Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Big Brother House - exclusive pictures

Here they are, exclusive photographs taken this weekend from inside the Big Brother house.
(Click on each picture to see it full size)

View from the lounge across the garden towards the gate This first picture shows the view from the Big Brother lounge, looking out over the Big Brother garden towards the entrance to the Big Brother compound. The Big Brother housemates entered here to face nine weeks of confinement, watched by countless TV cameras and the viewing public across the nation. Intrigue, drama, boredom, seething sexual tension, chickens - this patch of land has seen them all. In fact, this is one of the most heavily watched locations in the entire country. Just not this year...

Marjorie was here As you may have guessed, this is the site of the first Big Brother house, used in series 1 and 2. This field is in Bow, East London, just 15 minutes walk from my house. Channel 4 built the first Big Brother House here right next to Three Mills film studios, the nerve centre for the first two series. However, Channel 4 weren't sure that the show would be a hit and only had planning permission for two years, after which Newham Council insisted that the house be pulled down and the site returned to a natural habitat. This has since happened and, as you can see, you'd never guess now from this green patch of wasteland that TV history had ever taken place here. Marjorie the chicken is long gone.

The main lounge This picture shows the Big Brother lounge. It feels very strange to stand here now, surrounded by grass and gasworks, and to think back to everything that happened right here on this unassuming site. Nominations, evictions, weekly tasks and numerous secrets spilled in the diary room. Nasty Nick unmasked as a a liar and a cheat at the infamous kangaroo court round the dining table. Nichola and Craig's nude body-painting. Celebrity Jack's bid to escape through the fence. Dean's world record-breaking tower of sugar cubes. Helen falling for Paul and Paul falling for Helen. Brian's gasp at an unexpected victory. And not a blue plaque in sight.

Exit from the Big Brother compound, over the bridge towards the studio This is the view today out of the old Big Brother compound, through the gate, over the bridge and off towards the Big Brother studios. The outside world was never very far away from the original Big Brother House, so the production team were always on the lookout for people standing on the other side of the fence, shouting out things that the contestants were never meant to hear. The new house built thirty miles away on a film lot in Elstree doesn't suffer from a public footpath along its southern border, which must help security no end. There's no security at all on the site in Bow now, just an unlocked gate into a deserted field.

Davina says 'I'm coming to get you' Finally here's the legendary Big Brother bridge, leading across a particularly ugly concrete-banked water channel, part of the Bow Back Rivers. Davina would have crossed here twice on eviction night, once to collect the evicted housemate and then back again, running the gauntlet of the tabloid press and a baying crowd. Unfortunately I moved into the local area just a few weeks too late to attend any of the Big Brother evictions held down by the bridge. By the time I was setting up my home they were pulling down this one. However, two years later on it's fascinating to be able to walk down to the place where it all happened and to picture the ghosts of Big Brother still haunting a forgotten field. It's also a salutary lesson to this year's housemates. Enjoy your fleeting fame in the headlines while you can - you'll soon be completely forgotten too.

 Saturday, May 17, 2003

The local Olympics

So, at last, the Government is backing a bid for the 2012 Olympics to come to London. To be specific, East London. To be more specific, Stratford. To be even more specific, within walking distance of my house (OK, I know that last weekend we established that 'walking distance from my house' could be as far away as St Paul's Cathedral, but in this case I mean less than half an hour away). This is all rather exciting. Normally the Olympics are held somewhere glamorous, like Athens or Sydney or Barcelona. In 2012 they may be held at the end of my road. I just hope they manage to clean the area up in time.

Now, you might think that the Olympics were about sport, but you'd be wrong. The sport bit only lasts for a fortnight. The world's finest athletes descend like a swarm of medal-devouring locusts for two weeks, compete in loads of sports you've never heard of and would never normally watch, and then bugger off straight away afterwards to prepare for 2016.

