Craig Phillips is not your typical Big Brother survivor, scraping a living from their diminishing fame. Rather, he has invested his vast energy in a vast range of projects, including a skills centre in his native Liverpool.
"When I came out of the house, the psychiatrist sat me down in a room with all these security round me, didn't let me speak to me family, and he said: ‘Tomorrow Craig, you'll be on the front of every national newspaper, every radio station will talk about you, every news bulletin, every magazine will be covering you … you'll be the most talked about person in Britain.'"
Craig Phillips - or "Craig from Big Brother" as he's better known to the public - is talking about the moment his life changed back in September 2000, when he became the first winner of an experimental television programme imported from Holland.
He'd entered the Big Brother house nine weeks before, leaving his £1m turnover building company ticking over. "Channel 4 and the production company Endemol didn't have a clue how big the show was going to become. I honestly thought, soon as I come out, Monday morning I'll be back on site."
In fact, on leaving the house, he didn't go home - let alone back to the office - for three-and-a-half months. "I had six bodyguards and they escorted me everywhere. I stayed in different hotels pretty much every night. Mornings I'd be on breakfast radio, then I'd be straight in a helicopter to go to Ireland to open a store, and then fly back to Scotland to do something in the evening. It was just zigzagging across the country like that, always on the go."
Five-and-a-half years on, he still hasn't had time to watch any of the 82 hours of footage. While the stars of Big Brother 1 and its countless reality TV imitators have long ago faded into obscurity, 34-year-old Phillips has barely been off the television, although you're unlikely to realise it unless you spend your days surfing the more obscure satellite channels. In fact, he's made more than 600 programmes, set up his own production company, goes to dinner round Robbie Williams' mum's house and has been filmed all over the world - he was even recognised by some of the 70 inhabitants of the Ascension Islands in the south Atlantic. And he could soon be an even more familiar face in construction, because CITB-ConstructionSkills has asked Phillips to be its celebrity figurehead.
Phillips' metier is the ridiculously popular DIY home makeover show - you could say he was cable's answer to Handy Andy. Now, though, he's more like construction's answer to Jamie Oliver, with the opening of the Craig Phillips Building Skills Centre in his native Merseyside. He and his business partners have invested £500,000 into the 25,000 ft2 facility where up to 180 trainees will learn plastering, joinery and his own trade of bricklaying. It opened last September and the first batch of completed NVQs will graduate in a year's time.
All suspicions that Phillips is little more than a celebrity "face" fly out of the window in the face of his obvious enthusiasm for every aspect of its progress. His stories proceed at breakneck speed, peppered with details, anecdotes, matter-of-fact asides, exclamations. All are delivered with the Scouse twang that became his most imitated characteristics on Big Brother, and the ensuing years of media exposure have done little to soften it.
The story of the skills centre begins two years ago when he was planning a television show for Discovery Home & Leisure. It was set in Liverpool and involved converting a derelict house into apartments. "So we got all the plans and I thought, no problem, I'll easily get builders, good quality builders - and I got the biggest shock of my life! I'm putting these people on national television, and I couldn't get reliable tradesmen at the right price who weren't committed to other jobs. In fairness, the building boom had just started in the city, the regeneration was really starting to take shape and there just weren't enough builders out there."
Phillips finally found someone in Derby to do the show, but it got him thinking. He went to the Learning and Skills Council and began researching why the shortage had become so severe. "I visited all the colleges around the North-west area - not mentioning any names - then started to do a bit of research into E E why these kids couldn't get work placements. A lot of the feedback we got from the building companies was that when the guys came out of college, it was too much of a step for them to go on to a building site. Building sites are hard work; they're cold and they're heavy. It's a lot of manual work and not everyone's cut out for it. Sometimes people think they are, they go to college and it's a nice warm classroom environment and all of a sudden they're on a building site and it's too much for them."
