I can claim to have sat in the ultimate TV hotseat, with the added bonus that almost nobody was watching... much like the winner of series 18 as it happens.

» My full report on the second Big Brother house, with 20 photos

The third Big Brother house (2023)
Garden Studios, Park Royal NW10

Now on ITV after a five year hiatus, the new Big Brother house is a very different beast. No longer a separate building it's been constructed inside another, a giant grey soundstage, which protects the whole production from the weather and exterior scrutiny. This is part of Garden Studios, a state of the art facility with four sound stages, two Virtual Production stages and multiple behind the scenes areas, all of which opened in 2021. It's located on the northern edge of the Park Royal Industrial Estate between the canal and the railway, a short walk from Harlesden station. Specifically it's on Waxlow Road, a lengthy dead end which once led to the Heinz factory, and can be found right down at the far end past the fire station. Waxlow Road is also where you'll find the McVities factory, still very much a going concern, so if you pick your time right the smell of digestives will waft out to transport your nostrils to nirvana.

The Big Brother house has been built inside the soundstage called Iris 2/3, the first of the grey sheds on the left. You'll see nothing interesting from the road, just high walls, blank gates and a staircase the production staff possibly walk up and down. No security guards are needed, everything's secure and the CCTV vibe is strong, although I imagine it'll be different down here on eviction night. Also the garden is tucked away on the other side, which is south-facing, so there's no chance of eavesdropping on the latest astroturf action. But it also happens to abut the Grand Union Canal so I wondered if there'd be any better view from the towpath... only to discover, dammit, it's closed.

It's not a Big Brother-inspired closure, they were going to shut it anyway. It's part of a plan to improve the Harlesden Canalside, a project so important it has its own Instagram account and so dull they've only posted three times, most recently in June. Also the diversion lets you back onto the towpath via the Oliver Business Park and, hey presto, that's just in time to see the two Iris stages with a rig of spotlights pitched up inbetween. You can't quite stand opposite, well not officially, although it'd be the simplest thing to wander past the barrier and see the big eye in the eviction zone. What I did get was a nice photo of canalside reflections and another as a narrowboat passed through and disturbed them all. But for the real action, be it Salmongate, Olivia's no-hands cartwheel or Jenkin's exploding suitcase, this year's Big Brother House is alas only visible on screen.

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