Unreality TV

It was all set up - crew, contestants, crazy stunts. It looked like another reality TV hit in the making. Then it all went horribly wrong. Frances Dickenson enters the deluded world of 'Nikita Russian'

On a June morning, three days before I became a part of this story, 30 strangers met in London. They'd given up their jobs, their homes, kissed goodbye to loved ones. For the next year they were to be the stars of a new reality TV show. It was a dank day, but for these contestants – among them care workers, banking students, designers, actors – the warm glow of fame and a £100,000 prize beckoned. Many had already spent the money in their minds and their bright faces stood out against the grey of the day.

On a June morning, three days before I became a part of this story, 30 strangers met in London. They'd given up their jobs, their homes, kissed goodbye to loved ones. For the next year they were to be the stars of a new reality TV show. It was a dank day, but for these contestants – among them care workers, banking students, designers, actors – the warm glow of fame and a £100,000 prize beckoned. Many had already spent the money in their minds and their bright faces stood out against the grey of the day.

My involvement began with a call from one of the contestants, Debbie Driver, who told me an extraordinary story. It was about overweening ambition, it was about a manhunt – "Nikita Russian", the man who had conceived and failed to execute the show, had disappeared and some of the contestants wanted to find him. Above all, it was about our fascination with "reality TV", which has altered television and our notions of celebrity. As a bonus, the crews who had expected to film the project had recorded its collapse. We set about finding those tapes and contacting contestants. Then we began looking for Nik Russian.

The first contestants we spoke to were struggling to make sense of what had happened. Many were too embarrassed to go home – one woman put it off for several weeks. Others had no home to go to. They all obsessively relived the months leading to the project's launch, wanting us to understand how it had seemed so real. Louise Miles was one of the first we met. She said: "I constantly phoned Russian because it's such a huge thing, leaving for a year. I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime." It began with advertisements in newspapers, on websites and on college notice boards. The application forms that the would-be contestants downloaded from the internet were the first in a vast correspondence with the "staff" at Nikita Russian Productions; in particular Doug Travers, the team leader, and Amy Dixon, the team co-ordinator.

While the show's title and format remained secret, the paperwork described an ambitious, year-long project, in which the contestants would be set "missions" which would test their "ingenuity and cunning". The emails promised food, accommodation and leisure money plus £100,000 for those who successfully completed the project. The camera crews were guaranteed £100,000 at the end of the project too, in lieu of wages. The series promised to put the "reality back into reality TV".

According to the email that invited the chosen to audition, more than 1,000 people had applied. The email claimed that one round of auditions had already been completed and there would be a further nine days of try-outs. The venue was an island on the Thames. You arrive on a private ferry which delivers you to the foot of a stone staircase. The contestants were met by at least a dozen crew members, all dressed in black, and by cameras which recorded their every move.

The auditions were fun. Dozens of contestants scrambled to complete strange tasks. In one assignment, they had to bake a cake starting without either a kitchen or ingredients. In another, they were blindfolded. The contestants expected to meet Amy Dixon and Doug Travers that day, yet neither showed. However they got their first glimpse of Nikita Russian. Over six foot tall, with artfully dishevelled, highlighted hair, he strode about, clipboard in hand, a small camera at his hip. In the footage he projects a dramatic sense of selfhood – he appeared to be making not only the plot but himself up as he went along.

Afterwards, we pieced together some kind of a picture of Nik Russian. It was of a young man who had nurtured grandiose ambitions since his teenage years. By his early twenties he'd had three different names. At some point in the journey from his Surrey childhood, he'd adopted the suave manner of a showman. One acquaintance told a story of him striding uninvited across a London pub to a piano to play Beethoven. Another said he had an almost princely disdain for other people's opinions. Russian, at 25, was impatient for success (a CV a year ago mentioned seven unpublished novels). According to his oldest friend "he just didn't want to do it the conventional way".

Russian never paid for the use of the island, the "crew" were, for the most part, college students, and Amy Dixon and Doug Travers did not exist. Russian's production company was fictitious too.

The time between the audition and the launch was heady. The emails continued to flood in, with detailed information about on-camera behaviour, what to wear, different types of microphones. Contestants received one contract and were told there would be others to sign on the first day of filming. They were reminded that for a year they would have no income, so would not be able to pay rent and mortgages. Contestants gave up their homes. They sold their cars and furniture and spent the money on farewell parties. They thought they would be coming home rich and probably famous.

