CASTAWAY 2000 THE INSIDE STORY
Author's perspective on Taransay experiment
Take 36 eager people, from a notional cross-section of contemporary
'British' society. Strand them on a remote Scottish island for
a year without the luxuries and stresses of that society and
see what lessons they learn, what reflections they come up with
about the way we live at the turn of the millennium. Such was
the original, high-minded idea behind the Castaway 2000 documentary,
currently heading for its New Year's Eve climax on primetime
Unfortunately it hasn't worked out quite like that. A late start
and a communal attack of flu, coupled with the BBC's decision
to show the first four programmes of the series before all the
would-be castaways had finally made it to Taransay, meant that
the project became the focus of extraordinary media attention.
Never before had a TV documentary received such press coverage.
Adventurous hacks descended on the neighbouring island of Harris
en masse and, like some scene from a latter-day Whisky Galore,
paid local fishermen well over the odds for the use of their
boats, as they tried to land on the island and get interviews
with the sought-after survivors.
Suddenly the supposed 'castaways' were famous, some more than
others. In a stuttering video-diary recorded at the end of January,
newly-crowned tabloid 'heart throb' Ben Fogle declared himself
flattered but bemused by the massive interest in him. On Valentine's
Day he received fifty cards from women who had never met him.
Some were extremely saucy, containing revealing photos and offering
believe me - more than just a cup of tea and a chat.
This instant celebrity added a new element to the already intense
relationships that were developing in the goldfish bowl community.
Ben now found himself the target of a teasing campaign from
Ron Copsey, the gay ex-actor and showbiz journalist whose interest
in the TV side of the project had never been much of a secret.
The unhappiness Ben felt as a result of this led to calls for
Ron to be removed from the island, and a crux moment when the
two producers descended on Taransay to try and sort out a discord
that was rapidly spinning out of control.
Meanwhile Manchester builder Ray Bowyer had also felt the heat
generated by the bizarrely intense nature of the project, much
of which, undoubtedly, had to do with the knowledge that everything
the castaways did or said would sooner or later end up in front
of a primetime audience of eight million. Coming perilously
close to a total crack-up, Ray 'escaped' from Taransay in a
state of some distress. Having negotiated to sell his story
to the Daily Mirror, and been taken off the island on a boat
hired by that newspaper, the unhappy builder suddenly turned
against his new friends and, turning down offers from the press
worth thousands of pounds, walked and hitchhiked home to Manchester.
So there was another rash of headlines and yet more publicity
for the series. The BBC's decision to screen more programmes
in April only increased the public nature of the project.
Next to find themselves in the spotlight were Irish castaway
Padraig Nallen and his girlfriend of two months, dreadlocked
trapeze artist Philiy Page. Ray had finally sold his story,
revealing their relationship as a sideline titbit. The gutter
press seized on the two sentences with gusto. Having phoned
up everyone from Padraig's mother Maura in Cavan and college
pals from Dublin to the principal of Philiy's trapeze school
in Rochdale, the Sunday People came up with a double-page spread
headlined LUSTAWAYS! 'She fell under Padraig's spell as he sang
her Irish folk songs and played her haunting tunes on his penny
whistle,' wrote the inventive hacks (who had clearly never heard
a penny whistle).
As if all this wasn't enough, the 'castaways' now started receiving
unsolicited gifts in the post from companies eager to promote
their goods on TV. Then it went further, as adventurous publicity-seekers
actually landed on the beach offering their wares.
Padraig Nallen was one of the most concerned. 'We were meant
to be here in isolation and nobody was meant to know about it,'
he complained to the video diary. 'But instead the entire world
knows about it and now they want to come. We're surrounded on
all sides with people just throwing stuff at us. So what are
we meant to do?'
The Cavan man was at the centre of a group of the younger castaways
who decided that something had to be done. After a long evening's
discussion, they agreed on a pact of self-denial. They would
no longer indulge in the contraband alcohol or tobacco that
had been willingly delivered by local fishermen, nor would they
receive parcels or accept any kind of freebie from outside.
Within a week their resolve was tested, as the Pulteney Scotch
whisky company turned up on the beach offering two cases of
their finest malt. Padraig managed to resist temptation, even
as non-pact-member Ron Copsey waltzed off to his room carrying
a full case.
A few days later the absurdity reached its climax as onetime
chart-topping pop band Dodgy turned up on the beach offering
to play a free gig which would, they revealed under questioning,
be linked up live to Radio One. This proved easier for the majority
of the islanders to refuse, and the group were sent packing.
