Listen to this article
This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
I am sitting in the bar of the Connaught hotel in Mayfair talking to a man who has just slid out of his chair and is hiding under the table. “Right. That’s it. I’m back under the parapet now,” he calls up to me.
Bear Grylls, who thinks nothing of hauling a dead sheep out of a bog, cutting it open to eat its raw heart before settling down to sleep in its bloody fleece, cannot cope any more. In the past hour I have asked too many questions and he has reached the end of his endurance.
In truth, I am getting quite close to the end of mine. Bear Grylls is a well-mannered old Etonian, ex-SAS; a God-fearing boy scout who is good at climbing mountains and whipping his knife out — as well as compressing his muscular body into a tiny space under a table — but the cut and thrust of conversation is not really his thing.
All varieties of survival, on the other hand, are very much his thing. Surely, I ask him, when he is still sitting beside me, he has developed a strategy for surviving interviews? Grylls fixes his pale blue eyes on me; they show no trace of impatience — or any emotion at all. The blandness almost seems like a tactic; taken with the short-back-and-sides, neat checked shirt and jeans, he looks more dishy plainclothes policeman than TV personality. He rattles off a three-point plan:
“Try and be authentic. Don’t do very many. Don’t try and justify anything, and let things speak for themselves.”
Authenticity, I protest, can be a mistake in an interview; the trick is to be inauthentic in just the way that fits your brand.
“You’re right,” he says, surrendering without struggle. “I’m not very good at arguing.”
Equally, not doing many interviews is tricky when a man has quite so much to promote. Grylls has written 18 survival books in 10 years, a rate of production that almost matches that of Barbara Cartland. He has seven TV shows running simultaneously — three in the UK, three in the US and one in China, all of them featuring the clean-cut action man pretending to be a hunter-gatherer, or helping others pretend to be one, some 12,000 years after hunter-gathering went out of fashion.
“It’s pretty cool,” he says, contemplating the sheer scale of his output. “Pretty fun.” He nods his handsome head and smiles.
As for his last point — not justifying anything — that is all very well, only the whole point of our sitting here sipping Diet Cokes is for him to do just that. Above all, what I want to understand is our fascination for survival in inhospitable places. Never has crawling into a camel’s carcass to escape a sandstorm been less relevant to modern office-dwelling couch potatoes; yet never have we loved watching Grylls doing it more, and never have we been keener to try it ourselves.
For the second season of Grylls’ TV show The Island, 80,000 people came forward eager to be allowed to spend six weeks getting hungry, thirsty, bitten and scared. That is more than three times as many as those who applied to suffer lesser indignities on Big Brother. And it is not only ordinary people who feel the pull. Stephen Fry, Ben Stiller, Miranda Hart and other assorted celebrities have all trekked through the wild with Grylls, pursued by dangerous creatures — as well as by a camera crew.
“It’s two things,” he explains. “One is that I think people like to feel that they are prepared. What would happen if you really were stripped of everything? And the other side of it is that people like to wonder, could they actually do it?”
But prepared for what, exactly? Real life is never going to leave us on an uninhabited desert island. Indeed so artificial is the experience that Grylls’ TV crew had to import a few crocodiles in advance to make the island seem more dangerous, as well as quantities of fresh water to keep everyone alive.
What might be more relevant to telly viewers is programmes that told them how to survive on the minimum wage, deal with ugly divorces, dementia and that sort of thing.
Yet, according to Grylls, the two sorts of survival are the same. “In the end, it’s about positivity, kindness, humility, courage, determination.”
He reels off the list of attributes as if he has said it a hundred times before but I get the sense that Grylls, a pillar of the Alpha movement, believes it. His reality TV series offers an alternative version of human behaviour. The first two episodes of The Island show how 14 men and 14 women initially take to the wild: the women shriek feebly at every encounter with a snake and the men fight each other.
“I think that women have a lot harder time, actually,” he says. “So the men want to be strong, they want to show that they’re the man. Women on the whole wanted to look after each other and to nurture.”
I say this is sexual stereotyping of the most blatant kind, but he goes on:
“Every man on the island, since they were a kid, has grown up dreaming of being Rambo.”
Grylls flexes his biceps, which are so eye-poppingly big that the fabric of his shirt strains.
“Take your son,” he goes on. “If you put him on an island, he’d like to think he’d know what to do.”
I say my son — who I’d earlier outed as a Grylls fan — wouldn’t have a clue. What he likes doing is lying around in his dressing gown watching YouTube. Grylls looks momentarily disappointed, then says the most interesting thing about men and women is not the difference between them but that what they learn in extremis is the same.
“When you haven’t eaten for 12 days, you’re covered in sandfly bites, you’re tired and you’re cold — the only thing of value is: I want to hold my kids, or I want to tell my mum I love her.”
Again I find myself protesting that things have come to a very odd pass if we need starvation and sandflies to remind us that we love our parents and children.
“My wife would agree with you,” Grylls says.
And yet this lust for extremity has been central to Grylls’ life. Famously, he dropped out of the SAS in 1996 after breaking his back and, instead of spending the rest of his days in a bath chair, two years later became among the youngest people ever to climb Everest.
“Life covers us with a layer of fluff. When you’re high up a mountain and you’re really touching life and death — I mean, if I look at my time on Everest, four people had just died the day before. I did touch something — I found a strength that I don’t find in everyday life. I struggle with everyday life. And I can’t kind of really connect well but, when I’m pushed like this, I find there’s an authenticity in what I’m endeavouring to do that makes me feel a bit complete.”
