This Was Big Brother

Reminder: Disclaimer and Copyright notice

The era of the UK franchise of Big Brother coming from Elstree Studios appears to be all but over. And as a freelancer who worked there, it is brutally upsetting to see. But I can’t help watching.

I worked freelance on Big Brother from August 2011 through to November 2018 on both the civilian and “Celebrity” version, as a Reality Director and Senior Director during the Channel 5 period. I left a full-time job as a Director and Vision Mixer with Sky back in 2011 after my seemingly impossible shot-in-the-dark job application was considered, and I got an interview. The next thing I know, the front doors to the Big Brother house opened and Mark Henderson, the first ever Channel 5 Big Brother housemate, walked down those famous stairs…

Fast forward seven years, and the show appears shelved for a second time (the first being when Channel 4 decided not to renew). For clarification, all Channel 5 contracts had been completed in full; the first two-year-deal contract agreed in 2011, followed by the two-year extension in 2012, and the further three-year extension in 2015.

Skip to “But it could have stayed standing til 2021!”…

Or continue reading…

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A frame taken from the first Channel 5 episode. Series 12, episode 1.

I hate to see the terms “cancelled” or “axed” being used, as they imply current or ongoing contracts were cut short. This is not the case. To make it clear, the show was not axed or cancelled. It just simply wasn’t renewed. “Shelved” by definition. I.e., temporarily not proceeding.

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The first ever house submitted to Hertsmere Council for planning permission 21/12/2001

A quick Big Brother UK history lesson; The original Big Brother UK house was in Bow, near 3 Mills Studios in east London. It was reported that the production moved after two series because “Channel 4 failed to secure long term planning permission”. How true this is, I don’t know. But Production did move north to Elstree Studios, where Planning Permission with Hertsmere Council was requested for a 2’500sq/ft “simulated dwelling” on 21st December 2001, which the council then granted on 31st December 2001. In other words, they were allowed to build a new Big Brother House and full production within the Elstree Studios compound (on stilts, on top of their old water tank stage).

A mere 4 months after that planning permission was granted, the third civilian series of Big Brother UK launched Live from Elstree on 24th May 2002. An incredible feat to build from scratch, to on-air, in 4 months. Since then, 594 official Housemates have been through those front doors (and some out the back). Plus countless more unofficial ones due to the way Production works, with rehearsals and the use of test Housemates or “guinea pigs”. Add in the hundreds and hundreds of crew who have come and gone over the years… Big Brother was an absolute behemoth of a production, and a tireless workhorse for Endemol.

With the third Channel 5 contract finishing at the end of 2018, negotiations were reported to have been ongoing to determine the future of the show, with no definitive information either way on a contract renewal, or if the show would find another platform. On the 14th Sept 2018 at 11.15am, Launch Day morning for the civilian summer series, Channel 5 posted a tweet stating “It’s time for this game to end. The final series of Big Brother starts tonight at 9pm”.

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A screen grab of the Channel 5 tweet on 14/09/18

To say this was a shock to the crew is no understatement. Such soul destroying news for the entire production team, especially on the morning of an incredibly busy Launch day schedule!

Eleven minutes later, Endemol Shine UK released a statement which read “We are incredibly proud of Big Brother which has consistently been the highest rated show for Channel 5 over the past seven years, with the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother being the channel’s highest rating show of the year, growing its audience year on year by 17% and tripling the channel’s slot average for 16-24s. This performance is a credit to the fantastic production team, plus Emma, Rylan, Marcus and the many housemates over the years who have delivered so many unmissable series. Big Brother continues to be a global phenomenon. The UK is one of 20 countries where the show will air in 2018, including the US where Celebrity Big Brother was recently renewed, four different versions in India and last month’s Celebrity Big Brother in Germany which saw a rise of 85% series on series. Whilst disappointed not to reach an agreement with Channel 5, the decision opens up a new chapter and we are excited about future possibilities for Big Brother in the UK”.

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A screen grab of the Endemol Shine UK tweet on 14/09/18

With no new (or renewed) contracts in place that could enable the house to stay at Elstree Studios, the tough decisions must have been made by someone, after a 17-year history, to bring the Elstree house down. With that rather largely irreversible decommission decision, the house was to be retired. De-rigged, slowly stripped of all cabling and equipment, all production cabins removed, and the physical demolition beginning soon after. The image shown below shows the house in it’s full and final glory back in January 2018.

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A frame taken from Celebrity Big Brother 2018. Series 21, Episode 18.

What’s shown in the bbspy and Big Blagger images below is a demolition in progress. Here’s a big a forensic look at what’s going on.

