“The Most Expensive Slimming Club in the World”

Jack Kibble-White on Castaway 2000

First published March 2001

In early 1999, the BBC issued the following Press statement:

3 x 50 minute documentaries for early 2000 + 6 x 50 minute for start 2001.

An epic living project for BBC Television exploring how society could change in the future with January 1st 2000 as “ground zero”.

In a unique social experiment, we will cast a microcosm of British society adrift on a remote Scottish island for the start of the millennium. We will follow the attempts of 30 men, women and children to survive in the absence of the frills of modern existence. With limited resources they must build homes that can survive Scottish winters and with little experience of agriculture they will attempt to cultivate the land and keep animals. Above all, they must decide on the rules under which their society will operate.

December 2000, and as the last of the Castaways depart Taransay, viewers are able to watch proceedings live on BBC1. Throughout the final weeks, presenter Julia Bradbury (a veteran of celebrity magazine television) had been effusing over island life in brief 10 minute slots dotted around the schedules. On the face of it, this was not the stuff of “landmark” television. Early 2001 allowed us further 10 minute excursions into the lives of the Castaways, yet these too were devoid of the kind of social experimentation that had been promised at the outset. A year on and the “incredible experience” of Castaway 2000 seems to have left the BBC perplexed and frustrated. Theirs has not been the easy popularity of Popstars, nor the relatively breezy Shipwrecked, so what happened, and more importantly – why?

As I write this, we are in the midst of Popstars fever. An on-the-ball ITV has been quick to seize upon the success of the programme and milk it for all its ratings worth moving it to ever more attractive timeslots within the schedules. The series adheres to a classic model of storytelling (mounting tension, followed by release, followed by mounting tension) providing an abundance of “stepping in” points for the casual viewer. The process of whittling down the contestant to find the final band line-up produces all of the conflict and drama you could wish for. Unimpeded by the requirement to satisfy any wider remit Popstars can get on with the business of being truly entertaining and telling a linear story with a satisfying payoff. Conversely, Castaway throws up a bundle of different issues and agendas and ultimately, a goal that is neither simple nor tangible. “Castaway is about creating a utopia for all the participants” wrote Gareth McLean on his first day as Guardian TV critic, “They may fight, but their situation isn’t a competition; there are no losers. The prize is the experience.” Clearly such a programme offers up something a little more complex than the game show format of its peers.

PLEASE NOTE: C4 are planning a similar series entitled Shipwrecked which follows 16 young people put ashore for 10 weeks on one of the Cook Islands.
BBC internal memo

The idea for Castaway formed in the mind of the Executive Producer for Hotel and Airport, Jeremy Mills back in Autumn 1998 during a meeting with the then Controller of BBC1 – Peter Salmon. Quickly it was seized upon by the duo as the next step forward for the genre. Mark McCrum’s book of the series claimed that for a while Mills had “been thinking about trying to come up with a television documentary that did more than just follow things, that actually set up a premise” and Castaway seemed to fit the bill. Furthermore, here was an opportunity to promote a potential ratings blockbuster as something more than just a “television programme”. The words “social experiment” and “project” were bandied around as the BBC attempted to position Castaway as a socially significant series and part of their tradition of “landmark” productions (a phrase introduced at the BBC at the end of 1999). Although nothing like this had been attempted before, the BBC were quick to scope out the televisual life of the project, perhaps wishing to demonstrate that they had sorted everything out well in advance, and diminish cries that this series was simply a cynical attempt to exploit a “hot” genre.

An epic living project exploring how society could change in the future, Castaway 2000 will be produced by Lion Television for BBC Scotland and screened throughout the UK on BBC ONE. The series has nine programmes, 3 of which will go out towards the end of this year, the rest being scheduled a year later .. The initial tranche of 3 programmes, the first of which is about to begin filming, will cover the selection process for the Castaways and the preparation of the island.

