Monday, March 05, 2007

Castaway 2007

Cast your mind back to the Millennium. Predictions of electronic and meltdown leading to societal chaos. John Simpson dispatched in a boat in a remote warzone island to tell us what the new century felt like twelve hours in advance of it hitting Greenwich. After a rush on the wet opening night, there was a general lack of queuing to get into the Dome.

But also back in January 2000, Lion TV dropped 36 people off on the remote island of Taransay out in the Outer Hebrides. Castaway 2000 was billed as huge-scale social experiment, bringing together a diverse (if not terribly close-knit) community to live together for a year, going back to basics, living off the land, isolated from current affairs, the death of Charles Schultz (Peanuts cartoon), and the drawn out count for the Bush/Gore US presidential election.

In January 2000, BBC1 broadcast programmes looking at the selection process and showing the conditions the castaways (nearly said contestants!) would face on the island. Then after dropping the castaways off in their new home, they told the viewing public to come back the following January to see how they got on. Six one-hour programmes were planned.

“The idea was to create a social utopia of self-sufficiency, tolerance and self-discovery. We expected goats, chutney-making and lots of hemp-weaving. This was one of the first reality TV programmes in the UK.” Guardian

The notion of the public wanting a continuous storyline played out on their small screens each night would only come later that year when Big Brother burst onto Channel 4 on 14 July. BB upped the pace on reality TV, moving it from documentary to entertainment.

Given the success of BB, and the fascination that some national newspapers had with the Taransay islanders, the Castaway series inevitably returned to BBC1 before the year was up.

The islanders had their ups and downs. The weather was bad. Personalities and cultures clashed, quite predictably. There was no where to run to on the island if you wanted to get away. The Daily Mirror even sent a boat to rescue Ray.

“It was always the plan to give the castaways the basics of shelter, water and warmth. However, problems with the accommodation occurred when bad weather severely hampered the building process towards the end of 1999. The eco-friendly pods and restoration of an old house were all affected by severe storms. In the end the castaways had to finish much of the work themselves.” BBC Castaway 2000

By 1 January 2001 when the remaining 30 or so islanders left, more than 25 hours of programming had been transmitted. Their departure was even broadcast live, with a young Julia Bradbury compering the heavily scripted and rehearsed proceedings.

Ben Fogle who had given up his job on the picture desk of London’s Tatler shone through as future presenter talent, and hasn’t been off our screens since. Tanya Cheadle, the video journalist who lived as part of the community and recorded footage for the TV series along with other volunteers, married the programme’s assistant director on Taransay in late 2004, honeymooning in the restored schoolhouse!

By the end of the year, many of the families slipped back to normal life, though recent reports in the press suggest that some later returned to community and self-sufficient lifestyles. Oh, and two children were conceived during the year on the island.

Having kicked off the UK’s addiction and fascination with voyeuristic TV shows, Lion TV are back this month with Castaway 2007!

“… take a group of Brits as far away from their current lives as possible – physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Let them explore what’s really important to them and discover how they shape their community.

Presented by Danny Wallace, the show tosses together a group of Castaways that will reflect all aspects of British life: variety of ages; all backgrounds; a variety of skills or none; a range of personalities. But all will have something to offer and strong reasons for wanting to be part of Castaway.”

This time, thirteen people, twelve weeks, New Zealand sunshine, cross generational, no children, aged 18–64, and slightly less purist ambitions. All were single at the time of selection, though one got married three weeks ago! And unlike BB, no tasks or challenges.

Learning from the last seven years of reality TV (including experimental shows—remember the Sleep Show—dressed up as science), Castaway 2007 will have a weekly show on BBC1 at 9pm on Friday’s, with a weekday catch-up at 10pm over on BBC3.

At each week on Friday night, Danny Wallace, will meet up with the castaways and ask them to make a decision. (See, they couldn’t lose the reality TV thing altogether.) Fish or fowl? Could go either way. Sitting on the fence, I reckon it’ll take a couple of weeks to see if it’s worth watching to conclusion.

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