Mark Austin (2001)
Mark Nicholas (2002)
Studio interviews: John Leslie
ITV2 coverage (Survivor: Raw): Ed Hall & Charlotte Holbrough (2002)
Planet 24 for ITV, 21 May 2001 to 29 May 2002 (2 series)
Here's a strange one for you: back in 1988, the groundbreaking "yoof" show Network 7 sent four people - Brookie actor Simon O'Brien, skyrunner Annabel Croft and a couple of civilians - to live on an island for a feature. Charlie Parsons (grand fromage of Big Breakfast producers Planet 24) expanded the idea but couldn't sell it to a British company so he sold it abroad to, of all people, the Swedes where it became hugely popular under the title Expedition Robinson.
Catching wind of this, CBS in America decided to do their own version and named it Survivor. In a country where $100,000 Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is an average idea for a game show, it was one of their biggest successes ever with over 50 million people watching the final episode, and new series are continuing to appear over there today.
Since it became hugely popular everywhere else, a UK broadcaster - ITV, as it turned out - gave the format a second look. So essentially we were the last people in the world to get our own version of a British show. Marvellous! So it was a hit in Scandinavia.. it was a hit in America... surely it was a hit over here too. Wasn't it?
Well, we'll come back to that later, first: the background. Sixteen strangers competed to become the Ultimate Survivor by being marooned on a desert island for 40 days and 40 nights (for pretentiousness reasons, biblical connotation was built in). The last man or woman standing won £1 million... cash (we don't know why they insisted on leaving such a huge pause between "£1 million" and "cash", they were hardly going to pay out "£1million... in doughnuts". OR WOULD THEY?)
The teams were split into two tribes, Ular - the Malay word for snake, and Helang - the Malay word for eagle (based on the eternal conflict between the two on Snake Island or something). For our purposes, they were the blues and yellows. They began on a boat three miles off the island and were about to be cast overboard. They had just two minutes to scavenge anything off the boat - anything left they would have to do without. Using the raft and a map, they then made their way to designated beaches on the island of Palau Tiga (Malay for, erm, pillow tiger?), in the South China Sea near Borneo.
Normally in a survival situation, the most important thing is shelter. And shelter was a must, otherwise they wouldn't survive and win the £1million... cash. However, as the trees are protected by the Malaysian government, cutting them down would have incurred the wrath of the Malay version of John Prescott. Since that's not a nice prospect, the producers kindly provided (read: copped out) lots of bamboo and stuff for the teams to build something out of. Well, that's some of the reality gone out the window already. Still, they had to build something. Up until being cast overboard no-one was allowed to speak with each other. Now - let the bonding begin!
Temperatures regularly reached 30 degrees C. Humidity was high. Everything was strenuous. They had to catch their own food. They couldn't vote off the rats that infest the camps every night. When it rains, you knew about it. But if that wasn't bad enough - there was the challenges.
After the first few days life on the island became a three day cycle. "When Two Tribes go to war, some food or equipment or the Immunity idol is all that you can s-c-o-o-ore!" So sang Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or at least they would have done if they had seen this first.
On Day One there was a Reward Challenge, where the tribes competed to win something to make their lives that little bit easier, be it food, equipment or whatever. These tasks tended to be psychological (eat these grubs), mental (get letters from the sea, make long words from these letters) or skill based (get a ball around one of those giant Labyrinth maze-with-holes things). A nice, but nasty, touch was that the losers were made well aware of what they were missing out on but alas - they had no choice but to go without.
On Day Two was the crucial Immunity Challenge. These tended to be physical in nature, to see which tribe was surviving better. These were crucial because the winners won the Immunity Idol (a little wooden man) which bought them another three days on the island. The losers would have to go to Tribal Council the following evening. The variety in these was a little lacking, as they tended to be races in the sea, or races on the beach, or races in the swamp, or races in the jungle.
Day Three is where the losing tribe had to go Tribal Council and vote one of their own off the island and out of the running for the £1 million... cash. This was quite cool - the tribe took the hour and a half trek through the jungle (going past the island's only mud pool - FACT!) to go to a large wooden hut with lots of fires burning everywhere - a recipe for disaster if ever there was one but somehow it worked. If this was the first time the tribe had been to council, it began with a ritual whereby everyone dipped their torch into the flame. This is because fire represented life on the island, apparently (but not if you started a forest fire, obviously).
