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I am not a fan of reality TV shows. But when my stepdaughter told me about the latest series of The Island With Bear Grylls on Channel 4, I made an exception.
Fronted by adventure-mad survival specialist Grylls, the show has a simple format. Two groups of people are marooned for five weeks on an uninhabited island in the Pacific. They must make their own shelter, forage for food, purify water and somehow manage to stay alive in a jungle full of bugs, snakes and caiman crocodiles. In short, my idea of hell — and the last thing I would enjoy watching.
Then she told me the twist. This year, one team of intrepid adventurers have average salaries of more than £100,000. By contrast, the rival team earn less than the average UK wage.
As the Bear Grylls voiceover says at the start of the show: “How will the wealthy fare when stripped of their luxuries and status? Are those who work hard to make ends meet better equipped to start again with nothing? And can opposite ends of the wealth spectrum work together for the common good?”
This, I had to watch. At the outset, I was rather meanly hoping that the pampered rich kids would struggle to survive without people to pick up after them.
The edit of the programme was unforgiving. The wealthy team made Posh Spice look common. “Which way to the Hilton?” quipped an art dealer called Barnes (no, I’m not making this up) as he and his fellow toffs hacked through mangroves with machetes in their search for the beach.
Most of them had enviable gym-honed physiques. And to say they were brimming with self-belief was an understatement. In a rare moment of humility, one confessed to recently “only” spending £20 on a bottle of wine. Yes, he might have been hamming it up for the cameras. But I would have dialled a premium rate number to vote for him to dine on bugs.
So continuing the stereotype, would the toffs be beaten by the tough-talking working class bunch headed up by south Londoner Phil, a glazier from Peckham, who hailed himself “king of the concrete jungle” and a soft-spoken but steely Geordie nurse called Laura?
In an early victory, their team was the first to make fire (how we cheered!) but alas, the flames soon went out as they could not organise themselves to keep it burning. And it soon became apparent that health — not wealth — was the most valuable asset in the harsh jungle conditions.
Several members of the poorer team were grossly overweight, leading to much fat-shaming on Twitter. They found it much tougher to cope with the harsh conditions, and it was extremely unpleasant watching them suffer. It also made me think about how I personally need to invest more time and effort in my health, not just my finances. Although I was binge-watching, I shunned the snack bowl and went out for a jog afterwards.
I hope I am not spoiling the show too much for those who haven’t yet seen it when I say that The Island was riven by class war by the end of episode one. After a single night trying to coexist as a single group, there was an almighty bust up which resulted in each team living at opposite ends of the same beach. Predictably, the rich were blamed for stealing resources and the poor were accused of being work-shy.
There are still several episodes to go (it’s shown on Monday at 9pm on Channel 4) but so far, it has mostly been the wealthy team who have prospered.
While neither team has any money, the wealthy islanders all appear to have an unshakeable drive to succeed. You could argue that this is also is how they built successful careers and landed high-paying jobs.
As we have been watching the show, my stepdaughter and I have been furiously debating how much confidence and determination comes down to having a privileged upbringing and a private education.
Just look at Laura in the not-so-wealthy team. The Geordie nurse is a hugely driven individual and without doubt my favourite contestant. She appears to be financially savvy too. When gobby Phil found out that she had a mortgage, he sneered at how “grown up” she was.
While the wealthy team are generally better organised, their relentless ambition means they are not very likeable. The other team were having much more of a laugh.
And while the wealthy team have come up with several impressive sounding strategies to find food, their displays of alpha male chest beating often resulted in catastrophe.
Admiral Barnes came a cropper when he fearlessly set sail in a flimsy raft to plunder the neighbouring island for food — even though the seas were choppy. And resident beefcake Tan (short for Nathaniel) became horribly overexcited when the group tried to catch a wild pig. Despite fellow islanders telling him not to, he scuppered the group’s plan to drive a pig into the trap by going after it alone with a makeshift spear. He succeeded in scratching its left trotter.
After the pigs went to ground, there was nothing to eat and Tan looked very sheepish indeed. He was able to learn from his mistake. But jungles are not the only places where a sense of entitlement can encourage excessive risk taking — just look at financial markets.
Bear Grylls spins a great line about how we all need to work together to make a better world. He already does a roaring trade in corporate events. Boardroom survival could be a great theme for his next show.
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