A show that throws native islanders into British life proved an ethical minefield.
A show that throws native islanders into British life proved an ethical minefield.

The idea came to Simon Dickson 'in a flash' as he cycled into work one morning. 'I had been thinking about anthropological series like Bruce Parry's Tribe,' says Channel 4's deputy head of documentaries, 'and I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and thought, God, I look a bit weird on a metal frame with two wheels and a funny helmet on my head. I thought how interesting it would be to reverse the relationship and invite people from native communities to observe us.'

Dickson adds that while it's usually production companies that pitch ideas to him, he has around two ideas of his own a year. 'I'm particularly proud of this one,' he says.

In a role-reversal of his own, Dickson decided to pitch his idea to a production company and began with Keo Films, a company with a strong anthropological track record. 'They spend all their leisure time going off to funny jungles,' says Dickson. 'They have good contacts and they care about indigenous people. They are very morally centred, but they're not po-faced, boring, museumy types.'

The result is Meet the Natives, a three-part series in which a group of five men from the South Pacific island of Tanna spend five weeks living with a selection of British families and record their impressions of modern British life. The final result is a sensitive, amusing and highly revealing account of their stay, in which the islanders and their British hosts reflect on issues as varied as why we eat off plates (big leaves don't have to be washed up), why we artificially inseminate our pigs (thus depriving the sows of sexual satisfaction) and why City commuters look so miserable as they flood into work in the morning.

At first Keo's executive producer, Andrew Palmer, and producer Will Anderson wanted to make three films with three different tribes, but after initial recces in the Sudan and the Congo, where the tribespeople were not especially enthusiastic, they decided that the project had to mean something special to the visitors themselves.

In this respect the Tanna islanders proved perfect. Part of the island nation of Vanuatu (the former colonial New Hebrides), Tanna retains 25 'custom villages' where islanders live in the traditional manner. They sleep in communal huts, raise pigs and grow fruit and vegetables, and the men wear nothing but large grass sheaths over their penises.

I met the five just before their return home, when they spent a few days living in a penthouse on top of a tower block near Canary Wharf. They explained how Tanna is so fertile and the climate so pleasant that they only have to work an average of one hour per day. The rest of the time they dance, talk and tell stories, sometimes drinking kava, a mildly consciousness-changing drink made from a root. A recent United Nations survey revealed that Vanuatuans were the happiest people on the planet.

About five villages on Tanna subscribe to the belief that England and Tanna were once joined together and that we are their long-lost brothers. They also believe that Prince Philip is the incarnate son of their volcano god and that when he returns to the island they will achieve immortality. Not surprisingly they leapt at the opportunity to come to England.

'It was important that they had such strong reasons of their own for coming here,' says Palmer, like Anderson an anthropologist by training.

'In some ways it was an ethical nightmare,' he adds. 'We were all incredibly nervous to begin with.' Dickson shared his concerns. 'I didn't want it to seem like a gag perpetrated by posh, middle class types which might seem eurocentric, patronising and racist.'

After consultations with anthropologists (some approved of the project but others had reservations) and a preliminary visit to Tanna, the team maintained communications with the islanders through the Vanuatuan Cultural Centre, which looks after the indigenous people's interests.

The islanders nominated their own representatives, each from a different village. A trained teacher, Jimmy Joseph - 'JJ' - acted as translator for Chief Yapa, the authority on religious matters, Albi (a dancer), Posun (a farmer) and Joel (a doctor). At the time of writing JJ was returning to record the narrative. They were issued with camcorders to record their impressions throughout, and Anderson spent several weeks back on Tanna getting this material translated before the edit. The rushes were shown to all the assembled villagers to make sure nobody felt left out.

During the course of their visit they stayed on a Norfolk free-range pig farm and with a taxi driver and his family in Manchester, went hunting with an aristocratic family (friends of Prince Philip) in Northumberland and visited Skye in the original Hebrides. The experience climaxed with an audience with Prince Philip himself - not filmed - during which, Anderson tells me, he treated them with great courtesy and good grace. This had just happened when I met them and they were clearly thrilled to bits. 'It was much more intense than we had expected,' says Anderson. 'We felt we had to be with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.'

Between filming and broadcast, Donal MacIntyre's similar concept Return of the Tribe aired. Dickson in particular was keen to stress the differences. 'Our series is about the indigenous people, which is why we didn't use a presenter,' he says. 'We took great care selecting appropriate experiences for them and making sure their voices are heard. It's a triumph to have got so many subtitles on in primetime!'

TX: Meet the Natives
Broadcaster: Channel 4
Producer: Keo Films
Start: Thursday 27 September, 9pm
Length: 3 x 60 minutes
Commissioning editor: Simon Dickson
Executive producers: Andrew Palmer, Zam Baring
Series producer: Will Anderson
Director: Gavin Searle
Editors: Chris King, Giles Goodwin
Interpreter: Jimmy Joseph