In the top-right was the interview “orbit” stage, now completely gone, replaced with tangled strips of sheet metal and a pile of steel support beams. Below and right of that, where the Live Set once was, are large skips for wood, rubble and roofing.

In the middle-right is where the newer building used to be, known on the show as the Task Arena. If you look closely, you can actually see the splintered remnants of what was the main stairs walls. The dark blue background, with red and orange curved lines as the giveaway.

The stairs leading to the “second Diary Room”, the entire upper level (a vast empty space), the flooring, all internal doors, stairs, ramps, carpets, walls and windows are gonee. And some of the foundation. Literally right down to the ground.

Below and left of the Task Arena was the Task Garden, where the Tuesday “GameChanger” took place for the last series. A small pile of green artificial grass has been heaped up in the right corner of the garden, near what was a Housemate smoking area (ironically a fire exit). The whole newer extension was around 2-3ft higher than the original structure, and you can see some of those foundations in the bottom corner near the grass. Sections of the grey high wall paneling with the boxed lighting lies in the middle of the Task Garden.

Almost in the middle of the image (under the “BigB” watermark) is the Small Task Room. I know this because you can see what looks to be a yellow coloured outline on the ground with a white arrow pointing at it. That isosceles trapezoid shape is black and yellow hazard tape that I personally marked the floor with for a Task, with directions for the Housemates as they stepped from the Diary Room and into the Small Task Room.

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Photo used with permission of bbspy and Big Blagger, showing demolition in Feb 2019

Which means directly below the Small Task Room was the Diary Room, still partially roofed, but probably open to the elements if we’d seen from another angle. The Diary Room chair survived, presumably being transported back to Endemol offices in Shepherds Bush going by this photo on Twitter.

Just above the Diary Room would have been the camera runs. There appears to be a yellow piece of paper on the floor, probably one of the many laminated window numbers that were on the walls near windows, so camera crews knew where they were in the dark. These yellow numbers were seen whenever a BOTS guest did a link from the camera runs, or when Cameron and Cian were chased through the runs on halloween for BB 2018.

Directly above the Small Task Room in the photo would have been the Store Room. Wendy The Washing Machine is nowhere to be seen. In fact, the Store Room, the small annex (where Roxanne and Ben kissed), the black and yellow chevron painted Task Arena corridor that connected the two houses, the upstairs main house entrance, the upstairs Diary Room, and the famous stairs are all obliterated.

It’s difficult to tell from the image what was still intact, but it’s not hard to imagine that the main living area and kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom was either under way or would be gone next.

The outside area looks remarkably untouched, with sliding doors and glass windows still in place. The pool space and outside shower is still there, as is the jacuzzi. But with that small digger parked in the middle of the garden, it looks like the inner non-load-bearing walls will be stripped out soon.

It should be noted that some media reported a bunch of nonsense back in November 2018, that the house was torn down two weeks after the show finished, suggesting the site was “overrun by diggers and bulldozers”. That report showed photos of one single vehicle, which wasn’t a digger. Or a bulldozer. It was a construction lift. That same media also captioned “parts of the building were in a skeletal state, with just scaffolding left over”, whilst showing a photograph of a different area of the Elstree Studios backlot; a set constructed for The Crown production which was being shot on a different lot, north of the house.

“But It Could Have Stood Till 2021”

It’s worth dispelling the notion that Hertsmere Council had somehow “renewed the contract for another three years”. A comment I see a lot, which has caused confusion across social media. This is not true, and factually (and grammatically) incorrect for a number of reasons. Buildings being constructed must be dealt with properly by the local council through Legal Acts, Orders, and Regulations. Planning permissions can be granted or denied by the council, and are subject to conditions which are set out after careful considerations by the council, alongside consultations with Environmental Health, Licensing, Highways Agency, Water Agencies, Fire Safety Offices, National Grid, etc.

Any Planning Permission granted for Big Brother had a review date attached, to allow the Local Planning Authority to review the particulars of any conditions at a later date. This can be seen on any application on the council website. For example, the Planning Permission granted back in 2001 to build the house stated Condition 1 as “for a limited period only, expiring on 31st January 2003, on or before which date the building(s) hereby permitted shall be removed and the land reinstated and left in a neat and tidy condition“.

But, Planning Permissions already agreed can also be amended. By applying a “variation of conditions” on an already-granted application, the council could essentially renew that application under a new reference. An example as in the above case back in 2001, by re-applying the same application with a “variation on Condition 1… to allow the site to continue to be used as a temporary dwelling for television production until 31st January 2004“. So the original 2001 planning application had stated a conditional review date of 31st January 2003, which then was reviewed and modified to update the conditional review date to 31st January 2004. For 17 years, on and on those renewals went, and were nothing out of the ordinary. Just nobody really thought to look.