Other parts of the media were quick to denigrate the whole idea with the Sun quoting MP Austin Mitchell as saying that “I can’t see any purpose in it … It should not be financed with licence-payer’s money.” Mills responded that “it is classic BBC television. The old, Reithian attitudes of informing and educating.” Strangely, Mitchell had never seen fit to question the financial merit of any other previous BBC productions. However, as the selection process got underway, and viewers waited in anticipation for the first of the year’s programmes, there still seemed some confusion as to the true objectives of the exercise. Colin Cameron, BBC Scotland’s Head of Production and Executive Producer of Castaway 2000, implicitly conceded that behind the veneer of a carefully thought-out 12 month plan, there would have to be a large element of improvisation: “This series will be an incredible experience for everyone because no-one involved, either in the production team, or the Castaways themselves will be able to predict what’s going to happen.” He then added “I believe it will be prove to be one of the most adventurous shows ever made, capturing everyone’s imagination at a very special time.”

The initial four (not three) broadcasts made for absorbing television. Many of the issues that would inform our perceptions of the Taransay Castaways were exposed for the first time as we watched the hopefuls being put through their paces in an attempt to secure a place on the island. Jeanswear salesman Dez Monks achieved quick, but thankfully passing infamy when he angrily referred to Jack Holden (a fellow applicant) as a “stupid bastard”. Much was made of the fact that Dez had failed to appreciate that he was being filmed at the time. Although an enjoyable faux pas for the viewer, we were able to see too how the inclusion of television cameras was shaping the social behaviours of the participants from the very beginning. Although an obvious talking point when considering such television, with Castaway‘s grand plans this seemed all the more significant somehow. Indeed, another recipient of early “bad press” – Doctor Roger Stephenson, readily confessed during the selection week that “the cameras are the most drug-like part of it. For the first time in one’s life, well, for an awfully long time, people are asking you what you think about things … and you think, God, somebody else might be interested in us. It’s all part of the television kick, both horrendous and stimulating.” The influence and intrusion of the cameras was an issue that could be anticipated and addressed, and indeed that first statement from the BBC had informed us that “the community’s activities will be monitored by a film maker who will themselves be one of the castaways. A crew from the mainland will visit regularly and the Castaways will be given a couple of video cameras to document their own experiences”.

Still a distortion yes, but the above plans seemed to be as about as non-intrusive a method of capturing vital footage as it was possible to devise. By programme four though, the mechanics of the series began to unravel as the Castaways (thrown together for the first time at a hotel in the Lake District) began to argue the toss over the contract drawn up by Lion Television. The resultant row seemed too complicated to broadcast, and as such much of its substance was passed over in the television programme in favour of focussing attention onto the burgeoning Island ogres. That trainee psychotherapist Ron Copsey was disgruntled enough to walk out was clear, yet his motivation was not. That Roger Stephenson could be a belligerent so-and-so was also apparent, but – again – the cause of his distemper was never truly explained. Speaking in October 2000 to the Gay Times, Copsey predictably moaned that he had been portrayed as “Mr Angst, Mr Cynical, Mr Sarcastic”. More damaging and plausible though was Ron’s suggestion that he and Stephenson (the only other castaway to give the producers a hard time during the projects early days) were depicted in a negative light precisely due to their insubordination. Be it a conscious act or not, Stephenson was represented somewhat differently to the “well-liked and respected” individual that a seemingly repentant production team chose to depict during the year’s later broadcasts.

