EDINBURGH, Scotland — Marooned on an island so harsh that human life was driven away long ago, 36 hardy souls are acting out a dubious fantasy: to be Robinson Crusoe for a year, battling the elements far from the comforts of the real world.
But not far from the glare of the cameras. This, after all, is nearly the 21st century, and it just wouldn't be right if their every move wasn't caught for what producers have dubbed the ultimate fly-on-the-wall television documentary.
The project, "Castaway 2000," an expensive production from the British Broadcasting Corp., will chart the real-life stories of a motley crew of strangers who applied to be stranded on the tiny Scottish island of Taransay for a year. The experiences of both the BBC and those on the island provide a clue as to the difficulties that similar U.S. projects may encounter, with CBS' "Survivor" the closest in design.
The official description notes that it will be a fantastic social experiment in sustainability and interaction. But in TV land, where ratings are king, viewers can expect something akin to the "Truman Show" to provide the usual range of emotions and human suffering when the documentary finally airs next year. Already the castaways have been plagued with bad weather, illness, broken bones, defections and mutinies.
This really is a castaway documentary with a difference. Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the new film "The Beach" finds splendid isolation in a sun-soaked Southeast Asian paradise. The BBC, on the other hand, has uncovered a landscape so brutal that when the wind blows hard, it is impossible to stand up.
If some residents of neighboring Harris Island are to be believed, the producers have bitten off more than they can chew. During summer, the long days and short nights may cast a rosy glow over Taransay's fine sandy beaches, making them seem the perfect spot for a castaway dream. But in winter, the island--only 4 miles long and 3 miles wide--stands in the teeth of Atlantic gales, exposed on the front line of a storm-battered coast. In severe conditions, waves reach 40 feet, whipped up by winds gusting more than 120 mph, and Taransay can be cut off for weeks.
Broadcaster and journalist Tom Morton, a leading critic who writes a column for the Scotsman newspaper here, has branded the project dangerous and stupid.
"You cannot flirt with nature on this particular Atlantic frontier and not expect to get comprehensively ravaged by her," Morton wrote recently. "These poor sods with their suburban escapist fantasies are being shamelessly exploited, and despite the assurances, I simply do not believe they know what they're letting themselves in for."
"Castaway 2000" was conceived in the London offices of Lion TV, which is producing the show for the BBC. From 4,000 applicants wanting to get away from it all, the company picked a collection of families, couples and single people from all walks of life. Though the chronicle of their experiences on the island won't air for months, four episodes telling the story of how they were chosen have already been shown in Britain.
The castaways arrived at their new home Jan. 1. Taransay is about 500 miles northwest, and a world removed, from the British capital. It sits a mile off the coast of Harris, one of a number of sparsely populated islands in the Outer Hebrides. The last family left 60 years ago and, as last year drew to a close, the island was watched over by some sheep, a small herd of deer and a pair of golden eagles.
The new arrivals have been on the island for more than two months, and barely a day has gone by without something going wrong.
Britain's fiercely competitive press corps has pounced on every mishap. Sniffing a good old-fashioned scoop, journalists have made for the island in rubber dinghies and rowboats to file exclusive reports.
Before the guinea pigs set foot on the island, producers expressed the hope that no one would have to leave during the year. But after two days, many had been struck down by a flu-type bug. Some of the castaways and members of the production team were taken to Harris to recover.
Four of the castaways were left with no belongings when a helicopter dropped their crates from a height of 200 feet onto the rocks of another island. Two men have broken legs. There has even been a meningitis scare.
After a severe winter storm lashed the island, about a dozen castaways returned to Harris complaining about cold, leaky and substandard accommodations that weren't fit or safe for children.
Tensions were high. Those who stayed were said to be unwilling to allow the rebels back on the island. Producer Jeremy Mills later chaired conciliatory meetings in which both sides aired grievances, and the castaways were reunited on Taransay.