The Version Interview... Bear Grylls on The Island Series 3.
The Island with Bear Grylls, the ultimate survival challenge that abandons ordinary Britons on an uninhabited island in the Pacific, is back for a third series this Spring.
135,000 people thought they could handle the challenge but just 16 were finally chosen to take part. But in an El Nino year those 16 will face a long, hard battle against extreme weather conditions, environmental hazards and severely limited resources.
In an unexpected twist for many of the men and women, the experiment will break new ground by dropping eight members of each gender on the same land mass – but on different sides, blissfully unaware of the other’s existence unless they manage to find the other group of their own accord.
Bear Grylls tells us more...
The Island is back.. Did you ever imagine it would be such a success?
TV is one of those things, you never know what’s going to capture people’s imagination and become a hit. There is no magic formula. But I did always feel that there was always something special about The Island, purely because nobody had ever filmed a show in this way before. We sat down and we thought “Is it too much of a risk to not put camera teams on the island – can we reliably get footage. For us, that was the big step, but it was also pretty exciting, because nobody had ever done it before. We knew there’d be something very raw about the footage we’d get from people when they knew that there were no official cameras and crew around. Some of the best stuff we’ve ever got on The Island has just been the audio from things – someone might have put a camera on the ground and it’s not really getting a picture but you’ve got the audio and half a shot, and it’s very powerful. But despite all this, none of us anticipated what it would build into. Now we run this show in multiple countries, and multiple locations all around the world. It’s really exciting. It definitely captures something primal in people, where they ask themselves if they could do it. That’s the question everybody asks: “If it was me, could I survive?” And that’s universal wherever the show is taking place.
Do you think that’s why people watch? Because they’re fascinated to know if they can do it? Or are they just sitting on their sofa having a nice glass of wine and enjoying watching other people suffer?
I think it’s a potent combination of both of those factors. It is a primal reaction, though, wanting to prove yourself. I get loads of people coming up to me and saying “I’ll tell you what, if I was on that island, I’d be able to survive.” We all like to think we have what it takes. But there is the other side of it, as you say – it is just great, very raw entertainment. And when people are so tired and dehydrated and hungry and unguarded, there is no acting. We’re used to seeing reality shows where everyone is hamming it up for the camera. The Island is so far the other side of that, because everyone there is so beaten up.
As well as capturing the imagination of the viewing public, it’s clearly struck a chord with people who want to take part. Is it true that over 135,000 applied for this series?
Yeah. I think the second season got something like 70,000 and everyone was freaking out going “It’s unprecedented to have that many people apply!” And then by this season it was up to 135,000 – it’s amazing and a great privilege. But sometimes you just hit a rich seam. The thing is that everyone’s got an opinion about this show. Everyone’s got an opinion about how they (or their mum, dad, spouse or friend) would do on the island, about who they love or hate, about who’s stronger, the men or the women, about class and social divides. The Island isn’t just about survival, it’s a medium to show us what people are like both on their own and in groups. And this season plays to all of those even more strongly, because now we’re mixing it big time. People have said “Oh my God, if you put men and women on an island together, it’s going to be carnage. And in many ways it was carnage, but not always in the way you might expect. The outcome was very affirming by the end, but at times painful to watch.
Explain a little bit about how this is going to work. The groups are put on separately, aren’t they?
Yeah, so it’s a big island, and we put them on in two groups – women, and then on the other side of the island, men. Neither group knew the other was there, and it takes them a while to find each other. And then it got interesting! But I guess that when you’re in a war zone like that, and you’re really battling to stay on top of things, you depend upon the group you’re in. You get into a groove. But then suddenly something comes along to rock that group, and it throws the whole dynamic out. The 2 groups didn't meet until after they’d been in their respective groups for a few days, and the fireworks followed from that. People are so on the edge, anything that rocks the boat is going to be difficult. But it’s also not what you’d expect. With the men and women together, you’d think it would be all about sex, but these people are on the edge, they have so many more important things on their mind – literally day-to-day survival: thirst, hunger, bites, fatigue and fear. TV doesn’t translate what it’s like to be devoured hour after hour by sand flies and mosquitos, and have no shelter from torrential rain day and night, and shivering cold, and mouths swollen with thirst and starving. It’s hard to describe, and so many of the people who do on the island had studied every episode from past seasons, yet every single one of them said they had no idea it would be this hard.
When the groups joined up, how did that affect the dynamic? Did people revert to stereotypical roles along gender lines?
