'Big Brother' returns with plans for a little more interaction

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The Independent Online

The phenomenon that has supplanted the sighting of the first swallow as the official start of summer returned last night when 12 strangers walked into a television studio and prepared to become national celebrities.

The phenomenon that has supplanted the sighting of the first swallow as the official start of summer returned last night when 12 strangers walked into a television studio and prepared to become national celebrities.

A male model, a fireman, a DJ, and a personal shopper arrived at the new custom-built Big Brother house at Elstree film studios in Hertfordshire and eyed up the other characters with whom they will spend the next nine weeks.

The cast list of Big Brother 3 will vie only with World Cup footballers in Japan and Korea to become the most talked and written about characters of the summer.

Unlike their predecessors, this year's contestants now have a history to live up to. Channel 4 producers believed they were the most interesting of the 150,000 who applied to take part, but the 12 must now prove they have the appeal to match the villainous "nasty" Nick Bateman, or the delightfully daft Helen, whose romance with a fellow contestant, Paul, eclipsed even last year's winner, Brian the air steward.

Early indications were of a competitive streak running through this year's crop chasing the £70,000 prize. From the start they will be known only by their forenames until their former lives are pieced together in the newspapers. Alex, 23, a male model, boasted of doing 200 sit-ups every morning; Kate, 22, an IT desk administrator, had a clear aim of becoming the first woman to win the series; and Lee, 21, a gym manager, believed Big Brother was "my destiny".

The oldest person in the house, 43-year-old Sandy, appeared to have lived the most remarkable life so far, spending 14 years in the Army before he became a personal shopper and stylist. Given that Big Brother producers have said they prefer not to choose people over 40 because it would be "psychologically very difficult" for them, Sandy's progress is likely to be subject to some attention.

Channel 4 has introduced a tougher regime than before, possibly encouraged by the success of the austere conditions in the latest reality television show The Experiment, set in a prison. Contestants are not allowed to take books, games or musical instruments into the house, but will have to earn them instead. They also face a Three Strikes and You're Out rule for transgressions against house rules.

There will be no World Cup broadcast and the participants will be kept in the dark about England's progress, even in the unlikely event of the football team going all the way to the final. For Sandy, who described himself as "London (Scottish)" that was unlikely to be a problem, but Lee admitted missing the competition was a potential difficulty.

The show continues its multimedia format, but fans will be charged for the first time to watch events unfold live on the internet.

They will be asked to pay £9.95 per month to watch continuous footage and access a video archive and unseen diary room footage. The move is being seen as an important test of how far internet users are prepared to pay for content. Video clips will be available on the site for free.

The new house was constructed after Big Brother's previous home in Bow, east London, was refused planning permission for a third year. New features include a giant staircase that will bring contestants out on to the roof above the crowd when they are evicted, more double beds and a swimming pool instead of last year's hot tub.

The "love den" that was a focal point in last year's house has disappeared and the producers are adamant that they are not trying to engineer romances between participants.

However, bookmakers reported a flurry of betting that suggested Big Brother 3 might see the coupling that eluded the previous series.

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