The changing nature of the project provoked continuing tensions on and off the island as the year unfolded. Ron (again) wailed – as he finally left the island in July – that “There are too many of the castaways trying to be the boss for the TV cameras. There is a massive ego problem out there.” The decision to make a return television visit to Taransay in April 2000 was practically forced upon the BBC by the blanket coverage that the series received in the press at the beginning of the year. The Observer’s Stuart Miller recalled at the time that “the scale of the public’s appetite for the project was demonstrated graphically … when the nation’s media were offered the opportunity to visit the island for the first time since January. Every national daily and Sunday newspaper jumped at the offer”. In retrospect it is difficult not to view the actions of the BBC as opportunistic and somewhat contrary to the high-minded objective of the whole project. Nonetheless, passing up the chance to capitalise on what people were describing as “one of the most eagerly awaited broadcasting events of the year” would have opened the Corporation to accusations of being out of touch with their audience. Critically though, the decision having been made, the Castaways found themselves having to adapt to a fame different to the one they had anticipated. Now they had the opportunity to view how television would represent them and amend their behaviour accordingly. “When we are on our own here, all we have to think about is getting on with it,” said Philiy Page, a student from Manchester “But when other people come it can make it really difficult. It upsets the balance.” Others too found fame management a difficult skill to master.

Journalists were informed that (Ben Fogle, Picture editor with Tatler magazine) had decided to take a back seat and would not speak. But his efforts to avoid the media were rather half-hearted – he perched himself on a barrel in the middle of the community and played forlornly with his black Labrador Inca. Alone, but for all the world to see.
Observer, 16 April 2000

Predictably, Castaway predominantly shied away from this thorny, but slightly wearisome issue. To focus too much on the influence of the cameras would be to criticise the central tenet of the project and thus, its relevance as a social experiment. The attitude by the programme makers seemed to reflect that of the castaways themselves – who confessed: “We can’t bear to watch for fear that hard-won harmony will be shattered as old feuds are given a fresh airing.”

After these initial broadcasts we checked back into Taransay again in April and then once more in September. Still retaining the traditionally narrated documentary approach, these programmes (taking us from the exit of Ray Bowyer up to and just beyond the departure of Ron Copsey) although perhaps representing the high-water mark of the series, indicated that the issues coming to the surface on Taransay were far more complicated then had been anticipated. Here, halfway through the experiment we seemed to be at the epicentre of the emotional disharmony on the island. The BBC’s prĂ©cis publicising the September batch of programmes picked up on some – but not all – of the discord:

The series opens with the castaways’ May Day celebrations featuring a Taransay sports day, singing from the children’s choir and the ceremonial burning of a “wicker man” – complete with beer-can eyes and sheep-skin ponytail in honour of their former castaway colleague. The fun and games of May Day are far removed from the suspicions and allegations that followed Ray Bowyer’s departure. The air of mistrust on Taransay ignites when Ben Fogle threatens to leave and accuses Ron Copsey of psychological bullying and spreading malicious gossip intended to undermine his position. A community bout of “who said what and to whom” breaks out as the castaways suddenly realise that their main challenge is coping with the mental pressures of living together.

Upon his departure in July, the troubled Copsey was quick to join those who would seek to question the rationale behind the whole project, yet his contribution to the debate was more insightful than most. Castaway was meant to be a study of modern society yet Copsey argued that it failed to face any of the pertinent issues head on, backing his belief with a personal example. By recruiting only one gay man, rather than a gay couple, Castaway ensured that issues of homosexuality would remain hypothetical only. “A couple would display affection for each other and compel the heterosexual islanders to confront their attitudes to homosexuality”. The validity of his point raised concerns over the production team’s commitment to engage serious issues and explore them – come what may. Furthermore the easy glamour and rancour of Ron’s deteriorating relationships could be used to expediently, but incorrectly, show scenes of other’s heightened agitation. So whilst the programme implied that Ben Fogle’s one moment of filmed extreme emotional distress (heavily trailed) was in some way related to his continuing disagreements with Ron, it was in fact a response to wider accusations that he had lodged a complaint concerning some of the other castaways; namely, the Taransay Five.

