It may lack the neo-Rennaissance grandeur of Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschilds' 19th century Buckinghamshire country pile, but that has not stopped the National Trust adding the Big Brother house to its list of attractions.
Starting tomorrow, for two days only, 600 members of the public will be allowed access to the site at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire and the Independent was given a sneak preview today.
Already dismissed by one Tory MP as “a puerile and irrelevant project”, the heritage body has attempted to assuage fears of dumbing down by claiming visitors can expect the same National Trust experience as found at its other, slightly more historic, sites, ranging from a guidebook, ‘good signage’ and the obligatory enthusiastic volunteers. The latter aspect perhaps providing Alan Bennett with the only excuse he needs not to pay a visit after the playwright took a swipe at the Trust last year ahead of the opening of People, a play lamenting that the UK is becoming “less and less … a nation and more and more just a captive market to be exploited”.
Who on earth had this idea? “I did,” says a proud Ivo Dawnay, the Trust’s London director tells me while sat on a creamy Big Brother sofa in the lounge. “The tickets sold out within minutes.”
Dawnay is leading the charge to transform the image of the Trust and he does not seem to care whether he is horrifying the traditionalists in a collaboration with a TV studio celebrating a show now promoted by the porn baron and Channel 5 owner, Richard Desmond.
“I had about five letters from members telling me how awful the idea was,” Dawnay says. “Far more people called to find out how to get tickets or to complain that they could not get tickets. Culture and heritage if you are 15-25, or even 25-40, is something very different than if you are aged between 60 and 80.
“This is about trying to engage with younger audiences, particularly in urban areas. It’s about time the Trust was a bit funnier.”
Yet signing in with the tattooed security guard, clambering through the Elstree lot and wandering through the doors of the house-cum-TV studio, I can’t help assuming that the public are not exactly going to be rolling around the aisles with hoots of laughter when they see what their £16 ticket gets them.
A couple forking out £92 for joint Trust membership that allows access to actual architectural delights can’t even get into the Big Brother house for free. An almighty saving of £4 is all that little green 2013 membership card does for you here in Elstree.
Free parking? Well, only if you park up in the Tesco superstore round the back of the studio and hope the visit lasts less than two hours to prevent being slapped with a fine (don’t worry, it will).
The first thing I noticed in the house was the awful state of the carpet. Clean it for the public? Why bother. Then there are all the mirrors, two-way my guide tells me. It feels like you’ve seen it all before and that’s probably because you have given the “extraordinary number of cameras” littered throughout the house, hundreds more than one assumes, I’m also informed.
Pictures of the current crop of celebrity Big Brother contestants, from former football manager “Big” Ron Atkinson to model Sophie Anderton are plastered onto old TV screens in the middle of the lounge. The diary room is, well, a small dark room, and two fake flamingos stand in a fake mini-garden behind what looks like a plastic screen on the opposite side.
I’m not allowed into the garden but I can see it all from the lounge. Why, there’s the little hot tub tucked away in the corner where various housemates over the years have taken part in ‘impromptu saucy pool parties’, according to the tabloids. No signage alluding to that though. Capability Brown it ain’t.
In the circular kitchen a handful of cooking implements (Jamie Oliver by Tefal) that would struggle to do a singleton let alone a house this size are in the incredibly stiff drawers, while two hairdryers and a set of straighteners are propped up by the library. Oh alright, it’s not a library, I was momentarily confused by the library wallpaper.
All this, you remember, for £16. The entrance fee to Waddeson Manor is only £2 more.
“Well we had to cover our costs,” says Mr Dawnay. What costs? “Our administration costs. But this is not a commercial venture at all. It will make a small profit and that will go back into helping us with our more traditional projects. We don’t just want to talk to people who like stately homes and cream teas. We want to talk to the whole nation.”
As a National Trust member, I couldn’t help feel pretty depressed that this is the territory Mr Dawnay wants to take us four million members in. Perhaps it is only a one off though?
“Oh no. I mean this is a working TV studio so we could only have it for two days but perhaps we’ll return in the future. And we’re already in talks with Ealing Studios to do something with them and that is much more historic than anything in Hollywood.”
Mr Dawnay is obviously a fan of Big Brother then? “Oh yes I watch it.” What, since it began? “Well, no, I’ve caught some of this series as my son watches it so I’ve got into it.”
And on that note, it was time for me to exit, but not via a gift shop.
It was quiet among the sheds outside that surround the Big Brother house. The only sound I could hear was the voice of Alan Bennett whispering ‘I told you so’ in my head, shaking it vigorously as I wondered what on earth the National Trust is playing at.