Lessons Channel 4’s Eden can learn from Ben Fogle and Castaway 2000

As Channel 4 starts its new TV social experiment – marooning 23 strangers in remote Scotland for a year – Ben Dowell remembers BBC series Castaway 2000 and the problems it faced

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Remember Castaway 2000? The BBC series, one of the first ever British reality shows, marked the Millennium by marooning a group of people on a remote Scottish island and allowed them to film themselves for a year.

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It made a TV star of Ben Fogle (below), then a picture editor at society magazine Tatler, who was one of the group of 32 sent off to the remote island of Taransay for a year. And it’s probably remembered for little else.

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The problem of the Castaway island was that it wasn’t remote – at all. The castaways on the island of Taransay in the Outer Hebrides could see the mainland and there was a nearby community on the island Harris who had frequent interactions with the Castaways.

These included boozy parties and goods exchanges, with the outsiders. And because the participants mainly filmed themselves, viewers missed out on a lot of juice and rows which were not captured for various reasons.

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Channel 4 appears to have learned from these errors with this new show Eden which films a group of 23 men and women disillusioned with the modern life and attempting to start a new society from scratch in the wilds of the Highlands.

Using the “fixed rig” set up beloved of C4 stalwarts like 24 Hours in A&E the hope is that every row, cry and moment of tenderness will be captured edited and screened for your pleasure over their 365-day ordeal (sorry, experience).

The participants, who range from doctors and vets to carpenters and chefs, will also need to pool all their skills. They have no access to electricity, plumbing or the supermarket. 

But we feel like we have been here before and here are the pitfalls they must avoid. And Castaway 2000 has lessons aplenty. Here are the main ones.


Find the right cast

The cast of Castaway 2000 was too big – 36 volunteers meant that there were too few people to really latch on to. Channel 4 has still got a big group, with 23 taking part. Is it too large? Time will tell. They are certainly an interesting mix of people in Eden – former army officer Jack, carpenter Raphael, earth mother traveller Jasmine. But are there too many?


Capture every moment

Most of the filming for Castaway was by Tanya Cheadle, a 26-year old television producer. The producers felt that too many camera operators would undermine any sense of isolation. Smaller video cameras would eventually be made available to the castaways, and other footage would come from a brainwave the production team had come up with –  a single fixed video camera in a “diary room”, where the castaways would privately recording their thoughts (sound familiar? Big Brother was also about to arrive when this programme started). The footage was collected by the producers during their visits every two weeks. But the problem was that too many big moments were missed. Eden has fixed cameras in place and will also us GoPro footage from its cast of people. It should be able to guarantee that interesting moments are kept.


Maintain the isolation

Mobile phones, radios, televisions and other electronic communication devices were all banned in Castaway 2000 – but rogue phones got through. In fact, although the producers Lion Television was renting the island, which effectively made it private property, it was impossible to stop many other sailors and holidaymakers from visiting. The bothy was a building on the other side of the island from the main homestead and was occasionally used as a retreat by some of the castaways, especially those needing to cool off, and it had regularly attracted sailors and visitors drawn to the island for its beauty even when it wasn’t the site of a high profile BBC1 programme. By the end of the year its visitor book was stacked with the names of hundreds of visitors, a fact largely hidden from the viewers of the final programmes. So they weren’t really castaways at all.


Keep an eye on smuggled phones and radios as well!

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In Castaway 2000 a communal radio had also been installed in the community kitchen, in express contravention of the rules. On one rather awkward occasion a meal was being prepared by a team including the community’s doctor Roger Stephenson.  Terry Wogan was heard referring to “that narky doctor” on his Radio 2 show and asking, “who’d want to be his patient.” There was, one castaway recalls “silence in heaven”. When Trevor, a Liverpudlian driving instructor, went home for personal reasons for a week he was seen on camera on his return telling them all about Big Brother, the reality show that was to eventually blow theirs out of the water.