Bear Grylls looks windblown and wet, but he has battled through big waves in a small boat to get here. ‘The island is a wonderful part of our life,’ says the survival expert and adventurer when we meet in a cafe in Abersoch, west Wales, the nearest mainland village to his own private island hideaway. ‘When I first left the military and got married, we almost bought a one-bedroom flat in London. We ended up buying an old rusty barge instead, and an island in Wales that was going dirt cheap because it was on such a short lease.’
Grylls had already been in the SAS, broken his back in a parachuting accident and become the youngest British person to climb Mount Everest when he married Shara in 2000, but he was not yet world-famous. Now he is known for daredevil shows like Born Survivor or the celebrity version, Running Wild, for which he took President Obama to Alaska and recently went hiking through the jungle with Narendra Modi, the controversial hardline prime minister of India.
Edward Grylls, nicknamed Bear by his sister Lara, went to Eton but joined the Army at the age of 20 and eventually became a survival instructor and SAS reservist
I’m going to challenge him on that and get all the inside secrets of his new show, Treasure Island. ‘It’s the most hardcore, authentic, tough, unforgiving reality-TV show in the world. Period,’ growls Grylls as though he’s doing the narration right now. I’ve seen him on huge billboards looking like a superhero, his usual image, but today he appears surprisingly small and slight in his shorts and sailing gear, having come straight from the island of St Tudwal’s West, off the Llyn Peninsula.
Grylls has made the journey by sea in a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with his wife Shara and their sons Jesse, 16, Marmaduke, 13, and Huckleberry, ten. ‘Island life is a great leveller,’ he says. ‘The boys get told, “You’re doing your chores… you’re doing the hoovering, you’re doing the washing-up.” That is not such an easy journey in life with teenagers.’
Grylls admits the family moods can be as stormy as the sea. ‘Shara says it’s comical when we get to the island because in the first week, every time, the arguments are off the scale! Jess and I had a massive argument about him wanting to base-jump and me saying, “Just wait. Just skydive. That is OK, you do not need to base-jump yet.”’
This son of a Conservative MP, Sir Michael Grylls, did skydive himself as a teenager, but evidently feels the much more dangerous base-jumping – in which you leap from a tall building or a cliff – is a dare too far for his boy.
‘The argument went on for hours. Then Shara walked in to find us both asleep on the sofa and said, “That sums it up! You both exhaust yourself arguing, so you take a nap and then resume warfare.” ’
The few visitors who are invited to the island must realise what they are in for. ‘You work hard for everything, even a loaf of bread.’ Grylls frowns at a memory. ‘Some friends came and their son would make four slices of toast in the morning, leave two and go to his bed. I was thinking, we have to walk down the island hill, row out in a little boat, get into the RIB, travel 40 minutes to the mainland, walk a mile up the beach into town to buy the bread, then reverse the whole thing to get back. It’s a long process to get that bread. Our boys looked at me when they saw him putting two slices in the bin, because they know what it takes.’
The Island With Bear Grylls, one of his most popular shows, began in 2014, with 13 men stranded on a Pacific island and left to fend for themselves for a month. Now it has been renamed Treasure Island and raises the stakes by having helicopters fly over the island to drop bundles of cash amounting to £100,000. Islanders have to decide whether to work together or compete for the money.
‘Treasure Island is a serious show, the other end of the spectrum to Love Island. This isn’t a cosy, nice reality show on a pretty desert island. This is really raw and really brutal.’
What difference does the cash make? ‘Money is neutral. It can be an incredible source of blessing, beautiful service, kindness and generosity. The flip side is that it can bring out the worst – greed, hatred, division, isolation, jealousy, pride, envy… all of that. You see a dark side of humanity, because it is so divisive.’
The greedy exhaust themselves hacking through swamps to find cash when they really should be looking for water, because supplies are running out fast and people are ill. ‘Money should have no value on an island. It is literally just paper. But it still holds such value to people and there are no rules. You can steal, cheat, lie. The only rule is that if you leave early, you leave with nothing.’
This all sounds very bleak. ‘But I have seen with The Island over the years that you see the bad at the start, the worst of stereotypes, then all of that sifts down and is reduced. Eventually you see some really beautiful, powerful things. Watching older ladies defying the odds, for example, is really powerful.’
