Knowledge, 3 March 2007

Can you remember what you were doing seven years ago, when reality TV was in its infancy, and the Big Brother juggernaut hadn't even begun its hedgehog-crushing drive into hell? I was having my heart broken by a worthless man, and swearing I would never again confuse obnoxious with attractive, a rule I have since almost entirely kept. What I wasn't doing was watching the ground-breaking, year-long BBC project, Castaway. This is why, some four years later, when I was crammed into a tiny studio at Broadcasting House, between some bird who wrote chick-lit and Ben Fogle, I didn't have a clue who he was. I do dimly remember that he was promoting a book called The Teatime Islands, a title which still seems to me to shriek "remaindered", like one of those cross letters in Harry Potter.

So, I'd be lying if I said that the prospect of Castaway 2007 leaves me dry-mouthed with excitement. This time it will last only three months, as opposed to a full year, presumably to coincide with our ever-diminishing capacity to concentrate for periods longer than eleven seconds at a time. Controversy already surrounds the show, as the castaways head to a "tiny, isolated island, two hours off the coast of New Zealand," according to the BBC press office. Or "a 30-minute drive from a store, a chemist, a café, a sports club, a golf club and an airfield," suggests Wikipedia, adding that a farmer has had to remove his cows from grazing in the area, so they can't extinguish the magic of television with an unexpected moo. This is a pity, as I can't help but think that a stray cow appearing inexplicably in an apparently deserted island community would only add to the magic, like the renegade polar bear that pitched up in Lost.

In fact, in a post-Lost world, it's hard to imagine that Castaway can be anything but disappointing,. If it were still set in the cold, remote reaches of the Outer Hebrides, it might have been able to hold its own, as we watched people get wet, and perhaps even chilly, while we lounged about on our sofas, eating violet creams and drinking the occasional nip of cooking brandy in sympathy. But shift it 11500 miles south to the Pacific Ocean, and you're raising expectations of a beautiful all-American cast in an array of nice outfits, a plane crash that made Emmerdale's look like an unmanned glider hitting a small tree, and a plotline which makes your ears bleed gently, when you try to remember it all in one go. Castaway promises "twists and turns" this time around, but how can they possibly rival opening a mysterious hatch in the floor of a jungle, and finding a Scottish man called Desmond living beneath it, who can see into the future? And that's before you consider the monster made entirely of smoke.

Still, living off the land, and reconnecting with nature is obviously something the BBC feels strongly about this week. At least, I presume that's why they've produced a series about the meat industry - Kill It, Cook It, Eat It. When the discs first arrived, I assumed it was a hoax, and when I started to watch the first episode, I thought I was hallucinating. But I have consulted independent witnesses, and it appears to be true - someone (not Chris Morris) has made a real show documenting the process by which a small, gambolling lamb/calf/pig becomes dinner, presented in an aggressively po-faced uber-Panorama style, a bit like 999. The host, Richard Johnson, wanders around a room punctuated by celebrities who have descended so far beneath the letter Z that a whole new alphabet, perhaps Cyrillic, must be found for them, asking them how they feel about the cow they've just seen slaughtered, and how it tastes, given that rigor mortis hasn't yet had time to set in. Now, I've been vegetarian for about 20 years, precisely because I believe that if you couldn't kill it, you shouldn't eat it. And despite the suspiciously early deaths of almost every pet I've ever owned, I know I couldn't, so I don't. But I suspect that most of these people couldn't either, they just watch someone else do it through a plate glass window. So I may well not be their target audience. In truth, to send me a show where I have to watch a cow get slaughtered, butchered and eaten by Anton Du Beke of Strictly Come Dancing fame is probably a little like asking a pro-lifer to watch a surgical abortion, performed by, say, Abi Titmuss, but even so, this is the grottiest kind of voyeurism, dressed up as journalism.

On a happier livestock-based note, the highlight of this week's TV will assuredly be Shaun The Sheep, starring the eponymous ovine star of A Close Shave. The series is co-produced by CBBC, which means that more thought has already gone into kids' programming than any other genre this year. The jokes are infinitely better than those in any adult sitcom being made in this country (sorry, "adult sitcom" sounds vile, now I've written it, like jokes set amid porn. Bleah. Actually, now I think of it, that show may have gone out on Ch5 last year). Although I would usually suggest eschewing anything with a theme song sung by Vic Reeves, any programme where sheep can barter frogs for pizzas is a definite exception.