“New actuality TV present seeks contestants. One yr, £100,000,” learn a small advert within the Stage in 2002, instructing the general public to use “for those who’re characterful, resourceful and energetic”. A whole bunch did. An audition with manufacturing groups and digicam crews was held at Raven’s Ait island within the Thames in Surbiton, west London, with potential contestants delivered by way of boat, and a younger man often known as Nik Russian on the centre of all of it.
“It was so skilled,” remembers Lucie Miller, who was 34 on the time. “All people oozed confidence and Nik was extraordinarily charismatic.” Daniel Pope, then 25, remembers Russian being “a really good-looking man who appeared as if he belonged in Hollywood”.
Russian whittled it all the way down to 30 individuals who then ready to say goodbye to their lives for a complete yr. Notices have been handed in, relationships ended, properties and possessions offered – just for the promise of money, fame and success to come back crashing down.
A brand new three-part documentary, The Best Present By no means Made, tells this wild story. Merging contemporary interviews with contestants, unique 2002 footage, and vibrant and goofy re-enactments, it transports viewers again to the early 2000s actuality TV growth, when a sixth of the UK’s inhabitants was watching Massive Brother and a spate of copycat sequence would emerge in its wake.
Such exhibits supplied an opportunity of escape, journey, and to probably change the course of unusual individuals’s lives. Jane Marshall was 21 and residing along with her mother and father close to Manchester. She “felt like one thing was lacking from my life” and hoped the present might increase her profile as an aspiring actor.
Tim Eagle was 37 and “feeling caught” whereas working as a clown. “I used to be time wealthy however cash poor,” he says. “I had a pleasant life, a stable social housing flat,” he says, “however couldn’t see how I might make the following step. This felt prefer it might get me on the housing ladder.” Miller, in the meantime, was working within the carpet business in Birmingham however “wanted one thing that may give me a buzz”. She was supporting her mother and father financially and noticed the prize cash as a method “to eradicate their fear and mine”. Pope had moved from the Caribbean to London two years earlier and easily needed an journey. “I jumped headfirst into any alternative I noticed,” he says.
Contestants packed for all eventualities, pondering they could be despatched to a jungle, solely to be directed to London. There, they have been break up into three groups of 10. Workforce two, which Pope, Marshall, Miller and Eagle have been a part of, discovered themselves in New Cross, south-east London, “on this dank, damp park the place everybody was standing within the rain”, remembers Pope. All of the professionalism, and crew, of these first auditions had vanished.
Russian, along with his leather-based jacket and Hugh Grant hair, hovered within the background making cellphone calls whereas teams of perplexed individuals stood round. Every staff had been given their problem: to make £1m in a yr. It turned clear there was no prize cash. They needed to make their very own, in addition to discover meals and shelter. Oh, and the present didn’t exist. There was no fee from a broadcaster, as they’d been informed. Russian’s concept was to make it and, he hoped, promote it.
Seven members of staff two relocated to Eagle’s close by flat to take inventory. Tim had been given the function of cameraman on the present and so was filming every thing, utilizing his personal tools. “I used to be on a mission,” he says. “It was altering in entrance of me however I might nonetheless maintain on to it. Then it simply developed rapidly and have become one other story.”
By this level, groups one and three had smelled a rat and baled out – Russian was not, actually, head of the celebrated Nik Russian Productions however was working in Waterstones. Nonetheless, staff two pressed forward. “Folks have been saying: perhaps it’s a take a look at,” says Miller, “and we’ve bought to show our price?” Day became night time and shortly Tim had a flat full of individuals sleeping on flooring, sofas and chairs, clinging on to the hope that this present would possibly nonetheless occur. “I used to be prepared to remain it doesn’t matter what,” says Marshall. “I assumed: let’s see what we are able to do.” Eagle arrange a diary room and the group started making their very own actuality TV present. The footage is evocative of the time: bottles of WKD Blue, retro England kits, bootcut denims and the intense purple front room partitions of Eagle’s flat – which in The Best Present By no means Made has been reconstructed as a set the place contestants are interviewed. “A very surreal expertise,” says Eagle. “Like The Truman Present.”
Some individuals had an excessive amount of using on the present to surrender. “My dad had excessive expectations and was all the time dissatisfied in me,” says Marshall. “He had informed me to not go, so the toughest factor would have been to return dwelling and see his face saying: ‘I informed you so.’ I couldn’t stand that disappointment.” Miller had stop her job and left behind a long-term boyfriend. Solely Pope, a pupil between levels, had made no giant sacrifices.
Issues turned actually weird when Russian turned up at Eagle’s flat and introduced that he, too, was broke and homeless, asking if he might stick with them. One contestant threatened to kill him. “I mentioned no fisticuffs,” remembers Eagle. “The ambiance was actually tense.”
The group’s focus modified. “Nik had scammed and deceived us, so all our power went into: how can we get our personal again?” remembers Marshall.
“All of us had one thing in frequent,” provides Pope. “We hated Nik.”
Eagle stuck the camera on Russian as he sat with his head hung low, chain-smoking cigarettes, looking bruised. The group conspired to invite ITV’s London Tonight to ambush their reality show swindler at the flat. “We stuck him in the corner and grilled him until this proper crew came,” recalls Eagle. “I love the multilayer madness of that – we managed to hoist him by his own petard and hang him out to dry on the medium he so wished to be a part of.”
The report ran on ITV on a Thursday night, three days after the group came to the flat, by which point Russian had fled. A day later, the group met a producer to discuss selling the footage to make an actual show. The answer was no. “He was like: ‘On your way, it doesn’t work like that,’” Eagle recalls.
The adrenaline surge that had kept them going had now subsided as reality crept in. “I asked my girlfriend to come back and she said no,” recalls Eagle. “We split up and that knocked me for six. It was deeply embarrassing; a lot of us had had send-off parties – I’d been thrown this huge surprise party. It floored me. I never picked my camera up again and I just went back to being a clown.”
They were mocked by Harry Hill on TV Burp, while a documentary swiftly made by Channel 4 in the same year, The Great Reality TV Swindle, referred to them as “the wannabe class”. “I had to overcome humiliation,” says Miller. “I felt embarrassed to go home so soon with everything I had banking on it. Everything felt flat.” For Marshall, the idea of returning to a disappointed father was simply too much and she stayed with other group members in London for months on end, finding a job there.
At this point, the documentary team had not heard from Russian and so hired a private investigator to track him down. “We’ve never learned the why behind all this,” says Pope. “But I think he’s a damaged man. I pity him.”
“He was an egotist; cultish,” adds Eagle. “It was all about him. He was going to be the frontman and take all our money.”
However, despite the clear resentments contestants may have once felt, their reunion has resulted in a softened perspective to their experience. “It’s taken a painful memory and allowed me to completely reappraise it,” says Eagle, who has written a book based on his experiences. Miller, now happily settled with a family, concludes that “life experiences are a gift no matter what and I now really appreciate that”. Pope works in finance, is “very content” and hopes his own daughter will also undertake “weird experiences” and “live life to the fullest”.
As for Marshall, who eventually returned home to a supportive hug from her father, the experience gave her the confidence to pursue her dreams, gaining more acting work in the ensuing years. “If I hadn’t done it I’m not sure I would be the person I am now,” she says. “No matter what life has thrown at me since, you just pick yourself up and carry on.”
The Greatest Show Never Made is on Prime Video from 11 October.