Experiment casts public money adrift

The TV series Castaway 2000 is a social experiment in how long the British public will tolerate the BBC’s ability to waste money

Those old black-and-white Hollywood musicals where a teenage Mickey Rooney, eyes alight with excitement, turns to a young Judy Garland and shouts “Hey, let’s put on a show!” are good for a laugh. Or they were, until we learnt last week that the BBC creates its programmes and spends our money on similar boyish whims.

Explaining the genesis of Castaway 2000 (already billed as the “most gripping TV [programme] of the millennium”, so don’t bother to watch anything else for the next 1,000 years), a national newspaper paints the scene. BBC1 controller Peter Salmon is in his office talking shop with Jeremy Mills, managing director of Lion Television and executive producer of hit “docu-soap” Paddington Green. They are wondering how to “magic up” another hit. Mills has the germ of an idea: “I was interested in group dynamics and the spirituality of where we are all going. Maybe because I’m 40 with two children and a wonderful wife. What’s it all about? A lot of contemporaries are feeling this as well, that whole thing about what is important in life, and what we would miss.”

Momentarily, his dense thought processes confront an impasse. Then, suddenly, it comes to him. Eyes alight with excitement, he shouts: “I have this big idea. It’s huge and ground-breaking. Let’s get a group of people together and put them somewhere away from the stresses, and good bits, of modern life and see what happens.”

With licence payers’ money – which, as enny fule no, isn’t real money at all – all things are possible. And so, on the tiny, deserted, remote, gale-lashed island of Taransay off the west coast of Scotland, 35 volunteers have been cast away to attempt communal living for a year under the prying eye of the TV lens – at a cost of &£2m.

The result, promises the BBC, will be the biggest social experiment the world has known. That the BBC has heard of neither Soviet Russia nor Communist China ought not to surprise us. Let us hope, however, that the corporation’s effort meets with less human misery, suffering and bloodshed.

Early reports are not encouraging. Less than a week after being dropped off on Taransay on New Year’s Eve, ten of the 35 men, women and children went down with flu and were flown out for treatment. So when they should have been settling into earth-covered sleeping pods and digging lavatories they were spotted shopping in Tarbert on the island of Harris.

Is this what it has come too? Must Mills’ private odyssey into the mysteries of group dynamic and the spirituality of where we are all going founder on the rocks so soon after casting off? Must he and his contemporaries, torn apart by the anguished yearning to know what is important in life, find the answer before the first reel is shot? Does being 40 with two children, a wonderful wife and a huge ground-breaking idea resolve itself, when all is said and done, into feeling well and going shopping? And, if so, might &£2m have been better spent in Harrods?

Let us not, however, be too churlish. It seems the castaways comprise a number of the people you would wish to see deposited on a remote island for at least a year. Between digging toilets, planting vegetables, killing chickens and milking cows, the volunteers’ plans include educating children with names such as Oliver and Felix, working spinning wheels and reading Proust in the original French. They are, in short, trendy, Guardian-reading Islington Blairities.

Which makes it surprising they were discommoded when, in the early days of their sojourn, the roof blew off the island’s only purpose-built lavatory. You would have thought people who subsist on a diet of lentils and pesto would have met such an occurrence with the calm insouciance born of long experience.

In fact, as a social experiment – let alone the biggest undertaken in human history – Castaway 2000 has a predictable BBC ring to it. The castaway “community” represents, we are told, a “cross-section of all classes, skills, ages and marital states – including gays.” Well, of course. Could any examination of the spirituality of where we are all going (a phrase which, incidentally, is bereft of discernible meaning) be complete without the contribution of gays?

Let’s hope that in the interests of impartiality the cast of castaways includes at least one of each of the following: blacks, Muslims, persons of restricted growth, those with learning disabilities, transvestites, the Scots, Welsh and Irish – in short, of all victimhood wherever it may be found. Do they not deserve an equal chance to contribute to the spiritual enlightenment of Mills, a goal in which every TV-owning household in the land has an involuntary investment?

Who knows, thus enriched (spiritually, of course, not financially – though it is true he has a wife and two children to support), Mills might come up with a still bigger, more ground-breaking idea, such as separating Islington from the mainland and towing it to the west coast of Scotland to a bracing climate where the wind through the heather sings like Proust in the original, and nary a privy has a roof.

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