As she waited nervously to enter the Love Island villa in 2018 – red lipstick applied, microphone on, nude swimming costume tied at the front – Megan Barton-Hanson turned to her handlers and made what she thought was a simple request. Could she have a glass of rosé? It didn’t seem fair, after all, that she was expected to “go on TV for the first time and try to strut my stuff like I think I’m Britney Spears” without a single drink. The producers said no.
Barton-Hanson was one of the show’s “bombshells” – a contestant who enters the reality dating competition late to stir up trouble among the loved-up couples. But after her rosé request, the producers dropped a bombshell on her. “They said, ‘Just to warn you, when you get in there, you can only have two drinks.’”
When you do Come Dine With Me, you’re drunk for five days
Almost two decades earlier, Nick Bateman entered the Big Brother house with rather a lot more in his suitcase. “We were allowed to bring in two bottles of wine,” says Bateman, “and we got through all of our bottles on the first night. I think we got through 20 bottles.” It was the year 2000 and this was, after all, the first ever series of a programme that birthed reality TV as we know it. “The hand grenade of alcohol,” Bateman says, was a “useful weapon” for producers keen to make an entertaining show.
Reality TV and alcohol used to be as inseparable as two tanned influencers gunning for a £50,000 prize. Many of Big Brother’s most memorable moments were fuelled by booze. In the show’s sixth series, contestant Kinga Karolczak infamously mimed masturbating with a wine bottle and later said of the incident: “On Big Brother, they want you to go crazy so give you loads of alcohol. Drinking makes me behave like a completely different person.”
Today, things are seemingly more sober. One contestant in the current Love Island, Luca Bish, made headlines when he said: “I don’t drink.” And, thanks to secrets spilled by former contestants, viewers now know about the strict two-tipples-a-night rule. So how, when and why did things change?
Bateman – who you might know better as “Nasty Nick” thanks to his infamous conniving on the show – says there were no real rules around drinking during his 34 days in the Big Brother house. “Alcohol was given to us when we were feeling down or depressed or nothing was going on,” he says, “because obviously alcohol is the molotov cocktail producers use to liven things up.” Bateman says drink was coveted by contestants because it would “quell the boredom” of being captive in the house.
Five years later, Anthony Hutton, the eventual winner of Big Brother 6, entered the house to find little had changed. “As soon as we got in, there were bottles of champagne,” he recalls. Alcohol was used to reward contestants after they completed tasks. Hutton says it became like “gold dust” as a result, with housemates bickering about how all the booze was distributed. “It was quite high on the priority list for a lot of contestants. It was like, ‘We want to get drunk.’”
Hutton says he became “steaming drunk” two or three times. Once, he became so inebriated he threw up and another contestant became “hands on” with him to the point that some viewers felt he was being taken advantage of. Another time, he infamously became “raunchy in the jacuzzi” with fellow contestant Makosi Musambasi. Does Hutton think this would have happened had he been sober? “Probably not,” he says. After the incident, he decided to limit his drinking for the rest of the show.
Big Brother ran on Channel 4 until 2010. TV producer Gavin Henderson became creative director when it relaunched on Channel 5 a year later. Times had changed: the high-profile breakdown of Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle in 2009 led to greater scrutiny of reality TV, with The X Factor producers announcing new measures to protect contestants. Alcohol was still a big part of Big Brother, but Henderson says producers were wary of losing control: “Alcohol adds complications to a situation that ultimately you are responsible for.”
Still, Big Brother was hardly booze-free. “As a producer, what you’re trying to do is get the best 45 minutes of television out of a day,” Henderson says, “It’s a balance between reducing people’s inhibitions enough to be entertaining, but not giving them so much that they’ll tip over into being unpleasant or fractious.”
Love Island debuted in 2015, with the two-drinks rule first being reported in 2017, a year after contestant Zara Holland was stripped of her Miss Great Britain title for having sex on the show. She later said of the incident: “There was alcohol and it was in the moment. I made a mistake.”
Things have seemingly become stricter since: 2017 Love Islander Jess Shears told Closer magazine that contestants were given more booze on first dates, in order to “loosen up and be a bit more flirtatious”. But Barton-Hanson says that wasn’t the case by 2018. “They were sneaky as well,” she says. “They’d give you nosecco, no-alcohol prosecco.” When she heard her date with contestant Eyal Booker was in a vineyard, she was delighted. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes! We can get tipsy this afternoon. It’s going to be so much fun.’ But no, it was all fake alcohol.”
During her time on Love Island, Barton-Hanson did break the rules. Upset at the results of a lie detector test, she had her two allocated white wines then “downed” two cans of beer that belonged to other contestants. She became “very tipsy” and the producers “went mental”, warning her she’d be banned from drinking if she did it again. Sometimes, she and another contestant used to decide to eat “as little as possible” at dinnertime “to get maximum effects from the two glasses of rosé”.
In hindsight, though, Barton-Hanson is glad alcohol was limited on the show. “I just think emotions would’ve been heightened,” she says. “It just would’ve been a different show for everyone. It’s so intense in there. Every day is equivalent to a week, there is no escape. With alcohol in the mix as well, it would’ve been absolute chaos.”
Wider safeguarding has now become more of an issue. Since Barton-Hanson’s time on Love Island, two former contestants have taken their lives. In 2019, The Jeremy Kyle Show was cancelled after a participant who had been subjected to a lie detector test took his own life. A subsequent episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches alleged that participants on the show were encouraged to drink and take drugs before their appearances. These claims were denied.
It’s little wonder, then, that alcohol is no longer British reality TV’s secret ingredient. Still, there’s no law that lists the exact amounts producers can give to contestants. Even today, it varies dramatically from show to show. “When you do Come Dine With Me,” says Bateman, recalling his 2012 appearance, “you’re drunk for five days.” Abroad, old habits die hard: the creator of the American dating show Love Is Blind said in 2020 that producers had a “do what you want” attitude to contestant drinking. One contestant who came across badly on air said she “overdrank” due to her discomfort during filming.
Does the disappearance, or reduction, of booze from reality TV really reflect a greater duty of care towards contestants? Not if the shows themselves drive contestants to drink when they emerge into the real world. Radio presenter Iain Lee said in 2018 that the “trauma” of I’m A Celebrity led one of his fellow contestants on the show, a former alcoholic, to resume drinking. In 2019, personal trainer Pascal Craymer said she drank four bottles of wine every day after appearing on The Only Way Is Essex. “These shows chew you up and spit you out,” she said.
And it would be foolish to assume that reality TV producers have suddenly become altruists. The decline of booze on their shows also reflects changing cultural norms. A 2018 study by University College London found that almost 30% of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK are teetotal. The study also found that while 27% of youngsters binge-drank in 2005, when Hutton was on Big Brother, only 18% did in 2015, when Love Island launched.
Neither Hutton nor Bateman have regrets, exactly, but both believe they would have been very different Big Brother contestants without the drink. “If I did another reality show,” says Bateman, “I probably wouldn’t drink, or I’d drink very sparingly. Because you’re just more in control of what you’re doing and what you’re saying. It’s a very powerful medium – everything you say and do is captured.”
July 18, 2022 at 10:43AM Amelia Tait