Survivor: The £1m Final

Thursday, July 26, 2001 by

It’s been lonely out here by the water cooler this summer. Everyone else has been chattering away about Big Brother (Helen this, Paul that), the return of Sharon Watts, Coronation Street‘s internet stalker, Ricky Gervais (genius or c***?), there was even a conversation or two about the General Election. But no one would talk to me about Survivor. About the tribal councils or the Sekutu merger or Zoë or Bible Pete or the missing rice. I have been marooned, alone, on a desert island, hundreds of miles from the zeitgeist.

Maybe it’s the sophisticated company I keep. I know for a fact that even on a bad week (by which I mean most weeks) some 5.7 million others have also been tuned in to ITV’s most expensive (£9m) flop, but Survivor never captured the interest of the nation in the places where such “event television” needs to most: among excitable, txt-msging 16-24-year-olds, in the Nelson Mandela Bar, around the water pump, and at the tabloids. The only front pages Survivor nabbed in 10 weeks were through the untelevised (yes, we’re coming to that) antics of “Charlotte the Harlot”, eventual winner of the £1m prize. She may be young, Welsh and dirty, but she’s no Helen.

That’s not fair. Comparisons to Big Brother have always been odious – not that the show’s wealthy originators, Planet 24, nor ITV can complain about that, having bullishly scheduled “beautiful but dangerous” Pulau Tiga island against the maximum security ski lodge in Bow from week one, back in May. How well we remember the words of The Guardian’s Gareth MacLean: “[Survivor] should be a substantial hit … any backlash would most likely be reserved for Big Brother 2.” We’ll have no unsightly schadenfreude here, please. It seemed a credible viewpoint at the time. But apparently the two programmes were never in competition. Producer Nigel Lythgoe now stands amid the wreckage – dreaming no doubt of Popstars 2 – and says that Survivor was never Reality TV anyway – it was only a game show. Of course it was Reality TV! Or at least it was until Survivor – The £1m Final.

Every last vestige of reality was destroyed in the climactic live finale. In what was a commendable last-minute gesture of support, ITV – having manhandled the programme around the schedules like Basil Fawlty trying to hide Mr Leeman’s corpse – stuck with what must have been the original plan and devoted two whole primetime hours to the final Tribal Council, in which a jury comprising the last seven islanders voted between Charlotte and Jackie. This usually takes about five minutes, by the way.

Those of us who have genuinely enjoyed Survivor – the overwrought production values, the stock footage of snakes, silly old Mark Austin, the wailing woman, the mundane Immunity Challenges, fire representing your time on this island, all that guff – have never been as interested in the follow-up programme to each eviction: studio-based, John Leslie-hosted, and in the true spirit of a TV own goal entitled Survivor Unseen. While the regular Survivor slid from 6.6m viewers to 5.2m, Unseen hovered around the 4m mark. Leslie’s cheesy, This Morning-type interviews with each Survivor in front of a captive studio audience, have been missable all along – particularly uninteresting with the early evictees, whom we hardly knew. So to effectively allow the crap format to swallow the good format for the last show was suicidal.

The seven jury members, the seven luckless earlier evictees (I’d forgotten what JJ and Nick looked like) and the two finalists were all seen, scrubbed, fed, styled and preposterously glammed up, yet seated in that awful jungle set, a Rainforest Café facsimile of the tribal council (even the million quid was locked in a see-through box with an old pirate-style padlock straight out of the Pinewood props cupboard). “Reality” is a devalued term – how real can any surival experience be with a 140-strong camera crew hovering? – but Survivor at least nurtured its own version of reality on the island: the water run, the meals, the challenges. By transporting this experience back to a television studio, unreality set back in pretty quickly. (No such jolt occurs when each Big Brother housemate crosses the bridge to their Davina interrogation. It’s a short walk away.)

In order to pad the agony out to two hours – intended agony for Charlotte and Jackie, who’ve been home from the island for about three months, and unintended agony for those of us who’ve remained loyal to the bitter end – John Leslie (who can’t say the word “million” unfortunately) dissected every brief piece of island footage by seeking comments from those involved (“Why did you ask that question, Mick?”), Mark Austin (who had nothing of interest to add, although his nose looked enormous in the studio) and pop-psychologist Steven Flett (“Richard will follow his heart not his head”).

I was reminded of Lenny Henry’s catch-phrase from the early days of Comic Relief: “Keep broadcasting, Griff!” Any drama in the actual decisive council, filmed all those weeks ago back on the island amid the heat, rats and malnutrition, was sapped by constant cuts back to the studio, whose atmosphere was one of a case reconvened after a long recess – I imagine the accused Leeds Utd players will feel the same when they return to court shortly.

In a tight hour, with maximum footage and minimum showbiz, this could have been a fitting end. Instead it was appallingly presented by the shallow, guileless, football-headed Leslie and messily stage-managed, the final handover turning into a scrum of friends and family on the tiny stage. It was as uncomfortable as the rather manly Eve trussed up in a party frock. In the end, ITV killed the programme with kindness. Anyone tuning in for the first time would have been baffled at best.

Survivor need not have been like this. It could have been scheduled with confidence, even when the numbers were shaky: regular time slots, perhaps just out of primetime to allow for lower figures and more racy material. It could have been edited and shown as it happened, no matter how rough the edges – that way we would’ve felt more involved. It should have been honest, and shown us Charlotte’s dalliance with Adrian. (While Big Brother has been embarrassing itself almost daily trying to engineer some rumpo, Survivor had some and sat on it!)

I will remember Survivor as a noble and enthralling piece of television that had courage in all the wrong convictions. I will not remember it by its final, desperate two hours. Anyone want to talk about it?


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