Maria Stavrides had worked in management, but wanted be a TV presenter and to run her own fashion label. She hoped the show would give her the exposure she needed to launch her new career. "I'd decided that, even if I didn't enjoy being in front of the cameras, I'd just take my money and start my business."

On launch day contestants were split into three teams of 10. Each team met at a different London location. Contestants arrived lugging rucksacks and trailing suitcases. The cracks appeared almost immediately. The day ran hours behind schedule. Contestants had been forbidden to bring any cash so they couldn't even wait in a café. When Russian did turn up he did not bring good news. Each team was several members short and the promised food and accommodation did not exist. Finding team-mates and housing were part of their "challenge" they were told. They were also told their primary mission. Each team had to make a million pounds. Some of them began to do the maths: a million pounds divided by 10 team members... they were expected to earn their own prize money.

What happened next is a study in how tenaciously people will cling to an idea if they have invested enough in it. Debbie Driver told us "I'd given up so much, I couldn't believe it could all be a sham. It had to work."

After a depressing day trailing around to find somewhere to spend the night, a few gave up. The rest tried to stick it out. They demanded meetings with Nik Russian, who continued to talk about sales teams, pitches, meeting with broadcasters. Some of them, for example Kerry Milsome, claimed to the cameras that she felt "positive". "I thought if I did, maybe something could come of this." By Wednesday, for most contestants, it was over. One team still tried to make it work. They holed-up in a cameraman's old home, sleeping on the floor, crammed in like sardines. They continued filming. The forced intimacy bound them together and the ever-present camera made a TV show still seem possible.

"No one wanted to give up," Maria Stavrides, said. "Even though this crap thing was happening to us, there was just this massive vibe. I thought if there's one thing Russian's done right it is put a good team together." "All I was thinking of was the team," said Hilary Bridge. She'd given up a place in the Commonwealth Games for the series. "I put the team first. I thought we're all here, lets give it a go."

At first they tried to make Nik Russian's show. They blagged food from local market traders. They set up a video diary room. Perhaps it helped that Big Brother was in the middle of its run – they watched it nightly. They decided they didn't need Nik Russian. Maria Stavrides said: "By this time it was our show, not his. What Big Brother did in 12 weeks we did in three days. I thought, 'we're ready ... why don't we see if we can get another production company to take us on?'"

In perhaps the weirdest twist, Russian dossed down at the cameraman's flat. He claimed he had nowhere to go. Not all of the contestants were happy to have him there, but he worked hard to ingratiate himself. He joined in their games. When they accused him of the deceptions he'd practised, his voice took on the sound of betrayal. The mood in the flat soared and plummeted. Most of them were sleeping badly and missed clean clothes. According to Maria: "We were just a jumble of emotions waiting to explode." Finally, they turned on Russian and delivered him to a local TV news crew, locking him in the flat until the crew arrived.

After the news item appeared, Nik Russian went to ground. The contestants experienced a brief euphoria – after all, they'd made it on to TV – but their spirits quickly sank. After five days they gave up and began to reassemble their old lives.

Some have managed better than others. Debbie Driver is living with her parents, trying to knock her life back into shape. Hilary Bridge and Kerry Milsome are chasing acting work. Louise Miles has found a job in recruitment. Maria is working as a presenter, although in schools not on television, teaching children about Victorian Britain. She is considering applying for another reality TV show.

Two months after the collapse of the show, we tracked Nik Russian down to a pretty cul-de-sac in Richmond. We had Daniel Pope, one of the contestants with us. Russian eventually came out, to tell us he would not speak to us. But Daniel Pope, would not take "no" for an answer. We filmed their exchange. Russian's flamboyant confidence had gone, replaced at first by a sort of belligerence, then sulkiness. He did not show contrition. It was clear that he felt he had become the victim of the whole fiasco.

Some of the contestants have sought legal advice. But Russian has not committed a crime. They might have a case in the civil court, but to pursue their claims will cost money they do not have.

In some ways our involvement has made good on Nik Russian's promises. We've put the contestants on the telly. We employed one of the trainee cameramen. Perhaps some of the others will get offers. It's small compensation for an experience that is still giving some of them nightmares. My nightmare is that as a result of our programme someone will offer Russian a job on TV, that television will embrace him as the next Neil Hamilton, or rather the second Nasty Nik.

'The Great Reality TV Swindle' is on 3 December on Channel 4

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