The Island with Bear Grylls

Lord of the Flies has long provided inspiration for makers of reality TV – Survivor, Big Brother, Kid Nation and Boys and Girls Alone. The most recent entry in this list is The Island with Bear Grylls, which launched in 2014 with a show featuring only male contestants, and this year with two parts of the same series – with men and women both involved in the experiment, albeit on separate, gendered islands. Here, we take a look back at the first series, and review the second.

Grylls states in his introduction to each programme: ‘There’s no doubt that twenty-first-century man has come a long way from our hunter gathering origins. What happens when you strip man of all the conveniences of modern living?’ In the opening season, thirteen men were abandoned on an island in the Pacific Ocean with a few basic tools, and camera equipment so that they could film the results. The first episode showed the men trying to make fire and I found myself shouting at the screen: ‘you’re wearing glasses, haven’t you read Lord of the Flies?’ Happily, in Season Two, Kyle suggested using a fellow contestant’s glasses for fire-making with great success! The first hunt in S1E2 features the men trying to catch a stingray but they manage to kill a caiman crocodile so the camp can eat. There is some distress amongst the men over the killing, which reminded me of Jack in Lord of the Flies. Early on in the book, the boys discover a piglet caught in some foliage, and Jack stands over it, knife in the air. However, he can’t bring himself to kill it, as Golding writes, ‘because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood’ (29). When The Island contestants eat their prized meat, they say ‘this is the first time we’ve been a tribe’.

This feeling of togetherness doesn’t last long and the men struggle to repeat their hunting victory. The camp begins to split, and in S1E3 Lord of the Flies is mentioned – ‘if we don’t get any food, we’re going to become Lord of the Flies‘. The group particularly splits based on age, as the older men criticise the younger ones for not doing enough to help in the camp. The youngest, Ryan, comes in for particular criticism, although he eventually manages to redeem himself with his honey discovery.

In the final episode, the men decide to elect a leader in an attempt to resolve the constant disputes, despite vicious protests from Rupert who sees no need for an authority figure. In an amusing nod to his disagreements, the other contestants concede the title of leader, to be replaced by ‘project manager’. Sackie wins the vote and helps to make the final days on the island bearable. This was an interesting contrast to Lord of the Flies, in which the boys insist they should have a leader in the opening chapter, setting the scene for the coming struggles between Ralph and Jack. Perhaps this can be seen as reflecting a stronger belief in authority from the children in the novel, acknowledging the multitude of leaders in their lives (parents, teachers etc), whereas the adult men on The Island take time to realise that they need someone to help keep them together. In the second series of The Island, the women also elect a leader in the final episode, despite fierce criticism, and a refusal to accept authority from Jaime. Only two women nominate themselves as leader, and work together to manage the group until the end of the experiment, with the impressive Lauren even able to persuade Jaime to rejoin the group.

The first series suffered criticism because of its all male group of survivors, with a number of commentators calling the show sexist. In response, the broadcaster Channel 4 stated: ‘The series sets out to examine modern masculinity and how traditional skills and ideas of manhood have changed over generations. For that reason men were invited to take part in the series to be stripped of modern day comforts and their skills put to test.’

William Golding was often asked why he had featured only boys on his island, and his full audio response can be heard here. Golding felt that he had a greater understanding of boys, having been a son, a brother, a father, and a teacher at an all-boys school, and that he didn’t want a mix of genders as he didn’t want ‘sex to raise its lovely head’ in the book. It is in this interview that Golding said his famous quote: ‘I think women are foolish to think they are equal to men. They are far superior, and always will be.’

The Island with Bear Grylls returned this year with two separate programmes – one featuring women and one men, facing the exact same survival challenges. The programme still faced criticism – why weren’t men and women mixed? – and accusations of gender stereotyping. In the opening to the new series, Grylls asks whether ‘brute power or mental strength’ would be the most successful in the survival situation, with the former mooted as the men’s quality, and the latter as the women’s. The results in both camps were similar, however, with both groups struggling to find adequate water and enough food to sustain them. The women had the most success in hunting the wild pigs on the island, although they had made the mistake of befriending two piglets before eventually deciding they would slaughter them for food.

A battle for a kind of leadership began quite quickly on the men’s island, with an argument between construction workers Paul and Andy. At first Paul seemed a natural leader for the group, forcing them through the jungle to find the beach in S2E1 as soon as possible, but disagreements around building and work effort with Andy led to both men rather bizarrely deciding to leave the island early on. In contrast to the first season, several competitors left the island from both groups, some because they were finding it too hard, some because they were too ill to continue. This is the luxury of Grylls’ island; in Golding’s, there is simply no way out. The women also found themselves separated early on, due to the group splitting up to look for the beach. It took several days for the group to be reunited, leading to the group that was left behind becoming dangerously dehydrated.

When the hunt for food was unsuccessful, both groups were forced to exist on a handful of limpets each, which reminded me of Golding’s other classic story of survival, Pincher Martin. Martin has been shipwrecked and survives on a desolate rock in the middle of the ocean; his only form of sustenance are the limpets that cling to his rock. He describes them as ‘sweets’ in a futile attempt to make them more appetising: “He put it quickly in his mouth, ducked, swallowed, shuddered’ (66).

The Island with Bear Grylls is an interesting experiment in examining how different people react to these kinds of situations. I was struck by the issue of class in S2E10 with Vic, the group’s most successful hunter, attacking Sam F for his lack of effort. While it is true to say that Sam only seemed to do the tasks he actually wanted to do, Vic’s vitriol towards him was due to Sam’s privileged background and education. Vic was entirely honest about this, comparing Sam to politicians who don’t seem interested in helping people like him. There is a class issue in Lord of the Flies too, albeit reversed, in which the boys seem to look down on Piggy because he talks differently to them, subtly indicated by Golding through Piggy’s speech. In The Island, Sam is able to win Vic’s and the other men’s respect by finally catching some fish in their nets, but Piggy never has a chance to redeem himself, except in the eyes of Ralph.


The Island with Bear Grylls is available on All 4

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