At this point, hard man and political journalist Mark Austin asked hard and tough suggestive questions like "Were you disappointed about losing the challenge?" and "Are there splits beginning to emerge in the group?" although he did so in such a manner that wouldn't have Anne Robinson quaking in her boots, calf-length leather ones at that.
After this post mortem it was time for the vote. Each person in turn walked up some steps to a ballot box type table affair, they wrote the name of the person they wanted off, said their piece (and peace) to camera and stuck it in the jar. Crucially, only some of the explanation footage was shown at this point, so you only knew the votes of a couple of people. This is because Nasty Nigel was nasty (more of him in a moment). Sometimes, the person with seemingly most votes behind them would indeed go but at other times the situations cleverly builded up so it looked as if someone else was going to leave but just to confound expectations, in a wonderful sent-you-one-way-went-the-other moment it turned out that someone else would be leaving.
After all the votes were done, hard man Austin got the pot and counted out the votes. Surprisingly, this wasn't as full of tension as it probably could or should have been. The votes were pulled out and shown one by one and even when it was quite clear that somebody had a majority the rest were read out anyway. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but when you were certain someone was leaving the rest lost any interest.
The losing player had to bring their torch to the stand, where they were asked to extinguish it to those immortal words "The tribe has spoken, it's time for you to go." The rest of the tribe were congratulated (they were, after all, still in the running for that £1million... cash) and sent on their way back to camp. The loser walked off into the jungle except for the post-game confessional with inter-cut footage of the reasons conspirators gave for voting them off.
Perhaps even worse than having to walk for hours alone in a dark jungle was the fact that they had to have an interview with John Leslie the next day. This took place in a London studio after the event, where the evictee had to tell their own aaamazing story to John Leslie (the ratings banker) and a studio audience. The set for these loser shows was actually very nice, reminiscent of the Tribal Council hut, a giant screen in the centre and lots of torches and stuff. The show itself wasn't too bad, given that it had unseen footage but it wasn't really the meat that the "proper" show was so we won't dwell on it too much, although it did have a resident psychologist to tell us what the contestant was like when doing tests before the show.
Continue the above for six episodes. That's because when there were ten survivors left they merged to form one supertribe and now it was every person for themselves. Of course, it was important to have done well beforehand because there was an advantage in having more people from your tribe in the merger. Reward challenges and immunity challenges continued as normal but everybody did it for their own benefit. The final seven evicted people formed a jury which watched each Tribal Council from thereon in. At this point, not only should you have screwed your colleagues, but screwed them in a nice way because the seven members of the jury voted on the two remaining Survivors to decide who wins the £1million... cash.
Having watched several episodes of the American show, what first struck us was how slow the show felt to begin with. The American show feels a lot more like gameshow with its fast cutting and short scenes, although its production values are undeniably good.
The British show on the other hand, for better or worse felt a lot more 'documentarised'. It was shot on film and when it first started it was painfully slow to watch compared to the American show. However, it did allow us to build up better ideas of characters of our Survivors and it's the characters that made the show. Each camp got about equal time on film up until after the Immunity Challenge, after that the losing team got about 90% of the time, the winning tribe getting 10% to say "yeah, we're happy, we can still win the £1million... cash and we can have the day off tomorrow".
Unlike Big Brother, the contestants were positively encouraged to talk to each other over who they were going to vote off, to forge alliances and to bitch and backstab. Forget survival, this was what makes the show worth watching. The psychology got more interesting as the show went along and the lack of food and sleep magnified the differences between them. The incidental contestant pieces to camera were done quite well, giving an insight into how they were going to vote and how they would have feeled if voted off and whatever.
The documentary feel didn't mean that producer Nige hadn't made it look good. Flying camera shots, night-cams, lots of firey torches, time lapse shots of the sky going dark - the whole nine yards. It felt as though it had a lot of money pumped into it - which it had (between £6 and £10 million... cash, depending on whose report you read).
The music to the show was actually really good in an understated sort of way, other than perhaps the theme tune which sounded as if they nicked the woman from the Fort Boyard Time Hunters Dance Mix and recorded her preparing to do a Bodyform advert. All very tribal and jungley, fantastically epic when need be and non-existent when there was only chatting going on. Although it was appropriate, methinks the odd pop record to jolly things up might not have gone amiss.