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Elstree site plan, submitted for Big Brother Planning Permission renewal on 04/07/18

Additionally, the land has always belonged to Elstree Studios, the boundaries of which can be seen in the above Planning Permission application from 2018. The plot of land on which the house stood never “belonged” to Endemol.

With the last Big Brother Planning Permission being due for review on 30th September 2018, an extension was required, as the show was to be on-air till 5th November. 36 days over the review date. Council records show that on July 4th 2018 another application was submitted to again review the conditions and modify the next review date. This was granted, and the next review date was set to be 30th Sept 2021.

To clarify. Hertsmere Council agreed Planning Permission for the retention of the Big Brother buildings until 30th September 2021. This was a regular review on the conditions already set out by the council and its consultants from 2001, and was necessary to keep the show on-air without breaking the agreed conditions.

This updated Planning Permission date had absolutely nothing to do with any future contracts with any channel or platforms, nor did it mean the house would stay standing.

But, back to the demolition pictures. If you’d watched the series (or were a Housemate!), you’d have a good idea on the layout and geography of the last incarnation of the house design. But just in case, below is a composition showing the various rooms around the Big Brother house and their relative positions during the ongoing demolition (click for a larger version).

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All frames taken from Channel 5 episodes, except the demolition photo

Demolition of the house has clearly been methodical. And quite brutal. Seeing the House in this condition is nothing short of astonishingly heartbreaking.

Instead, I’d like to remember all the things that came from my experience of Big Brother:

Every single phenomenal housemate that came and went; the incredible tasks that were designed, built and struck on a DAILY basis; the productionStory and Edit workforce that saw the first thread of the day develop at 9.30am, and have a polished 46 minute show constantly updated and turned around, ready to view 24hrs later (for comparison, a one hour Channel 4 documentary can spend 3 months in an edit suite. We turned around an episode in a day); the dedication and commitment shown by Emma, Rylan, Marcus, Brian, and every other presenter, host and guest who graced our galleries and studios; all the Runners who cut their teeth in quite an unforgiving and high pressure environment; the dozens upon dozens of camera operators who stood in silence in the dark of those camera runs for hours on end, capturing all the raw elements needed to make the show; the Engineers who would physically don wetsuits and climb under the foundations of the House to trace cable faults, constantly re-balancing cameras that had been knocked; the lighting dept who supplied an endless supply of smiles and anecdotes, forever up on the roof replacing bulbs; the sound dept, forever at breaking point when another mic pack ended up in the pool (or down the loo), and for shouting “up-the-hill to down-the-hill” when trying to get communication between the reality gallery and the spin-off show; the Loggers, who transcribed every utterance and highlighted every scenario, frantically typing a new line of text every time I pressed a button; the lawyers who poured over every frame of footage and analysed every sentence, and have some incredible training on do’s and don’ts; the Seniors and Execs who’s decisions and leadership shaped every episode 24/7 (on and off-air); every member of Security who reacted to every incident in and out of the House on a daily basis, and a team of individuals who I know for a fact would risk their own lives to make sure other people kept safe.

Long live Big Brother. I truly do hope some day it gets back to us.

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A handful of the BB2018 finale night crew, as seen through the lens of the camera jib.

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The Fitzroy: Recce Mission

A while back (January 2013) I supported a Kickstarter project to fund a feature film called “The Fitzroy” (I get a GAS MASK from the movie as one of the perks for being a backer!). To quote the Kickstarter website; “The Fitzroy is an independent, live action, feature film; a black comedy set in a post-apocalyptic 1950’s Margate. The world is covered in a poisonous gas and the Fitzroy Hotel (a beached submarine) is the last place for a traditional holiday. The hotel is sent into chaos when one of the guests murders the hotel’s owner. It is left to Bernard, The Fitzroy’s hapless bellboy, to keep the hotel from falling apart as he struggles to hide the murders from the other guests and the ever-suspicious authorities.

The Black Widow submarine

When the project was funded I emailed the Production crew to offer my services with camera and recording kit on top of the funds I had already donated. I was pleased when they got back to me, asking if I could film some behind-the-scenes footage during the recording of the movie’s soundtrack with the Green Rock River Band. So in February I ended up in North London and got some great cut-away shots. After sending that footage off to them, they contacted me again to ask if I was free to shoot some more, and visit the actual submarine!

