Wednesday, December 5, 2001 by

To be abandoned on the South Pacific island of Yakuve – but first face a relentless interrogation from Andi Peters. That was the deal: you couldn’t have one without the other. Such was the initial dilemma that had faced the eager hopefuls in the latest series of C4′s reliable “reality” carnival. For this show is Andi’s big moment. Everything that happens in the first few episodes is about him: what he thinks of the applicants, how he decides who’s to win a place amongst the castaways, even what mood he’s in today. The lucky ones had to be young, twentysomething and outgoing; oh, and camera-friendly, obviously. But how to spice up the mix this time: should the emphasis be on unpredictable foreign nationals, or homosexuals (again), or even both? Somehow, however, he got the formula right, for this has turned out to be the quirkiest and most addictive series of Shipwrecked so far.

Right from the start everything fell into place perfectly. The UK group had been allowed onto the island first to make total fools of themselves, which they did. Loads of opportunities for progress were wasted thanks to that familiar British tendency to flap about and moan rather than do anything like find the vegetable patch that had been especially prepared for them, or collect wood so they could actually cook the stuff they did eventually dig up. It was a shambles and all highly entertaining, particularly the way the programme painstakingly dwelt on the already pronounced tensions within the castaways, specifically between the bunch of lazy female sunbathers and the hardworking lads and tomboys. Chiefly responsible for stirring this up was Simon Pegg on voiceover duties, who ladled on the melodrama from the outset and has continued to get away with that kind of “paradise is hell” routine ever since. His commentary forever borders on the edge of total contempt, and all the better for it.

The delayed arrival of the Australians and Americans was consequently projected as the cavalry charging over the hill in the nick of time. We haven’t been allowed to forget how vastly more experienced and committed these contingents were right from that first entrance. This week some of the Brits attempted to sail off to harvest rations from a neighbouring island, but abandoned the voyage after 20 minutes thanks to, well, all-round incompetence. The American and Australian blokes meanwhile were shown leisurely watching this failure from the shore like it was a spectator sport. Finally some of the fuming crew returned to accuse them of deliberately encouraging them to go out knowing they’d fail. Later when a “storm” destroyed the boat itself one of the Australians seemed overjoyed, revelling in this added humiliation for his foreign cousins.

Xenophobia has run rife. Feelings are more tempered now, but earlier in the series everyone was at daggers drawn. Two minorities had been included in the English group: one French girl, Genevieve, and an Italian, Salvo. No doubt the official reason for their presence was that they both had strong, forceful personalities that would work well on screen. But it was surely expected that other characteristics of a more, well, “obvious” kind would soon surface given time. Naturally within a few days Genevieve was branded “sneaky – like most of the French” and accused of stealing.

This triggered off a whole catalogue of revelations and confessions that are still resonating within the group at this late stage. In each series of Shipwrecked the castaways have always had the option of being able to vote someone off the island for whatever reason. It has only been in this series, however, that such an option has been exercised. With amazing ruthlessness the group turned on Genevieve and kicked her out. But previously she had been shown forming some kind of weird pact of a “if you go we all go” kind with four of the English females. These were the same girls who’d been so slagged off for sunbathing, and who admittedly hadn’t helped their cause by droning on about how they regretted bringing along a hair straightener rather than “a big bag of crisps” and making up songs with lines like “We’re the bimbos” like that was supposed to make them look better. Now that one of their number had been sentenced, would the others rally round and stay true to their word?

Of course not. With only mild concern they readily joined in to wish an unhappy farewell to Genevieve. This reflected badly on them; lingering hostility has meant there hasn’t been a female elected “leader” of the group since week one. Two of them made it worse for themselves by later deciding to slouch off anyway, rather pathetically whimpering about missing home in one last effort to seek attention. Once the females were in the minority it was noticeable how much more of the programme became taken up with affairs of a less emotional kind. But if the composition of the group had supposedly reached some new, improved equilibrium, this hasn’t made their life better: for this week they fell even further into chaos, electing a leader – Simon – who promptly changed from a introverted nobody into a loudmouthed dictator (they should’ve checked his background: he apparently works “in the media”) and finally resorting to what’s called the “Man Friday” option: a once-only appeal to the programme-makers for rations.

Watching everything fall apart has been only a degree of the show’s appeal; it’s how we’ve been shown it that really hits the mark. One of the enduring, and actually most appealing, attributes about this series of Shipwrecked has been its total disregard for continuity. No attempt whatsoever has been made to order the footage so it unfolds on screen sequentially. The action simply jumps to whenever something interesting next happens, be it on the following day or the next fortnight. But even then the footage isn’t screened chronologically. The length of the castaways’ hairstyles have often changed even within the same “scene”, and depending on the editor’s whim the group are sometimes show electing a new leader twice during the one half hour. All of this has imbued the show with an “out of time” feel that has fostered an impression of the island as an otherworldly environment. Plus there’s no clue as to how much of their 10-week abandonment the exiles have survived.

Not that this has really mattered, given how within roughly 10 hours of their landing they were all running around worrying about fainting from lack of food. Indeed, the whole programme was shamelessly set up as an ordeal too far. Great play was made of how, unlike previous series, this time the castaways were to be denied access to regular rations and tools. Of equal significance was that unique international mix of inhabitants. Here was a United Nations in miniature, a melting pot of foreigners thrown together without any prior contact. In such unbearable conditions polite negotiation and cordiality were never going to prevail. We all knew – castaways, production team, viewers – that nobody was going to maintain a semblance of decorum and politeness for long. In real time it could’ve taken a fortnight or maybe just a couple of days; in TV time the outbursts always came just before the commercial break.

Envy, disloyalty, exhibitionism, even self-loathing: they’ve all shown up here, played out against this ironically “perfect” setting. It’s been familiar Lord of the Flies territory all the way, but ended up superb entertainment above all because most of the castaways are obvious “characters” and don’t demand much attachment or concern. Actually there’s only one really likable member, and that’s Alan, a cheery guy from the Isle of Wight who’s stint as leader was the most ordered and diplomatic of the lot and who, perhaps thanks to being the oldest, appears greatly aware of the level of contrivance at work. He seems to be genuinely enjoying the experience as he knows exactly what it is: a television programme, and nothing more.

Shipwrecked stands alone as an example of continually successful and enjoyable “reality”-based television. At heart this has to be because it’s not a game show, so doesn’t try, or make a big deal of trying, to be something it isn’t – as was sadly the case with Big Brother and Survivor. The castaways complete their exile next week, and no doubt will testify to it being one of the greatest times of their whole life. None of them, meanwhile, have once been shown confessing to fancying any of the others. Has anyone told Andi Peters?


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