There’s absolutely no money in it whatsoever, I’m not doing it for the money. I feel as if by setting this up it’s going to help the construction industry
There's no danger of that at Phillips' own centre: the large floor spaces devoted to bricklaying are bitterly cold, as is the pièce de résistance, the 44 plastering bays that simulate rooms. Eighty thousand bricks were used in their construction, Phillips proudly declares, and yes, he did lay some himself. But he also gave 18 trainees at Knowsley Community College some work experience … "And I've got to say, it's turned out fantastic! The CITB has said we've probably got the best plastering facilities in the country. I knew we had the best in the North-west because I've visited all the best ones. And I always try and do things bigger and better - you got to haven't you?"
In fact, Phillips' dedication verges on workaholism - a far cry from the role of the slow-witted sloth that the producers of Big Brother cast him in. "Lazy is the last … just nowhere near. I work 100 hours a week every week and I did before the show and I have done ever since I've come out. Every night I'm working; if I'm not here I'll go back to my house and I'll work 'til midnight, you know, planning things for the TV or getting companies to endorse us. So it's like, I don't know where they got laziness from. I wish I had time to be lazy!"
He claims to be exhausted but he doesn't seem it. His last day off was 25 December - although while the centre closed for three weeks he was playing the Genie of the Ring in Aladdin in Runcorn. He attends one half-day meeting a week at his production company, the rest of the time he's at the centre. "I still obviously have to do my TV work, but I'm sort of based here, I say five days a week, it's seven days a week in fairness," he chuckles. "Unless we have to go off and do filming because I've got a certain level of profile and also personal appearances and charity work."
With talk of charity work and profile maintaining, Phillips can sound like your classic minor-league media luvvy, though in reality he's far more likeable than that - the good-natured ordinary-bloke persona that charmed Big Brother's 10 million viewers was true to life, and his good works lack the hollow ring of many celebrities'. He has been involved with a diverse mix of causes and is talking to a local charity about getting the centre's trainees to build a new hospice. He'd like to do the same for other not-for-profit organisations.
He is, he admits, extremely ambitious - it does take an fairly unusual person to beat 45,000 applicants to live on live television for a few months, although arguably it takes an even more unusual one to immediately donate the £70,000 prize money to his friend's niece who has Down Syndrome. This was the only reason he went on the show, he says. "We'd been collecting for a number of years and got nowhere. I had absolutely no ambition to work on television. But the opportunities were there for me; I ain't going to walk away. I always said I'll just ride the wave until it flattens down, but it kept leading on to other shows."
The centre itself is a labour of love. "There's absolutely no money in it whatsoever; I'm not doing it for the money. I feel as if by setting this up it's going to help the construction industry, which I feel has been very helpful to me. I'm thankful - I'd never have done all these TV shows if I didn't have these building skills."
It's this angle that the CITB is presumably trying to capitalise on when it asked Phillips to take on the role of celebrity figurehead, an offer he's considering.
Having a trade is essential, he believes. Though Phillips left school at 15 with no qualifications, he later completed an NVQ in bricklaying. "I try to say to a lot of these lads out here, ‘what you learn today with us, getting this trade, will be with you for the rest of your life; you can take it anywhere in the world'. Since cavemen were around we've been building houses, and in another 100 years, 1000 years - 10,000 years! - we'll still be building houses. Nobody had any idea when I went to college to do the brickwork that I would end up doing it on television, running my own training centre. Nobody knows how life pans out!"
Hanging out with Robbie Williams’ mum, among others …
You may have seen him in such DIY programmes as … Housecall, Housecall in the Country,
Builders Sweat and Tears, Our House, Renovation Street, Trading Up, Trading Up In the Sun, and many more …
Hangs out with … Robbie Williams (when he's not in LA), Robbie Williams’ mum, Liverpool players Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and Teri Dwyer from Hollyoaks – he’s also had dinner with Cherie and Euan Blair.
What does he think of reality television now? “I was shocked to hear that last year on terrestrial TV alone 156 reality programmes were commissioned! It’s killing all the quality drama; it’s burning itself out. They will always have to keep going that bit lower because it’s become like shock TV, like a car crash – you can’t not look at it. I much prefer to watch wildlife programmes. I love all them. I could sit all night watching them. But I don’t watch much TV – I don’t have time.”
When he has a chance to relax … he does DIY. “I’m never happier than when I’m getting dirty building things.”