No, the Olympics are about kudos. Countries battle to host the Olympics so that they can turn smugly to the rest of the world and say "See, we told you we were important." In the last 25 years the United States has hosted the Olympics twice (in fact, four times if you include the winter games). The USA is clearly a very important country - either that or they've been particularly good at bribing the International Olympic Committee recently. The UK, by contrast, hasn't hosted the Olympics since since 1948, and that was only as a hastily-put-together post-war compromise location. 2012 would be the first time London has ever won on its own merits, and not just because nobody else was interested.

But, most importantly, the Olympics are about legacy. It's not so much about how you get there as what you leave behind. Barcelona used its Games in 1992 to implement a wide-ranging urban renewal plan, transforming a decaying industrial city into a sought-after tourist destination. Sydney's Games in 2000 were a world showcase, boosting Australia's economic and cultural confidence (and Kylie's record sales). London hopes to benefit in all these ways and more. Some important transport links that have been stalled on the drawing board for years may finally get built. Some of the UK's most deprived boroughs would at last be regenerated by substantial financial investment. The redevelopment of run-down East London could mean the creation of an impressive 16000 new jobs and 7000 new homes. And most of those new homes would be on the site of the Olympic Village, which it's proposed would be built just five minutes walk from my house. It'd be strange having world class athletes as neighbours, although quite frankly we have a big enough drug problem round here as it is.

There's still two years to wait before a final decision is made, and then a huge bill to pay if that decision is yes, but I hope London's bid is successful. I can put up with two weeks of mixing with weightlifters and synchronised swimmers if that means that afterwards I finally get to live in the world class neighbourhood of a world class city.

 Sunday, May 11, 2003

My London walk 01:00

Twice in the last week I've found myself in the City of London after the tube had shut down, trying to make my way home. No problem, usually. London has an impressive network of nightbuses, including one that stops outside my house every 10 minutes. Absolutely perfect, usually. However, on busy nights this particular bus has a nasty habit of becoming jam-packed full of drunken revellers by the time it leaves the West End. Should you attempt to catch the nightbus any further east than Oxford Street the driver just sails straight past your stop, leaving you stranded. You can wait for the next nightbus, of course, but that's probably a non-stopping sardine tin too. So, last night I found myself stranded in the City of London for the second time in a week, thwarted in my attempts to catch a nightbus home, faced by a three mile walk home. (I don't do taxis, remember?). So, I followed the route of the District Line home, above ground. It only took an hour, which surprised me. And the walk went something like this:

Bank/Monument Bank/Monument: The City of London may be the hub of the world's financial markets but, outside business hours, the place is dead. This is especially true in the early hours at the weekend, with just a few lost souls walking the streets and some bored policemen keeping an eye on them. The 41-storey Gherkin hangs ignored in the sky, illuminating the empty streets. I walked past the occasional posh bar with chauffeured cars waiting outside to pick up young Debs and her pals, but everywhere else appeared mothballed waiting for life to restart at 8am on Monday morning. Just 3 miles to go...

Aldgate Aldgate: Aldgate marks the easternmost part of the City, the edge of the historic centre of London. During the Plague in 1665 a 'Great Pit' was dug here to bury the bodies of London's dead. The place hasn't improved much since. Nowadays Aldgate is just a giant roundabout, with the tube station and a few other buildings hemmed in the middle. Pedestrians are forced to use the subways, which is very annoying when there's virtually no traffic on the roads above. One subway contains motion sensors, triggering a series of recorded directions to the local shopping centre as you walk through. It's most unnerving as a disembodied voice shatters the silence, and quite pointless at 1am too.

Aldgate East Aldgate East: It's only a short walk from Aldgate to Aldgate East at the start of the Whitechapel Road. This has been the main road east out of London since Roman times, heading out to an ancient ford over the River Lea and onwards to Colchester. The best nightlife round here has to be the legendary Beigel Bake just up Brick Lane, home to the very best early-hour cuisine that 50p can buy. Nearby some early traders were already setting up their stalls for Petticoat Lane market - it was already the start of the working day for some.