One of the new contestants, Irene, is a retired florist of 75. She’s up against much younger people including Marco, 30, a former Royal Marine Commando. The opening to the show makes a big point about how the world is motivated by money, but isn’t that true of him too? He is the public face of a business empire producing everything from books and TV shows to water bottles and pen knives. ‘The show is my experiment, but it is not about me getting money.’
He’s not making it for charity though, is he? ‘No. Listen, I am super-fortunate not to have to be super-motivated by money. Having said that, rewind 20 years and I never was. I would not have joined the Army if I had been. I would have become a banker.’
Barack Obama on Running Wild With Bear Grylls. Would he take Donald Trump into the wild? ‘Yeah. Of course’
Edward Grylls, nicknamed Bear by his sister Lara, went to Eton but joined the Army at the age of 20 and eventually became a survival instructor and SAS reservist. His wealth now has been estimated at £16 million. So what does he tell his boys about the fortune they will inherit? ‘A big lesson for our children is that money doesn’t solve everything. The happiest people leaving Treasure Island at the end have the least money and I think that is a really interesting conclusion.’
But people will ask the same question about the situation here as they always do when Bear Grylls puts on a show: is it for real?
That started with the first series of Born Survivor in 2007, when a crew member said Grylls would film scenes as if he had stayed the night in extreme situations, then go and stay in a hotel. ‘If people felt misled on how the first series was represented, I’m really sorry for that,’ said Grylls then, promising to be more transparent in future.
‘The jeopardy on Treasure Island is all too genuine,’ he says now. ‘There is no back-up plan. Normally, when I am doing Running Wild with someone like a prime minister, I have also got the Secret Service. There is always that safety net. Treasure Island is a whole different level.’
Right at the beginning of Treasure Island, he urges the contestants to get off a boat and wade to the shore quickly or risk being attacked by sharks and crocodiles. But surely no TV company with a decent health and safety policy would put people in danger of being eaten alive?
‘A six-foot croc is not going to mess with a group of people in the water. It’s looking for vulnerable, lone, small prey. The likelihood of there being a big, aggressive, man-eating shark is ridiculously small. The people are in the water a minute-and-a-half. I have got an outboard engine running behind me, so they are protected from the open water. I know it’s OK. It is not 100 per cent, that is why there is a sense of urgency. But I can stand up in a court of law and say: “I feel I did my absolute best, health-and-safety-wise, to minimise danger.” But at the end of the day, yes there are sharks and crocodiles in the water.’
The trick seems to be to give contestants – and viewers – the impression and experience of danger, while keeping the insurance and health and safety people happy. ‘The danger doesn’t happen when I am lowering some megastar over a 500ft waterfall, because we are all focused, we have got rope protection. The danger comes when we are walking on a muddy trail after we’ve finished filming, there is a five foot drop, somebody falls, they don’t have a helmet on and they bang their head.’
He adds: ‘Over the last few hundred years we have become soft. We have lost all of the old-world skills. What hasn’t changed is human nature and the human heart’s propensity for good and bad.’
That brings us to Modi, the Indian prime minister who has been called a Hindu supremacist. Grylls went into the Indian jungle with him for a show in July, but one critic called it ‘a monstrous propaganda stunt’. I wonder where he draws the line. Would he take Vladimir Putin? ‘Probably not. You have got to pick. You cannot be promoting bad people with bad intentions.’
What are the criteria then? ‘It has got to be democratic. Modi was democratically elected by a massive margin a few months ago in the biggest democracy on Earth.’
Bear Grylls with the Duchess of Cambridge in his Chief Scout uniform at Windsor Castle in 2013
Where would he draw the line? ‘I would not take Kim Jong-un, because you are promoting somebody who has got genuine blood on their hands.’ But that makes him pause. ‘Listen, I suppose every world leader, ultimately, has blood on their hands.’
Would he take Donald Trump into the wild? ‘Yeah. Of course. But I also know he would not do it. I think Trump likes being in his own circle and I respect that.’
He has turned island life into a dramatic television challenge, but his own personal island is a place of refuge. ‘I try to take total holiday. As my career has grown I have really tried to protect the family time. My real wealth is not in the pounds and shillings. As I’ve got more of them I have become more aware that my real wealth is in my relationships with Shara, my good friends and the boys. I stand by that.’ e
‘Treasure Island’ is on Channel 4 next month