Although never touched upon during any of the programmes, the accompanying book of the series reveals that Ron Copsey was far from being alone in causing trouble on the island. Indeed at one point the production team were considering expelling not just Copsey but also Colin and Julia Corrigan, Monica Cooney and Warren Latore. The quintet’s continuing dissatisfaction with Lion Television was very much a running sore on the island, but remarkably (with the notable exception of Ron) all four castaways had little exposure in the final documentaries. That their disaffection derived from contractual matters as opposed to issue within the remit of the project might make for a justifiable reason to exclude their narrative from the programme, but by all other accounts these five were a dominant political force on the island, and to ignore them almost entirely was to wilfully ignore a large and important aspect of the castaways political dynamics. Worse still emotionally charged instances caused by the Taransay Five’s antics were relayed without any explanation as to the cause. Increasingly, the business of Castaway seemed to be to walk in on aftermaths, capture the emotional debris and then leave. So we had shots of Ron threatening to throw a plate at Peter; and of Scouse wag Trevor Kearon losing the plot, yet we were never allowed to understand the cause of their outbursts, and thus such scenes became merely latest additions to the Dez Monks file of “losing your cool in front of the camera”. This piecemeal approach let us be present at the most dramatic outbursts but seldom picked up the threads of the ongoing stories, depriving us of truly being able to understand these people’s plight. Audience researcher, Dr Mallory Wober referred to this as the “twisted yarn” theory of programme making:

The programme-makers played their cards in a successful way with Castaway. You see a little bit of this family, one piece of yarn. Then it’s taken away and you wonder how they are getting on. You are shown someone else – another piece of yarn – and suddenly there are your friends again.

Still there was some time for complexity though. The deteriorating relationship between the well-read Peter Jowers and anti-intellectual Gwyneth Murphy would prove to be the series most successful examination of a complicated issue. The intellectually ferocious Jowers found himself increasingly frustrated with a community that seemed to value the caring and emotionally sensitive above the practical and useful. Predictably, conflicts arose between Peter and Gwyneth, with the former despairing of the latter’s desire to maintain good relations at seemingly any cost. Conversely, Gwyneth found Peter to represent an “arrogant, self-opinionated pompousness around here sprinkled with a bit of self-righteousness”. Television is historically a medium that favours the emotionally “true” above the intellectual (which is why Raquel Wolstenholme will always be more beloved of Coronation Street fans than Ken Barlow) and so it was particularly commendable that Castaway chose not to take sides in this debate, but to simply let the protagonists explore the issues for themselves. The programme makers portrayed Peter’s belief that he was the victim of “anti-intellectualism” as sympathetically as Gwyneth and (husband) Patrick’s obvious distress at being on the receipt of Peter’s tirades. Peter’s assertion that Gwyneth was transposing her fear of her first (abusive) husband onto him, seemed to have some credence without the programme makers ever suggesting that this was the full reason behind her strong reactions.

Ultimately, we left this particular argument with the realisation that sometimes two nice people can do each other harm without ever really meaning to: blame and cause can not always be easily apportioned in the real world. Within the context of a post-Nasty Nick TV landscape, this seemed a remarkably mature attitude for a television programme to take. Of course, being an academic, Peter could not leave well enough alone, and upon departing Taransay he ruefully reflected that “it was like looking in a mirror and not liking everything one sees about oneself and modifying one’s personality and that was a very valuable lesson.” In addition, Peter reminded us once again that us viewers were receiving a mediated representation: “In the terms of the young ones, [the production team] wanted the development of relationships – because that is good TV. But with those of us in stable relationships it was a different matter.” For a story to work, the character must undergo some kind of change. For “Peter’s character” it was a realisation that he had to learn to listen to others.

By the time we hit the final batch of Castaway episodes in December, other forces within television seemed to be weighing down heavily upon the project. Writing for the Guardian back in June 2000, Maggie Brown reported that the BBC wished to distance themselves from their recent docusoap successes such as Driving School and Airport and instead focus on what it described as “format” factual programming – programmes which approached their subject matter from an “original and imaginative angle”. Jeremy Mills was keen for Castaway to be included amongst this breed. The BBC’s decision to ditch the most dominant genre of the ’90s appeared to be a forthright and confident step into the 21st century. Then, of course, along came Big Brother to muddy the waters and undermine Castaway‘s already ailing critical success.