Perhaps this is the difference between Grylls and me. He thinks the “fluff” is meaningless; I think it is what life is made of. I also wonder if what he is describing is merely the luxury of a near-death experience — which tends to be a warped guide to living.
“Yeah. Maybe,” he says, again deciding to roll over rather than fight.
Although it is interesting to ponder whether we are closer to the essence of humanity up a mountain than pottering in the back garden, the answer to the question has little to do with his rip-roaring success. Judging from the traffic on YouTube, what people really love about Bear Grylls is that he does things that we think revolting. A clip of him biting into a maggot fatter than his finger has been watched more than 15 million times, while him drinking his own pee has had over a million views.
If I were Grylls, I would despair at how my fans loved me not for being brave, nor for my good work with the boy scouts (he became leader of the movement nearly six years ago aged just 35), but for drinking my urine, which takes no skill at all. Anyone could pull it off if they put their mind to it.
“If somebody could have told me aged eight that that’s what I’d be known for, I’d just laugh. It’s brilliant,” he says.
It might be brilliant but, according to the US Army Field Manual, it is also wrong. Urophagia, or the drinking of urine, is not recommended as a rehydration strategy.
“They haven’t been in as many jungles as I’ve been in. So here’s the truth: if you’re dehydrated and it’s pure waste product, and there’s yellow and red and brown, it’s not going to help you. If you’re well hydrated, you suddenly find yourself crashed, you’re in your life raft, you’ve got a full bladder, you should not be wasting that.” Grylls gives a small smile of such confidence that I know that if I ever found myself in a tight spot with him, I would gladly drink — and do — anything he told me to.
“Look at this,” he suddenly says, changing the subject. Out of his pocket comes his phone, and he is showing me a video of two boys having a fight in a back garden with wooden swords, and then another of a boy being pulled along in a muddy stream.
“He’s on a waveboard with an old garden rake tied to a quad bike . . . And it’s February.” All three are whooping with joy.
This is Grylls with his sons — Jesse, Marmaduke and Huckleberry — and here he is reproducing his own happy childhood in which his father, the Tory MP Sir Michael Grylls, endlessly took him out in boats and up mountains.
“My dad was really one for finding what you love and going for it, keeping your core competency as what you do,” he says, masking any feeling with a layer of management jargon.
Another thing Grylls senior did for his boy was to allow the sensible name he gave him — Edward — to be pushed aside in favour of the silly nickname provided by his older sister. This was a masterstroke: Bear Grylls the explorer is as fine an example of nominative determinism as was ever thought up. It is hard to imagine that the programmes of Edward Grylls would have been watched 1.2 billion times — as his website asserts Bear Grylls’ programmes have.
“As a kid I used to hate my name. I’d go: why can’t I just be called something normal? Well, I’m an adult now, so I can look back and understand that Bear is a cool name for an adventurer.”
Not only has it been cool, it has been the basis of a global brand. As well as the TV programmes and books, there are Bear Grylls survival holidays in a dozen places around the world — including such unrisky spots as the Surrey Hills — and several hundred different bits of Bear Grylls survival kit. In particular, there is the Bear Grylls Ultimate Knife (about $75), which he tells me is the biggest-selling knife in the world, having sold “literally millions”.
So does merchandising make more money than everything else put together?
“Yes,” he says, ending the conversation there.
But the books aren’t doing too badly, either. Although there was a fairly limited appetite for a cookbook featuring elephant dung and raw goat’s testicle, his autobiography, Mud, Sweat and Tears, in 2012 was voted “the most influential book in China”.
Why? Is it because the Chinese are even fonder of eating eyeballs and testicles than the British explorer?
“I don’t know,” Grylls replies. I wait for him to offer a reason but he doesn’t. “I don’t know,” he repeats.
The story of the Bear Grylls brand might make a fascinating case study but it is one its owner seems to have no interest in. Instead, the lesson he teaches business leaders on the ground is how to survive at 29,000 feet. When I ask what the parallels are, he says at once: “Have no ego.” This might be great advice but I point out that every CEO I have ever come across is in possession of a giant ego and they aren’t going to get rid of it because he says so.
“Then they need to hear the message,” he says firmly.
And what about the size of Grylls’ own ego?
“OK, here’s the deal. I’ve genuinely never liked things that draw attention to what I do, to me. The irony is I’ve found myself in a job where it’s all about that. I have to always put my head above the parapet.”
I start to say that if he really hates drawing attention to himself, he could always just stop doing it. He’s 40 now, and could just do the adventures, and leave the telly cameras at home. If publicity is loathsome to him, he’s stupid to go on courting it.
“I would no sooner go and meet someone and call them stupid than go to the moon, do you know what I mean?”
His words are angry but his demeanour remains pleasant, in a bland sort of way.
From the corner of my eye I see his PR is signalling that time is up. I turn to look at her and, when I turn back, Grylls is nowhere to be seen. He has inserted himself under the table.
After a bit he comes out and he gives a bone-crushing handshake. He makes to leave, then as an afterthought, asks my son’s name.
“Hi Stan, it’s Bear,” he says into my tape recorder. His voice sounds entirely different — so upbeat it could turn the most delinquent adolescent into a keen boy scout at once.
“Just to say, keep going, hero: you can do it. See you at the top.”
The second series of ‘The Island with Bear Grylls’ starts on Channel 4 and Channel 4 HD in early April with two episodes a week, one following the men, one following the women.
Photographs: Dan Burn-Forti; Discovery; YouTube; Duncan Gaudin/NBC/NBC Photo bank via Getty Images; Mud, Sweat and Tears ©Bear Grylls 2011