I’m not one to turn down that sort of chance-of-a-lifetime, and so I agreed. On Tuesday I travelled to Rochester to meet up with some of the production crew who were on a recce for the film. The submarine, an ex-Russian Foxtrot B-39, is 92 metres long and only 7.5 metres wide. It used to dive to 250m below with up to 77 souls onboard and stay submerged for up to 30 days at a time. It also carried 20 missiles…

I’ve been given permission to share some screen grabs from the raw footage, so here’s some shots from the day:

 

Approaching The Sub

Shooting The Hull

On Approach

Listing Sub

Please Don't Touch

Untitled

Up Top

Down Below

Forward Missile Room

Red Loo

Angled Meeting

Righting The Boat

Untitled

Ironic Bernard

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Exit Hatch

Beach Scene

Beautiful Sub

Untitled

Rear Missile Room

When Cinema Fails

We are in an age where downloading pirate versions of the latest blockbusters is as easy as making a cup of tea. Let me be clear, however, that I do not condone piracy. But why on earth would anyone want to pay their hard-earned cash for a below-par cinema experience? Here’s a little blog about an experience at my local cinema watching Skyfall.

My main passion in life is cinema. The thrill of a movie experience comes down to being taken away to another world, connecting with the characters and being part of a crazy ride. At home, I’ve attempted to recreate the cinema experience with the big screen TV, surround sound system, comfy beanbags and popcorn. But it truly pales in comparison to a proper cinema visit.

Last night I had high hopes for watching Sam Mendes’ Skyfall in the best possible way and so headed to the local cinema. But my experience at Cineworld Feltham was truly shocking. I don’t know who designed the space for these screens, but it appears they have little to no experience in acoustics or aesthetics. It was appalling.

The floor had bags of popcorn strewn around the place. The projector screen was dirty with smear marks all over it. But the worst thing for me was the sound. During the commercials and trailers I noticed that something wasn’t quite right. The voices, which in a 5.1 surround sound system are meant to come from the central speaker below the screen, were coming mainly from the left of the cinema screen. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think they likely have a row of “central” speakers along the bottom of the screen. But only the very left-hand side one was working.

This sound problem causes a visual problem; if someone is talking on the right of screen you don’t expect to have their voice come from the left. It’s confusing and distracting. Imagine wearing headphones to listen to music and having all the lyrics in the left ear and the drums only in the right. You’d spot right away that something was wrong.

What was also worse was the volume of the sound. It was clearly too loud as the speakers were rasping and distorting during certain scenes. The volume should not distort the quality of the sound. There’s a good chance that the volume levels are what’s blown some of their speakers. Does anyone check these things?

The other aspect of this cinema was its shape. The best place to sit would ideally be somewhere near the back and central to the screen. Not only do you therefore get the best viewing angle, you are also positioned in the perfect place for the sound. But there are no seats in the centre area, because they chose to put the aisle right down the middle instead. So any position you watched the screen from was going to be at an angle to the screen. And in essence there are no back row of seats, as the cinema is in an L-shape! With the double-doors to the back-left of the cinema , the back three rows are only on the right hand side of the aisle! So anyone sitting there neither gets the best view of the screen nor decent sound as the left hand side speakers are blocked by the doors!

I’ve written a letter to the cinema asking the reasons behind the design of the screens and pointing out the problem with their sound. Here’s hoping someone takes notice.

To advertise in their own cinema that “piracy is a crime” is one thing, but to let someone sit through that sort of experience is another.

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UPDATE: As of 8th February, more than 7 weeks after the letter was sent, there was still no response from Odeon regarding the above.

A Symi Holiday: Day 7

Today I had a “reset day”, took holiday snaps of Symi in infrared, had pasta instead of pizza, was verbally abused by local children and watched a man jump from space.

But firstly, hello to all my new readers! People from all across the world have visited the blog in the past few days including the UK, Greece, Australia, Italy, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, the United States, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and even South Africa. Amazing! It would be great if you left a message using the Comments box below. Let me know where you’re from!

Sunday is a day of rest. I had feared with Symi being a fairly religious place that bells by the dozens would ring out from dusk till dawn. Thankfully not. Instead I slept like a baby. Saturday evening had been a late one, stretching into the early hours as I spent quite a while going through the photos for the test time lapse, tweaking and editing here and there to get it looking good. Of course, those images were just a dry run. From Monday onwards I intended to capture various areas of Symi to make a short picturesque trailer. The idea was to have it look almost like a slideshow of photos, with just the tiniest amount of movement in them as the sun passes, stretching shadows across walls and reflecting off windows, etc. But this was my “reset day”, basically meaning a day to get back on track. I do this if I’ve been on a week of nightshift and I’m switching to dayshift, for example. Effectively it can either be a long or short day, in order to defy the jet-lag style shift to my body clock. This was a short day.

