in focus

Bear Grylls helped baptise Russell Brand in the River Thames – how did this happen?

The Etonian adventurer has had a life of extremes, from a near-death experience while parachuting to guiding celebrities through the wilderness. Nick Hilton looks at how Bear Grylls and Russell Brand, who are both linked to the same evangelical immersion programme, came to end up in the Thames together

Friday 10 May 2024 06:00 BST
Grylls said being at the baptism was a ‘privilege’
Grylls said being at the baptism was a ‘privilege’ (Russell Brand Instagram)

On the craggy Scottish coast, warmed only by the flickering flames of a campfire, Russell Brand, the comedian who would later face allegations of sexual assault, bares his soul. “When you stop drinking and stop taking drugs, you’re confronted with the nature of the problem,” he says, as the Hebridean wind tousles his man bun. “I was a disconnected person, certainly from any sense of higher purpose or God.” His confessor? A certain Bear Grylls.

This encounter – and foundation of a friendship – was broadcast on Grylls’ show Running Wild last summer, shortly before an extensive series of allegations were made against Brand, who has denied all wrongdoing. Fast-forward to this week, and the two men are making headlines, with Grylls playing a key part in Brand’s baptism in the River Thames. It is a strange development in the Bear Grylls story that started far more traditionally. He was born Edward in 1974, and his father was Sir Michael Grylls, the Conservative MP for Chertsey in Surrey. Grylls Senior’s parliamentary career was rocked in the mid-1990s during the “cash for questions” scandal that dogged John Major’s ailing premiership, and he stood down at the 1997 election. At the same time, his son – who had gone by the name of “Bear” since a child, presumably because, as with many posh Edwards, he was briefly “Teddy” – was recovering from a parachuting accident that ended his short career with the SAS.

“In a heartbeat – boom,” he told Good Morning Britain of the near-death experience last year. “My world went black.” On a routine training exercise in Zambia in 1996, Grylls’ parachute failed to inflate at 16,000 feet. He broke three vertebrae and spent 10 months in physical therapy rehabilitation, but managed to avoid surgery. “The doctor said I was a miracle man,” he told the Daily Mail in 2007. “I had come so close to severing my spinal cord.”

Russell Brand reveals Bear Grylls helped baptise him in River Thames

It was a miraculous reprieve and one that has allowed Grylls to move from SAS reservist to one of the country’s most recognisable television presenters. His breakthrough, after making a name as an expedition leader on trips to Everest and Antarctica, was Man vs Wild. Beginning on Channel 4 in 2006, and running for five years, it made Grylls an international star. “A TV producer approached me out of the blue,” he told Louis Theroux, during their heart-to-heart in 2022. “I was kind of nervous.” The format saw Grylls dropped in some of the world’s least hospitable places – from the Moab desert to the Pacific Ring of Fire, via Scotland’s Cape Wrath and the Arctic tundra – having to both survive and escape.

There is no getting around the fact that much, if not all, of Grylls’ early appeal was based on his willingness to do extreme – and extremely disgusting – things on national television. Squeezing drinking water out of elephant dung (“not one of the better drinks I’ve ever had”), making a bivouac out of a camel carcass, quaffing his own urine out of a snakeskin (“I’m all for cocktails but snake innards and pee…”), giving himself a saltwater enema on a makeshift raft in the Pacific. Man vs Wild gripped audiences at home, munching their Pringles as Grylls crunched through the exoskeleton of a rhino beetle grub, but also became a meme with a simple punchline. “There’s only one diet soda left?” the text might say, over a picture of Grylls staring resolutely into the distance. “Better drink my own piss.”

Retching on his own effluence, Grylls might have struggled to imagine that, just a few years later, he would have another show, Running Wild, where he would escort some of the world’s most famous people – including an incumbent president – through wilderness adventures. But Running Wild, which aired originally on NBC before moving to National Geographic in 2019, turned Grylls into the world’s preeminent expeditioner. The first episode, in 2014, featured Grylls and Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron on a journey through the Catskills, and by the end of the first series (which roped in A-listers like Ben Stiller and Channing Tatum) it was a certified hit. And then, at the end of the show’s second series, president Barack Obama took a break from, you know, leading the “free world” to join Grylls on a hike across the Alaskan wilderness.

“There were times along the route I had to pinch myself and think, actually, this is the president of America,” he told reporters as the show aired. Obama, who appeared on a number of hit shows, doing Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, and eating noodles in Hanoi with Anthony Bourdain, was continuing a tradition that stretches back to Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In. In the twilight days of his administration, he was taking more pop cultural risks, and that included eating grizzly-mauled salmon with Grylls. “I’ve seen some of the things Bear eats,” Obama told the camera crew. “The fact that we ate something recognisable was encouraging.”

Obama and Grylls in the wild
Obama and Grylls in the wild (NBC)

During his downtime, between gallivanting with Brie Larson in the Pearl Islands or Roger Federer in the Swiss Alps, Grylls’ homelife is divided between a farmhouse in Wiltshire and a private island off the Welsh coast. While some celebrities might wait for fame and fortune before acquiring their own island, Grylls bought Saint Tudwal’s Island West, a 650m-long outpost in Tremadog Bay, back in 2001. “No, you can’t order a Deliveroo,” he told The Guardian, “but there’s a very good pizza place on the mainland.” There is mercifully little room in Grylls’ diet for fancy fare like pizza, however. “Steak every night,” he told Theroux when the documentarian visited his island. “Twice a day.” He subsequently told The Telegraph that he was “embarrassed” to have previously advocated for veganism.