ITN hard man war correspondent Mark Austin was an interesting choice of host. It was unexpected, mainly because he had already turned down the role once until he was told that he could be nothing like Davina McCall from Big Brother [that would worry anyone - Ed]. Austin handled the show with understated authority and, although he sounded like he was still delivering a news report when he started, he later loosened up. He did short non-analytical voiceovers when we changed camp focus and occasional pieces to camera when anything important was about to happen, or to explain things.
The main reservation was that he sounded a bit flat saying "the tribe have spoken, you must leave" which was kind of the focal point of each episode. This summed up the general non-excitement of the man who made it feel quite clear that it was only a gameshow not the middle of a war. Fair enough.
The challenges were a bit on the iffy side - several didn't fit properly with the documentary style and they weren't tremendously exciting, although the reward ones tended to be more interesting than the immunity ones. Most of the early games involved a selection of people from the group, meaning that there were whole shows where some contestants didn't actually contest anything.
So: bitchiness, backstabbing, £1million... cash and it was produced by "Nasty" Nigel Lythgoe (of Popstars and Gladiators fame) so it couldn't go wrong... could it? In fact, it was a bit of a ratings turkey. This was quite a shock to most people, given the amount of advertising and pre-publicity given by the press who were treated royally at PR junkets before the show started. There were also bumpers going between ITV commercials around the clock and even their PR joker (a well-publicised love affair between two of the people on the island) failed to create any real interest.
(left) producer, Nigel Lythgoe (right) horrific Malay fire god seen in the first episode
So, what went wrong? In our view, ITV's major mistake was timing. They were at least a year too late off the blocks to start doing reality shows in 2001, just as everyone else was beginning to get a little fed up of them.
Since the original idea had been turned down by every broadcaster, many other shows had nicked (directly or unintentionally) the many good and original ideas that Survivor had. For example - all the survival information about shelter, food etc. was done better on Bare Necessities and Castaway. The "island thing" had been done on documentary series Castaway and Shipwrecked. The voting out thing had been done by Big Brother and Weakest Link. Even though Survivor may have been credited with inventing the modern versions of these mechanisms (along with The Mole) we'd seen them too many times already. So ironically this "pioneering" programme had nothing to offer that hadn't been done before. Weird or what?
The other big problem is that there were little or no laughs. At every twist and turn there were either people sad because they'd lost a challenge, plotting, scheming, bitching during and after the vote. Compare this to Bare Necessities, which had three jokes just in Ed Hall's introduction, which is three more than Survivor had in the whole show. Even Weakest Link is so cruel it's funny, and Anne does have some very funny lines. Survivor was just nasty nasty - its tagline of "Trust No One" did nothing to dispel this opinion.
Basically, in this business - to be first in a genre is to win. This would explain why Survivor is such big news in the USA but here in the UK it's Big Brother that seems to be the life-sapping timewaster of choice. Vive la difference.
"Fire represents your life on this island"
"The tribe have spoken - you must leave"
"Trust no one"
Russ Landau composed all the original music heard in the show. He had previously composed the music for the US version.
The original choice of host was survival expert Benedict Allen, but he was going off to Siberia when they wanted to film so persuaded Austin to do it instead.
Curiously, the programme featured no less than two contestants from other game shows. From what we can make out, both previous appearances were not known to the producers. Contestant "JJ" (Jenny) Adams is the former RAF officer formerly seen in Jailbreak, and Sarah Odell was one of the trackers in series 2 of Wanted. It's not as if choosing 16 different people from a population of 56 million was particularly difficult, was it?
Million-pound winner Charlotte Hobrough later went back to her previous job as a beat bobby. In 2006, she was promoted to sergeant. Funnily enough, a clip of her and her husband Mark appearing on one of the later series of Play Your Cards Right (late 90s, we guess) appeared on the BBC's The Story of Light Entertainment in 2006. Both Cards and Survivor were produced by Nigel Lythgoe.
While the first series took place on the island of Palau Tiga in the South China Sea, the second series took place on the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama.
Mobile phone ring tones and logos, T-shirts, vests, caps, books, videos... all these now at a car boot sale near you.
Weaver's Week reports:
Series 1: Prelude | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Final | Postscript
Series 2: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Final