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(Irish Times – 2000)
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 BBC 1.

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 them.)

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 to know.

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.
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