Spare a thought for those poor telly castaways

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The Independent Online

I'm worried about the people on that island. The bearded fatguts with mad eyes has been shipped out, but it seems possible that it was not him who let the pigs out in the middle of the night. No one seems to be taking charge. The sociology tutor is a bit of a windbag, while the doctor, forever wittering about his kids, is as much use as a box of wet matches. And who's going to get off with that nice boy from Tatler? The smart money is on the woman with the nose-stud, but I think the doctor's wife has a bit of a glint in her eye.

I'm worried about the people on that island. The bearded fatguts with mad eyes has been shipped out, but it seems possible that it was not him who let the pigs out in the middle of the night. No one seems to be taking charge. The sociology tutor is a bit of a windbag, while the doctor, forever wittering about his kids, is as much use as a box of wet matches. And who's going to get off with that nice boy from Tatler? The smart money is on the woman with the nose-stud, but I think the doctor's wife has a bit of a glint in her eye.

Even before the real action starts, it is clear that Castaway 2000 will be ground-breaking TV. The idea of paying a bunch of strangers to spend a year on a bleak Hebridean island and watch as they squabble, go bonkers and fall apart takes the fly-on-the-wall documentary to a new level.

Until now, this new style of programme has appealed to our jaded taste for authenticity, for sneakily filmed insights into real lives where pain, conflict and deception are real - but the formula had a flaw. Those whose private lives have been served up for our delectation retained a small degree of independence. They could talk to the papers and reveal how scenes had been set up, how the dark arts of the editing suite had distorted the truth. It was not much, this unofficial right of reply, but it was something.

Where the Castaway series breaks new ground - and in a profoundly sinister way - is in its solution to that particular problem.

The programme-makers at Lion Television have total control over their subjects. In the interests of the programme, the castaways are not allowed to use the one telephone on the island of Taransay except in the direst emergencies. They are contractually forbidden to talk to the press or write books during, and for a considerable time after, their year on the island. There will be an official book, to be written by the good and serious travel author Mark McCrum, but Lion will presumably have as complete editorial control over the text as it does over the film.

The effect of this untrammelled freedom has already become clear. The producer selects the footage he will use. He supervises the guiding voice-over. He decides which storyline to follow - who will be a hero, who a villain. For a year of their lives, the castaways, and their futures, are as completely under his control as fictional characters are in the hands of a novelist.

Characters who step out of line - the bolshy doctor and his family, the bloody-minded bricklayer - have already been punished by being shown in a bad light on film. It is a laughably easy editorial process: moments of discord or egotism are carefully included, complete with unfavourable comments from other victims. Unhelpfully positive scenes are quietly dropped.

Claims that the programme is some kind of brave sociological experiment are clearly piffle. It is, plainly, mass entertainment, a prurient, manipulative dabble in the lives of people who have been gulled by the prospect of brief television celebrity.

For the programme-makers, Taransay has turned out to be Fantasy Island. Here at last they have the chance to play God, to control lives and to cut and edit them for a drooling, eager viewing public.

The more disastrously the year passes, the better it will be for their ratings. Already they have stirred things up nicely by choosing an incompatible mix of people and by failing to prepare the island adequately. The victim-heroes, famous yet isolated, their every move watched by unseen millions of viewers, forever anxious to please their television masters, are likely to oblige Lion Television over the next few months by cracking up in various excitingly telegenic ways.

Who knows? There may even be a murder on the island. Hey, great television!

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