But a Friday-night visit from a jolly bunch of locals in a booze-laden
boat proved too much for some of the would-be ascetics. Padraig
decided that 'a drink in friendship' would be acceptable. Unfortunately,
the one turned into the four and then a long night of revelry.
Over half of the pact members woke up late on Saturday with
hangovers and bad consciences.
The year had reached its unexpected nadir, and though it was
high summer, and the start of good weather, many now contemplated
leaving the project. It wasn't, they told me on one of my regular
visits, what they had signed up for. 'As the year hurtles along,'
said Monica Cooney (the Nottingham-born daughter of a Corconian
father and a Dubliner mother), 'careering from one bizarre event
to another, and we become increasingly embroiled in a media
frenzy, one becomes more and more cynical about the whole damn
thing. One begins to get the feeling that we are just pawns
in a game a media game that we have no control over.'
After much self-examination and discussion the entire community
decided finally to agree to a set of hard and fast 'rules',
banning visitors, contraband and parcels of all kinds. A court
was established to administer punishment to transgressors, with
five judges drawn out of a hat.
Ironically, the very first person to be tried was the one who
had been keenest on setting up the court. After a surprise visit
from a long-lost brother from America, Castaway granny Sandy
Colbeck was found guilty of receiving visitors and sentenced
to two weeks' of sewing for the community.
Most of the castaways had by now accepted that their year away
was never going to be what they had hoped. Those who were seriously
disillusioned left. First, Ron Copsey, who came off on a boat
with me, and spent a weekend in the Harris Hotel telling me
that the project was 'incestuous' and 'destructive', 'a soap
opera, a circus with neon lights and balloons on sale and candyfloss.'
For him, he told me, it had been a dalliance with his ego and
he was turning his back on the media and all its works forever.
A month or so later it was the turn of the black Carey family,
the only seriously religious folk on the island. The heavy drinking
and scorn of their beliefs had been a factor in their leaving,
but as Gordon Carey confessed to the Sunday Mirror a few weeks
later, he also felt 'like the token blacks caught up in a middle
class game'. Scarborough Mum Hilary Freeman, who departed shortly
after them, had been suspicious of 'the TV side' from the start.
Even on the selection week, she had told me, she had seen something
of how television worked, 'and I didn't like it. I just thought
what they filmed and how it unfolded was stupid.' Now, finally,
she had had enough. 'It just seemed to have become ridiculous,'
she told me. 'All the contraband and then agreeing to have rules
and not sticking by them. I just thought: Am I part of a farce?'
Acting with characteristic integrity, Hilary, alone of all those
who had left, didn't sell her story to the papers. (Indeed,
when producer Chris Kelly phoned her up at home to ask her what
she thought of the September programmes, she hadn't watched
As for the others, they had now, as summer turned to an early
Hebridean autumn, decided to stick it out. 'I'm doing my utmost
to forget the fact that this isn't the dream I expected,' said
Ben Fogle. 'I'm just going to turn it into a different dream.'
Others were less accepting. They still felt, they told me, when
I visited in late September, as if they were living in 'a TV
La La Land'. Some described themselves as 'sitting ducks'. Ray,
Ron and the Careys had all sold their stories, for substantial
amounts, and they had no right of reply; they just had to sit
there, as ex-colleagues slagged them off in national newspapers
as 'vacuous', 'disgusting', 'neurotic' 'racist' or 'nasty'.
When hate mail arrived, which it did, there was nothing they
could do. The famous islanders had even received death threats,
though for what crimes other than over-exposure it was hard
Despite their complaints, however, they do, as a community,
seem to have cohered. Tuckman's famous model of Forming, Storming,
Norming, Performing has been worked through and they have all-but
achieved their goal of being self-sufficient. And though the
lessons they have learned have been more about surviving the
excesses of the contemporary media than of nature in the raw,
they have surely been worthwhile for a group that volunteered
for exposure in the first place.
As for me, my only worry now is how they will receive the book
that details the private hopes, fears, likes and hatreds that
have made up their extraordinary year. I shall be heading up
their to see them off at New Year, live on BBC 1, hoping that
the fireworks they set off won't be in the turn-ups of my trousers.
So if you're watching and you spot a shadowy figure in the background,
making nervous notes and keeping a low profile, that'll be me.