Saint Tudwal’s is a wild, inhospitable place, with little more than a cottage for shelter. And it’s not just the elements against him: when Grylls temporarily erected a slide into the sea, back in 2013, he was censured by the council and asked to remove it. He lives there with his wife, Shara, and their eclectically named children: Marmaduke, Huckleberry and Jesse. Each morning and evening, Grylls admits to whispering his mantra – “never give up” – in the ears of his boys. His eldest, Jesse, was involved in a controversial incident in 2015 when Grylls abandoned the 11-year-old on the island during a training exercise with the RNLI. “In hindsight the child should not have been on the rocks,” a spokesperson for the coastguard said, but Grylls hit back, as is so often the case with men under fire, in the pages of The Times. “When we try to strip our kids’ world of risk, we do them a gross disservice,” he wrote.

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Grylls’ journey through charismatic Anglicanism climaxed, in 2023, when he was baptised in the Jordan River

Through all this, Grylls’ Christian faith has remained central. “I was always the least religious person growing up,” he told the Diary of a CEO podcast in 2022. “As a kid I had a really natural faith… It’s been a life journey to unwind all of that and realise that actually the little me had it right.” This journey from an atavistic faith to a more organised understanding of religion was aided by the Alpha course, an evangelical immersion programme also recently attended by Brand, originating in west London, which became extremely popular during the 1990s. Its developer, Nicky Gumbel, is an Old Etonian, like Grylls. “He reminds me of Tony Blair,” the journalist Jon Ronson wrote of Gumbel, in 2000, when he was investigating the Alpha course.

Grylls’ journey through charismatic Anglicanism climaxed, in 2023, when he was baptised in the Jordan River. “It had always been a dream of mine to get in the water that Jesus was baptised in by my hero John the Baptist,” he wrote on Twitter. This dip, in a river that flows through Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine, appears to be the prototype for Grylls’ recent conversion of comedian Russell Brand.

“Me, Bear Grylls, the River Thames, and of course, The Holy Spirit,” Brand wrote on Instagram, in a caption accompanying a photograph of himself locked in a three-way hug with Grylls and another man with a large back tattoo. After being the subject of a documentary exposé last year, Russell Brand: In Plain Sight, in which multiple women made allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Brand has been on a spiritual awakening. “I’ve been on the sort of opposite journey,” he told noted atheist Ricky Gervais in a 2020 episode of his Under the Skin podcast. This journey, via flirtations with humanism and Buddhism, appears to have taken him into the arms of Grylls.

Brand and Grylls having a heart to heart on ‘Running Wild’ last summer
Brand and Grylls having a heart to heart on ‘Running Wild’ last summer (Nat Geo)

In Christianity, baptisms are usually performed by clergy but, in fact, anyone can administer the ritual, especially in extraordinary circumstances without access to an ordained minister. While London hardly represents remote or exotic climes, perhaps the mere presence of Grylls turns an ordinary situation into an extraordinary one. Confirming his attendance at the ceremony, Grylls told The Telegraph that “faith and spiritual moments in our lives are really personal, but it is a privilege to stand beside anyone when they express a humble need for forgiveness and strength from above. Friendships when we go through tough times are worth so much.” His friendship with Brand, fostered in the heather-strewn wilds of Scotland, has survived the seemingly career-ending accusations against the comedian. His relationship with Christianity appears even more resilient.

But how this intimate fraternising with someone ostracised from the mainstream will go down with Grylls’ many employers remains to be seen. He has recently been announced as the co-host – alongside Holly Willoughby, herself no stranger to disgraced men – of a new Netflix reality show, Bear Hunt. His celebrity interview series – now titled Running Wild with Bear Grylls: The Challenge – is expected to return for a new season on Disney+. Yet the BBC, a long-term employer of Brand, has already begun removing the comedian’s work from their archive (it is worth noting that the Brand episode of Running Wild is not currently available in the UK).

The association is a risk for Grylls. But even as he continues to be a popular, mainstream TV presence, he has also been stealthily expanding his portfolio in increasingly woo-woo, and lucrative, ways. He runs a series of global camps, the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, which includes franchises in China and the UAE, offering 24-hour “primal survival” experiences. He co-founded an app, Mettle, with Paul McKenna and Love Island’s Dr Alex, aimed at improving men’s mental health. In 2018 he purchased British Military Fitness, an outdoor fitness company, rebranding it Be Military Fit with Bear Grylls. His “Never Give Up” live tour will head to Australia in 2025. If he were looking to start a cult – and I’m not saying he is – he’d have a superb base to work from.

It’s no surprise really, that Grylls – the Old Etonian son of a Tory MP – feels empowered to wash away the sins of men still under investigation by the criminal justice system. Grylls had already climbed Everest, voyaged across the Atlantic, and scaled untouched peaks in Antarctica, so this latest, more spiritual, chapter in the book of Bear feels like a fresh start. Perhaps both baptised and baptiser, then, have emerged reborn from the murky waters of the Thames.

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