Big Brother’s Gretel Kileen and Sara Marie nineteen years ago.
Big Brother’s Gretel Kileen and Sara Marie nineteen years ago.

Pop CultureJune 28, 2020

Back to bum dance, back to reality: Rewatching the first-ever episode of Big Brother Australia

Big Brother’s Gretel Kileen and Sara Marie nineteen years ago.
Big Brother’s Gretel Kileen and Sara Marie nineteen years ago.

A new season of Big Brother Australia starts tonight, but where did it all begin? Tara Ward travels back to 2001 to relive the best moments from the show’s inaugural episode.

Hold on to your three-quarter cargo pants and get ready to dial up your modem, because there’s a lot of unexpected chicken content during the first ever moments of Big Brother Australia. Host Gretel Killeen sprints through an empty house, pointing wildly at random objects. “What’s the first thing we notice? A camera, with a microphone!” she shouts. But wait, there’s more. “Look over there! It’s a chook pen! Look at all the chickens! You can have a relationship with one if you want. You can eat one! Another camera! Say hello!”

Gretel Killeen, 19 years ago

Welcome back to 2001, when reality TV was in its infancy and you could hook up with a chicken live on national television. Reality series Big Brother Australia was about to change our TV world forever, and Gretel’s frenetic house tour suggested we were in for quite the ride.

In a few moments, 12 lucky Australians will join a new social experiment where they’ll be locked away from society for 85 days, their every move captured for our entertainment, six nights a week. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, in a time long before we had cameras and microphones everywhere. There is nowhere to hide, not even for the chickens.

We’d never seen a show like BBAU before, where viewers could control the narrative by voting out housemates they didn’t like, and we could watch a live internet feed of the house whenever we wanted. It was revolutionary, so it’s no wonder Gretel is a whirlwind of excitement blowing through an empty house of dreams. There are cameras in the bedroom. There are cameras in the bathroom. Did she mention the chooks? You can eat their eggs! BBAU is every poultry voyeur’s dream come true.

This chicken is absolutely no longer with us. RIP chook

“You can do whatever you like in the double bed, except there’s an infrared camera that’s going to PICK IT ALL UP!” Gretel warns from the bedroom. Madness. BBAU is actually encouraging us to perve at strangers. They’re daring us to stare into this murky goldfish bowl of life and work out what’s actually happening beneath that dancing doona. Soon, 12 strangers will sit at the dining table and we will watch them eat. “There’s no dishwasher! No toaster! No microwave!” Gretel says. It’s hectic as hell, except it isn’t.

Because the big thing you notice in the series launch is how casual everybody is. “Are you going to win?” Gretel asks housemate Sharna, who just shrugs her shoulders and replies “nah”. BBAU is a three-month holiday for these guys, an ironic escape from reality, and winning is just a bonus. There’s no mention of strategy or game play, and the housemates are exactly who they say they are. It’s sweet and innocent and from the point of view of 2020’s apocalyptic Love Is Blind/MAFSAU/Too Hot To Handle reality TV landscape, very, very strange.

This guy has no idea what he’s about to get into

The housemates arrive in a long line of white limousines, played in by some funky music that belongs on a Kel and Kath Day-Knight power-walking mix tape. It’s pure class, basically. Security guards line the footpath, because anything could happen, even though nothing does. Nobody knows how to behave on reality TV yet, and the nervous housemates make awkward farewells to friends and family. “Good on ya, mate,” they say, before Gretel interrogates them about their sex lives. “Have you done it, or haven’t you?” she asks Sara-Marie’s buddy. Steady on Gretel, save it for the chooks.

The housemates are neither diverse nor dynamic, but there’s one who stands out above the rest. “I’m totally spinning out,” Sara-Marie says, blessing us with the show’s first Bum Dance. “A big bum’s good for something,” she says, shaking her arse with the rowdy confidence that will win Australia’s new-millennium heart. After bunny-ear wearing, pyjama-loving Sara-Marie comes 19-year-old Blair, whose BBAU success will take him all the way to Ramsay Street. Blair declares himself a “raging heterosexual” whose mum still does his washing. Good on ya, mate.

Reality TV’s first ever ‘Day 1’, maybe

“We’re not going to see them for three months!” Gretel shouts, as these nice people disappear through some giant gates. Of course we’d see them again, that was the whole point. Moments later, we see the housemates meet each other for the first time. You can’t hear a word, but that’s the magic of live TV. Anything could happen, even if they are just standing around talking, and we’re just sitting around, watching.

The housemates find the toilet. They work out which bin is for compost and which is for recycling.  They eat a cheese platter and Jemma tells a terrible joke. Todd chops wood. They’re just normal people doing normal things, but this format will influence television for the next 20 years. Reality juggernauts like I’m a Celebrity, Love Island, Geordie Shore, The Circle and Gogglebox owe their success to Big Brother’s obsession with people watching people.

These shows capture a cultural moment in time, just like this episode of BBAU.  Today’s contestants are savvier about the game and hungrier for fame, and social media means their influence carries on long after the show ends. In 2001, going on reality TV was an experience, but 20 years later, it’s a career goal. Nobody would go on Big Brother in 2020 and say they were there to “relax”. Not even the chickens get to relax on TV these days.

“Big Brother is always watching!” Gretel reminds us, but so are we. “Day 1” of Big Brother Australia was day one of a new TV world. Something magical was about to happen, we just didn’t know it yet.

Keep going!