No wimps - and no prize either - on the hardscrabble British reality show 'Castaway'

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Manuel Mendoza / The Dallas Morning News

Jonesing for a Survivor fix?
Whether the new BBC America series Castaway does the trick depends on what it was about CBS' "reality" phenomenon that had you glued all summer.

Since last New Year's Eve, 36 men, women and children have been living on a windswept Scottish isle just for the heck of it. There's no prize, no game to play and no one gets voted off - though a few chose to abandon the harsh conditions.

Even without the lure of a money chest, 4,000 Brits applied for the privilege.

So why do it? Self-discovery, adventure, escape from the rat race - those are the main reasons given by the eclectic group of participants, who went through a grueling selection process before winding up on Taransay, a small, unoccupied island off the northwest coast of Scotland.

"They didn't go in order to win things, to become television stars," says executive producer Jeremy Mills, who has been making documentaries and other forms of reality programming for 20 years. "Every single person going on this project had something they wanted to find out about themselves, prove to themselves or at least have the opportunity to question."

Castaway's first four episodes premiere Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the up-and-coming BBC America channel, which is carried by satellite-TV services and on digital cable in Dallas, Fort Worth and many of the suburbs. The shows also will be repeated in a marathon on Saturday and on four consecutive Wednesdays starting Sept. 27.

Free of Survivor's game-show format, the yearlong experiment - mostly being filmed by the castaways themselves - has few rules. The "volunteers," as they are called, had to figure out how to govern themselves.

But there are also some apt comparisons to Survivor.

While they were initially supplied with basic food and shelter, the participants had to learn to slaughter their own meat - chickens, in this case, rather than rats. There's also the bickering, soap-opera aspect that goes along with throwing any group of strangers together for an extended period of time. The psychology of group dynamics - including how leaders and followers emerge - plays a key role.

Mr. Mills said he never heard of Survivor before coming up with the idea for Castaway, though he was aware of its predecessors - MTV's The Real World and PBS' landmark '70s series An American Family. His production company, Lion Television, specializes in reality shows such as Airport and Hotel for the BBC in England, where Castaway is already a hit.

"We came at this as documentary makers, wanting to examine some hopefully interesting, important questions that are around in society in a very popular, populist, entertaining way," Mr. Mills says in a phone interview from his offices in London. "Whereas Survivor and Big Brother [another CBS reality series] are very much entertainment shows that have their roots more in game shows than in reality shows."

It's not 'Survivor'

Mr. Mills isn't just splitting hairs. Intentions make a difference.

Survivor's brilliance lies in producer Mark Burnett's realization that his premise is all contrivance. He used the remote island setting, the "struggle to survive," the music and the editing to serve a show designed for regularly scheduled dramatic payoffs.

Castaway has a broader, looser setup, more like a traditional documentary, though, of course, it also starts with the contrived notion of asking disparate people to live together in a difficult situation. But rather than pretending to be about the denial of creature comforts, the show uses that denial "to reflect on what might be, what could be," in Mr. Mills' words.

Some people feel too comfortable in modern society, wondering whether working so hard and being defined by your job (or the lack of one) - without always knowing why - is all there is to life.

"Now is my time," 57-year-old participant Sandra Colbeck decided after a lifetime of being defined as a daughter, wife or mother.

The first four episodes - to be followed by three more in November and others next year - deal primarily with the selection process. The 4,000 applicants were whittled to about 60, then put through a series of physical and mental tests at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales.

Rather than competitions with winners, the tests were designed to bring out qualities that might come into play on the island. And the ability to get along with others, to lead, to compromise was as important as the physical skills needed to survive in a place with 140-mph wind gusts, cold winters and poor conditions for growing crops.

Ben Fogle, a 26-year-old magazine picture editor who has become Castaway's reluctant sex symbol, couldn't bring himself to snap a chicken's neck during the trials in Wales. Gordon Carey, a 51-year-old construction worker, didn't enjoy getting muddy during an elaborate obstacle-course challenge. They were picked anyway.

Social cross-section

Overseeing the process was psychologist Cynthia McVey and aptly named survival trainer Lofty Wiseman, who were asked to assemble a group representing "British society today." That ended up including a bricklayer, a stockbroker, a doctor and eight children ranging in age from 3 to 11.

Singles in their 20s and 30s make up just a quarter of the castaways, with the rest of the spots taken by couples with and without kids, a single mom and a few older people on their own. Nearly half of them showed up early to help complete the difficult refurbishment of existing buildings on the island, as well as the construction of a windmill tower for power and greenhouses for growing food.

Before they arrived, construction crews struggled to get Taransay ready, with mixed results. New technology for compost toilets and sleeping pods was used to try to create an up-to-date version of the primitive life. But the crews had so much trouble (the pods leak, there hasn't been enough wind), one family opted to stay on the mainland until their quarters were up to snuff.

Tanya Cheedle, a 26-year-old former BBC producer, was picked in part because she knew how to film. The producers are relying on her skills, along with a few other cameras anyone is free to use and a "confession" room similar to the one on Big Brother, to capture day-to-day events.

Professional camera crews are coming over only every two weeks or sometimes once a month to fill in the story lines.

Without 24-hour monitoring, competitive games and vote-offs, Castaway'sapproach may be more civil than Survivor's.That doesn't mean that life on Taransay is any more civilized. Watching the volunteers shovel human waste will be enough to put off any fan of indoor plumbing.

"We all inherently know that the grass is not always greener on the other side, but some of these situations actually prove that," Mr. Mills says. "People who perhaps have been saying to themselves, 'We want to change our lives,' will come out of this saying, 'Actually our lives aren't quite so bad as we thought,' and will go back to them happier. It's about valuing relationships and friendships."

Speaking of which, Mr. Mills promises that future episodes will feature the two cornerstones of populist TV: sex and violence - or at least romance and a few fights. He won't name names but the hints are there from the start. Tammy Huff, a 27-year-old secretary, brought perfume and lingerie - her "emergency kit," she calls it - while 35-year-old driving instructor Trevor Kearon packed condoms.

In the first four episodes, it's already clear that there's a fine line between leadership and bossiness, cooperation and passivity. People who came to escape a sorry life - really, themselves - were generally not selected. But there are legitimate conflicts over religious and personality differences.

Like its American counterpart, Castaway uses sweeping music to add drama. But if it's not Survivor, it might just be the bridge between the newfangled reality TV and that tried-and-true form of capturing real life they used to call documentaries.