By August we were already signalling Castaway‘s demise. “Poor Ben Fogle” lamented Gareth McLean in The Guardian, “There was a time when he was the apple of the nation’s eye, a home-grown, humble heartthrob who charmed women and inspired men … And even though he was a bit posh, Fogle was the embodiment of the hopeful wholesomeness of the BBC’s Castaway experiment … Alas, [he] is now yesterday’s man. For today we have Big Brother; gentleman Ben and the other castaways are last-year’s loves.” Although it is difficult to prove – the influence of Big Brother on Castaway appears to have been significant and undermining. Back in March, Colin Cameron advised readers of Radio Times that “we felt we could not mount a website without providing access to the castaways themselves, defeating our purpose”, yet by the year end one of the hottest disputes on the island was the castaways’ resistance to Lion Television’s efforts to set up a series of web cams around the island. The change in programme format of those episodes broadcast in December (with the introduction of the direct-to-camera approach of Castaway Diaries) seemed indicative too of documentary making in a post-Big Brother world. A report posted by the Taransay News Agency on 1 January 2001, confirmed that – in the eyes of the castaways at least – the initial intentions of the project had been unduly affected by the insidious influence of the Channel 4 programme:

They spoke of the effect Channel 4′s Big Brother fly-on-the wall gameshow had on the project and all thought that the Castaway Diaries were not so serious because of its effect on the programme makers, docusoap specialists Lion Television. Former college lecturer Peter Jowers said: “It mutated a bit because of the effect of Big Brother. Things became intense in the autumn because we did not necessarily like the way things were changing.”

The last batch of programmes transmitted throughout December were a mish mash of formats and styles, giving us the brief Castaway Diaries (typically a thematic collection of various castaway pieces to camera), and a couple of long documentaries (Heaven and Hell and Changed Lives) which seemed to be an attempt to thread together some of the straggly narratives that had unravelled during the year. Inconsistent in tone, and rather more light-hearted than the earlier programmes it was now very difficult to determine exactly what Castaway 2000 was meant to be. On Christmas Eve we got a half hour of Castaway Kids and then in the week leading up to New Year, a series of 10-minute live broadcasts deployed seemingly at random across the schedules. It was here that we welcomed the intrusive Julia Bradbury, and finally bade farewell to the Castaways. Suffice to say the conflicting thought processes that each must have experienced as they stepped aboard the helicopters destined to take them home were completely obliterated by the reality of participating in a live television broadcast. Surely when Mills and Salmon had sat down back in 1999, this had not formed part of their plans?

The Castaway television experience limps on of course, and now Lion Television are trying to convince us that the real social experiment begins as the castaways attempt to reintegrate themselves back into society. In 2001 we have already been subjected to Castaway: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (another attempt to provide some decent closure on the whole experience), and a pot pourri of shorts showing the castaways back at home, cycling around Britain, and even in Hollywood. That these broadcasts have been used merely as schedule fillers is indicative of the regard that the BBC now has for a project that began as a genuinely exciting and unique television concept. Changing forces within television and an inability to grapple head on with the issues and stories that these temporary residents provoked seems to sum up the Castaway television experience. Still, Mills is going to try and repeat the experiment, as the following (relatively vague) press release demonstrates:

Have you loved Castaway, but thought you could do better? The BBC is looking for 8 new people to take part in a new Castaway adventure for next year. The location will be kept a secret – even from the Castaways themselves. They won’t know where they’re going until they’re dropped onto the location. This time the project will last for several weeks, rather than a year. The 8 people – three men, three women and a couple – can be any age, but will need to be fit and healthy and up to an extreme adventure.

Let’s hope it’s not another wasted opportunity …