I had woken up with food on my mind. Any single self-catering holidaymaker will understand the fridge being empty, apart from bottled water. The only food of substance in the apartment was some form of Nutella I had bought alongside my essentials (instant coffee and milk). Two spoonfuls of chocolate spread had been my breakfast.

Come mid afternoon, after doing some hand-washed laundry (there’s no dry cleaners around here, nor a washing machine in sight) I decided to try some infrared photography around Symi. For those unfamiliar, infrared is a type of light that humans can’t see. So these aren’t normal looking photos. Spectacularly in infrared green foliage looks blue, the sky can be black and everyday colours lose their saturation. It’s a world away from the norm.

Below are three images taken today of the same place; one black and white, one full colour and one infrared.

Infrared comparison

Notice the subtle differences between the black and white version and the infrared version. It adds a twist to everyday photography giving dream-like results, sometimes producing images that look like they could be from another world. It’s fascinating, considering it is our world. We just can’t see it.

Kali Strata walkway, Symi
Click the image for a 360-degree interactive panoramic of Kali Strata in Symi, Greece.

When reaching the end of the Kali Strata steps I realised my legs weren’t burning with pain, like they were when I first walked this route. Clearly, a sign that my body was slowly customising to help with all these stairs. At last, another step towards being fit and healthy! So I headed to the pizza place…

At the Dolphin restaurant I was pleased that the owner recognised me. With a wide smile and genuine pleasure he took my order of number 22 and 7; garlic bread and cheese followed by pasta with fresh tomato sauce, tuna, onion, garlic, green pepper and herbs. A fabulous meal indeed, finished off with a fresh coffee. Although clearly my eyes were bigger than my stomach!

To burn off some calories, I took a short stroll along the main street and across the bridge, snapping a few images along the way. I had left it quite late in the day for doing infrared photography. Strong sunshine causes object to absorb and reflect a lot of infrared, but this was late afternoon. I had already worked out when doing the time lapse stuff that even a few hours before actual sunset means the harbour and most of the valley are already in shadow. The sun was sinking fast enough that whilst looking through the zoomed lens on the camera you could actually see the shadows racing across the landscape. It was now or never. Or next week.

Infrared Symi Harbour

Some of the images came out really well. They have that look of scratch art, where an image is created by etching off black ink painted over coloured layers of clay or paper. Given the race against time which the sun was clearly winning, I didn’t stay downtown very long.

One thing I noticed today was that the kids playing in the basketball court down in the village were nowhere near as loud as their projected voices were by the time they got up  the slope! I wondered if they were aware of this amplification. I’m sure the locals up the hill knew all about it.

Wandering back up the dreaded stairs of doom, I noticed there had been a lot more kids around than usual. I didn’t know if this was just a lack of observation, or if there was a reason for it. My walk took me passed a little girl sitting on her doorstep who’s hair was being plaited by a little boy, possibly her brother. The boy and another friend looked up at me as I walked by the trio, so I responded with a whispered “calimera” which I had heard Ian, The Saviour, use on our walk on Tuesday. Unbeknownst to me till later in the evening, this meant “good morning”. I’d been saying it all week to everyone, at all times of the day. The boy not pleating hair looked over at me, frowning in a puzzled way. I kept walking. He looked to the other two and asked them a question in Greek before turning to me and saying something. I didn’t catch it, nor did I respond. He chose another Greek word and shouted it in my direction. I still didn’t respond. He shouted again. The other pair were quietly giggling by this point, so I only assume it was some form of childish goad or insult. I had no way to respond, so I just kept walking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the verbal one shrug his shoulders and glance over at the girl, mumbling something under his breath which I imagined to be something similar to “why did he say that!?”. It was funny to them. Looking back, it was funny to me too.

Symi by infrared

It would be a great shame for me to post a blog without mentioning a stray kitten or cat. So here’s a mention for day 7. Just down the path from the flat was one of the cutest but saddest ones I’d seen. A kitten that could only have been a few weeks old, curled up asleep on top of a wheelie bin. It was clearly homeless due to the mess it was in. Its dominant white with black flecks were splattered with dirt and it had dried mud all over its face. It had obviously been in a scrap or two as well. Such a terrible way for something to live, considering the small life it’s already had and the life a loving home could give. I’ll try get a photo of it for next time.

And so, that was that. Short and sweet. The body should have been successfully reset, meaning I could plan a sunrise time lapse for early Monday or Tuesday morning.