All of us like to think that we don’t have prejudices. But it’s easy to think that way when you’re sitting at home comfortable and well-fed, not tired and under pressure, to say that men and women are equal. But what happens on the island, when they’re under such pressure, is you see behind that. Are people paying lip service to this? So many of our prejudices come to the surface when you’re stripped bare. So you might think that you’d give all the strong jobs to the men. But actually the truth was often different. What I’m always reminded of, with this show, is that survival isn’t about the muscles or the gender. It’s an attitude thing. I’ve seen the most unlikely small girls, who I thought would die on so little food, come alive and show an abnormal strength whilst the strongest man is just wilting. Strength is a state of mind. The real survivors have that state of mind, and it’s not gender specific.
Obviously this isn’t what the show is about, but people will still want to know – did any romances develop?
I think it’s good not to spoil that. All I’ll say is that it’s inevitable, when you put men and women together, that there are going to be some interesting dynamics that you won’t get so much of in a single sex group.
What do you think it is about our modern world, that so many people want to get away and do something like this?
I think it says that there is a universal truth that we perform at our best when we are pushed, and most of us live well within our comfort zones. We take the simple things for granted. We often feel most alive outside our comfort zones. By the end, those that have survived the island have gained an appreciation of where the real wealth in their life is. It’s never about things or status or job title, it’s always about relationships and life and faith and friendships and purpose and pride and confidence. Things that money can’t buy. The greatest things in life are never things.
Do you still have that experience of wanting to escape and get away from it all sometimes? What do you do about it?
I’ve spent so much of the last 12 months away filming. We always used to do one season a year of programming, but this year we’ve done eight different seasons. It’s been a mega, full-on time where I’ve spent all my time in jungles, mountains and deserts, so I’m in a place now where I’m just so relieved to be home and safe. But also I’m reminded that it’s no accident that I do this job. It’s what I love. I feel the most alive and free when I’m out there, and when I don’t do it, part of me misses that edge. The Island is the one show I get really nervous about, because I don’t have control over the people. I look at the close shaves we’ve had this year – I’m reminded that you’ve got to count your blessings and be smart and never take day to day safety for granted. You only get things wrong once in the wild.
Bearing in mind the number of people wanting to take part, do you get irritated with people who leave almost as soon as they’ve arrived?
Yeah, it’s definitely frustrating, but I also anticipate it, because it’s a classic cross-section of what happens in life. When I do part of their survival training, one of the key things I take people through is the psychology of survival. I say to them “The key to this all is ‘never give up’.” I remember seeing some of them saying “Oh, that’s me, I’m no quitter, you’d have to drag me off.” Then she said “Why are you smiling?” And I said “Because I’ve heard it so often before, and I wish it was true. But experience shows me it’s not always true. You will not all endure.” And that’s the truth - you can’t tell who it is, because there’s no blueprint for a hero. The ones left standing at the end of this series, you’d never have picked them.
Do you have any favourite moments or participants from The Island?
I think there have been some great characters. Ryan from season one was a great character, Vic from last year was a great character. The characters that really excite people are the ones that divide opinion. We’ve got a lot of them in this series. More than ever before.
Is there as much drama in this series as there was in the last?
One of the guys who’s been involved in all three series, and whose opinion I really respect, said to me: “I don’t have any spin or bull***t. I’ve been really close to the all three series, and I can tell you this one blows the other two seasons out of the water.” So, yes, I’m excited about this one, for sure.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?
The closest shaves are always the non-dramatic stuff. When it’s a really big thing and you’re jumping on the back of crocodiles or chasing sharks around or climbing up rock faces, you’re all on it. But the scary stuff happens always from left field, and it happens very quickly.
What’s the toughest survival thing you’ve done in your career?
Everest was a long trip – we were up there for three-and-a-half months, and four climbers lost their lives. It was a tough one for sure. I think going through 21 SAS selection was obviously a long process of attrition. You’re whittling down 120 mega-fit, competent soldiers to four or five at the end. I suppose all those years doing Born Survivor were tough as well, but like all tough experiences they also taught me a lot, mainly the power of resourcefulness, determination and positivity. But I’ve also learned that I’m not as strong as people think I am. It’s given me an awareness of my humanity and mortality that I didn’t have when I started out on this journey.
If you had to take one of the celebrities from Running Wild into a real survival scenario, who would you take?
Probably President Obama. He’s the ultimate cool cat under pressure. He’s a fighter, he’s come from nothing, he understands about friendship, there’s no ego there. And as he said to me when I took him to Alaska “Put me to work.” I said to him at the end “The one thing I was most worried about was keeping you safe.” And he said “Hey, I may be skinny, but I’m tougher than I look.” A good man to have beside you in a crisis.
The Island returns to Channel 4, Monday, 9pm.