Whitechapel Whitechapel: Whitechapel lies at the very heart of the East End. It's no longer appropriately-named because most people here aren't white and there aren't many chapels left (although there is the highly impressive East London Mosque). Back in 1888 very few people would have been brave enough to walk the streets of Whitechapel after dark, for this was the site of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders, and 75 years later the notorious Kray Brothers would have scared everyone indoors instead. Today the local population seem somewhat braver, with many staying out late especially to sample the local delicacy - dodgy fried chicken and greasy chips.

Stepney Green Stepney Green: 900 years ago Stepney was one of the first villages that grew up outside London. Parts of Stepney still retain a village-like period charm, particularly those around the oasis of St Dunstan's Church. Unfortunately I was walking home along the Mile End Road, which is the arse end of Stepney. It's no surprise that William Booth founded the Salvation Army round here in the 19th century. I walked hurriedly past numerous minicab offices, each of which offered a dodgy-looking shortcut home that would either shorten my journey or my life.

Mile End Mile End: Mile End is so named because it lies exactly one mile from Aldgate. However, the village of Mile End grew up long and thin alongside the road to Essex, so Mile End station actually lies nearer two miles from the City. It's a colourful area. Here you'll find the Green Bridge, a Millennium-funded project which is actually a yellow bridge carrying Mile End Park over the main road. After dark you'll also spot the recently-relaunched Purple nightclub fully illuminated in what can only be described as a hideous shade of pink, along with a lot of white speckled with orange on the pavements outside.

Bow Road Bow Road: At last, I was on the final stretch of my long walk home. Bow was originally a small village that grew up alongside the first bridge over the River Lea. Queen Matilda (yes, honestly, check your history books) ordered the bridge to be built in the 12th century after nearly drowning in the river while trying to cross to her favourite hunting grounds. That ancient bridge has since been replaced by the hideous concrete Bow flyover, but last night it was a welcome sight for me. It had been an interesting and sobering walk home, and a reminder of how compact much of London really is. Next time though, I hope there's space on the nightbus with all the drunks and nutters.

(with a nod in the direction of Swish Cottage)

 Friday, May 02, 2003

How not to impress an American tourist

1) Invite your American tourist to London on a wet windy day in May, trying in vain to convince them that the weather's not always this bad and that they only narrowly missed a forty-day drought.
2) Visit St Paul's Cathedral, having explained how stunning the ceiling is, only to discover that the entire central part of the building inside is encased in scaffolding for long-term renovation work.
3) Visit the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, having explained how many famous people are buried there, only to discover that none of them are actually famous to an American.
4) Visit the Whispering Gallery 259 steps up inside St Paul's Cathedral, having explained how a whisper on one side of the gallery can be heard 100 feet away on the other side, only to discover that the excessive scaffolding means this phenomenon doesn't work at the moment.
5) Visit the Golden Gallery 530 steps up outside St Paul's Cathedral, having explained how fantastic the view will be from above the dome, only to discover that its pissing down with rain outside and that most of the view is obscured by thick grey rainclouds.
6) Descend down numerous staircases behind snail-paced tourists back to the floor of St Paul's Cathedral, only to discover that the sun has now come out and the view from up top would have been tons better fifteen minutes later.
7) Go for an open-topped sightseeing bus tour of London, sitting in rain-splattered seats, listening to a limp commentary that merely repeats all the historical facts you could have told them anyway, gently developing hypothermia in the drizzly breeze.
8) Go for a boat trip down the Thames from the Tower to Westminster, trying to explain that half of the commentary is an example of something called the 'British sense of humour' and therefore isn't actually true.
9) Go for tea at the top of the Tate Modern, where the chips are bloody good but then they really ought to be for £2.75, with a perfect view across the river of happy tourists out round the Golden Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral enjoying the bright sunshine you missed earlier on.
10) Walk across the Millennium Bridge in driving rain, explaining that this bridge was originally closed for being too wobbly whereas now it merely feels as if it should be closed for being too damp and windswept.

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