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Grace Dent on TV: The Island with Bear Grylls was full of plotless bumbling and twig friction

Come off It, Bear! you can’t moan about insects with designs on your urethra

I rushed to watch The Island with Bear Grylls – Channel 4’s new manly survival show in which 13 everyday British men are abandoned in the jungle – for mainly masochistic  reasons.

 I have long harboured a slow- bubbling disgruntlement with Bear Grylls and everything connected with his willy- waving brand of Boy’s Own, bivouac, bug-eating and survival-school frippery.

“Oh poor me, I’m in a terrible pickle,” Bear seems to be constantly moaning, “I’m in a forest full of spiders and boa constrictors and killer scorpions and insects hellbent on entering my urethra! It’s very scary. I’ll have to eat my own bogies to survive!”

Ten minutes into any episodes and he’s killed a wild beast, scooped out its entrails and is lying in the hollowed-out corpse moaning, “Well, it’s quite smelly in here but at least it’s warm.”

But Bear – I find myself shouting at the screen – you went to the forest of your own accord. You could be six miles away in a Hyatt Regency eating bar-snack shrimp and playing mini-golf. The reason you’re alone in the forest is because not even the indigenous people of that region go there. No, they’re all in the nearby village wearing fake Armani jeans, huddled around a radio listening for the Manchester United score.

Bear Grylls is responsible for the cult of action-hero martyrdom that leads to 17 charity sponsor requests dropping into one’s email inbox each month. “I’m cycling through the Serengeti on  a bike with no seat, please dig deep!” they  cry. “I’m carrying a Corby Trouser Press around Peru! No, I can’t believe it either! But I want you to know this is all about orphans, whom I love, and not about everyone giving me attention, to which I have a laissez-faire attitude.” Channel 4 should make a programme where they lock Bear Grylls in an enclosed space with me, quacking on in this manner, no pause, no deviation, little logic, for a whole day and see how he copes. Poorly, I should think.

In fairness to Bear, he has more sense than to let himself be abandoned on Channel 4’s island with the amateur survivalists. Bear merely dumped the non-charismatic bunch there by speedboat and from then on delivered faux-concerned links to camera about their dwindling welfare. “They only have enough water left for one day,” Bear emoted. “The nearby water supply is full of  airborne viruses and the jungle can deplete one litre of water per hour in sweat. It really is vital they make a fire to boil the contaminated water!” Episode one featured a lot of the gang attempting to make a fire via stick and friction. Or more  accurately, three of the gang laboriously trying to make a fire while 10 of them lay about sweating.

The Island is interesting television as it’s an  attempt to form a show around utterly normal, non-fame hungry, not particularly pretty,  non-celeb males. One hour of edited footage had barely any interesting banter, gossip or intrigue. Sam got stung on the face by a jellyfish and  numerous people offered to wee on him. Dean, the hairdresser, revealed himself as gay and all the men made positive, “not bothered” sounds. Tony revealed himself as an ex-police chief inspector and gently attempted to take leadership. Ryan,  a call-centre worker, revealed he had a swastika tattooed on his leg. It was youthful idiocy, he pleaded, which he was deeply ashamed of.

It caused no drama anyhow. Instead, we watched an hour of rather plotless bumbling and twig friction. Still, the long scenes of a stick rubbing string were more riveting than an episode of  Borgen. 

“This is an experiment!” the voiceover underlined several times. Channel 4 claims it wants to find out if men today have the skills handed down to them by their fathers’ fathers. Almost all of the gang are middle-class, white British men. The biggest potential threat one suffers in Great Britain during its most tropical climates is being hit by a Swingball. The only survival skill my father or grandfather handed down to my brothers was the ability to make a newspaper last all Sunday long in a bid to avoid going outdoors in the first place.

Most of the show’s footage is self-filmed, they claim. So it’s also an experiment to see if normal people with no TV-making skills, suffering from dehydration and malnutrition, can harvest enough footage for five hours of primetime viewing involving story arcs, candid confessions and an interesting denouement. This part, to me, is more interesting than the survival. They can rub sticks together to make fire, but if they run out of batteries for their microphones then the show is very much over. They’ll just be a lot of people in beachwear threatening to wee on one another’s faces and if I want that I’ll wait for Big Brother.