Staying Alive

Bear Grylls has endured Everest, the North Atlantic, and, for his hit show Man vs. Wild, many a ghastly meal. So can he survive being called a fraud? This is not a man to bet against.

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IT WAS JUST ANOTHER grand adventure, really. Like when Bear Grylls became the youngest Brit to summit Mount Everest or when he drove an inflatable boat across the North Atlantic or when he jet-skied around the UK. An offer to host an American survival show that would constantly put the veteran of the British special forces in harm’s way? Good fun, that!

And it was. Man vs. Wild debuted in November 2006 and quickly became one of the Discovery Channel’s most popular shows. Millions tuned in to the hourlong episodes to watch Grylls get dropped in the middle of nowhere and make his way out with only a knife, water bottle, and flint. He braved whitewater, navigated jungles, and ingested things that would make the Jackass guys blanch—live snakes, raw zebra, water squeezed from elephant dung. Then there was Grylls’s engaging instruction: Boy Scout enthusiasm tempered by Eton College refinement. Monty Python meets MacGyver: It’s merely flesh from a zebra!

Then, suddenly, it wasn’t so fun. This past July, England’s Sunday Times reported allegations that Grylls had stayed in hotels when he claimed to be sleeping in the rough, presented tame horses as wild mustangs, and needed to be coached on how to build a rudimentary raft before he could pull it off for the camera. American media quickly reported the controversy and forgot about it, but news sources in England attacked. One story claimed producers had used hot coals in place of real lava. The Daily Mail called Grylls “the cheese soufflé of the adventure world.”

The Discovery Channel said they had learned that parts of some episodes were “not natural to the environment” but stood behind their star. They promised the show would be “completely transparent” in season two, which kicks off November 16. Meanwhile, Grylls, on vacation in Wales, wasn’t talking, which left him open to even more criticism: Was he the real deal?

This fall, in an exclusive interview with Outside, Grylls broke his silence. His take? Yes, some scenes were staged. But in their rush to take him down, reporters overlooked the very real risks he takes to make the show. Here, Grylls and his colleagues, fans, and detractors talk about what makes him so watchable, how we define reality TV, and where Man vs. Wild is heading next.

Grylls got his survival training during his three years with the British special forces. He broke his back in a skydiving accident in Africa but recovered to summit Everest in 1998, at 23, making him a hero in the UK. He became a sought-after motivational speaker and started getting offers for television work.

Peter Lovering, executive in charge of production, Man vs. Wild: He had been on a show in the UK about the French Foreign Legion. He was able to really get involved with the other guys but also give great information. We thought he’d definitely work for the U.S. audience. He had that diversity to convey in a very exciting way what he needs to do to get out alive.

Neil Laughton, who served with Grylls in the special forces and with whom he climbed Everest and later jet-skied around the UK: He asked me direct: “May I join your expedition?!” I set him a challenge to go climb Ama Dablam, in the Himalaya, and then come back and reapply. He summited in some style, and I confirmed his place on the team. He combines a tremendous appetite for achievement with a remarkable ability to engage with total strangers.

Lovering: Bear taps into the child in all of us. You have all these extraordinary moments, but he conveys them with such charm and does it with such knowledge that you get a much more rounded, richer feel than something that is just a crazy stunt show.

Grylls: To me, Man vs. Wild takes my experience of extreme environments and has me show what I have learnt from them, what I do to survive.

By this past summer, Man vs. Wild was a bona fide phenomenon. Grylls made appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Oprah; both hosts needled him about his willingness to eat just about anything—and even wash it down with his own urine.

Grylls: I never thought that people would focus so much on the things I eat. People focus on different things in different countries. In the UK they focus on my climbs, and in the Far East people are fascinated by the animal encounters. Maybe in America it’s more Man vs. Gag Reflex. But hey!

Doug Ritter, executive director, Equipped to Survive Foundation: The main thing I have a problem with is providing information that is completely wrong, like showing Bear drinking his own urine. The only time it is safe to drink your own urine is if it is completely clear.

Conan O’Brien, to Grylls on Late Night: How mad does the chef get at a restaurant when you send food back?

The allegations against the show were first published by The Sunday Times of London on July 22, two days after the conclusion of the first season of Man vs. Wild. Citing Mark Wienert, a North Bend, Oregon–based survival instructor and paid consultant for the show, the story charged that Grylls had slept in a cozy lodge during the filming of an episode in California’s Sierra Nevada; that the wild horses he attempted to lasso in the episode had been hired from a nearby trekking station; and that, in a show that had Grylls constructing a Polynesian-style raft, Wienert and a team had built the craft first, then dismantled it so Grylls could repeat their steps. As frothing British reporters hunted down more cases of distortion, viewers sounded off in online forums.

Mark Wienert: That reporter combined a bunch of stuff, and it was taken way out of proportion. I already had a lot of the information on my blog. There wasn’t any cover-up. This guy had an agenda.

Grylls: It made a good headline: Bear stays in a motel when filming. But the truth is less exciting. I spend a lot of nights under the stars, and for the times when I am not filming the live stuff out in the wild, or I’m about to illustrate something really physically exhausting, I stay with the crew in a base-camp lodge.

Reader comments on a New York Times blog report on the scandal:

1.  Knew it! I saw an episode where he used his backpack as flotation and floated down a river for miles. One problem: You could clearly see the outline of his life jacket under his sweatshirt.
2.  I suspected as much but don’t care. I find it entertaining regardless. He’s fun to watch. The situations are amusing and informative. Anyone who believes it’s utterly authentic must be pretty naive.
3.  Even though TV “reality” shows are hardly that, it should be made clear when events are staged.
4.  If TV chefs can have food prepared in various stages because the viewer doesn’t have time to watch it bake, then Mr. Grylls shouldn’t be faulted for this either.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, celebrated British adventurer, posting on Grylls’s Web site: The Daily Mail’s attack on Bear Grylls mentions that he is “the cheese soufflé” of the adventure world. [Special forces] membership requires distinctly non-cheese-soufflé people. [The attack is] irrelevant and cheap, suggestive journalism of a misleading nature.

Grylls: It’s been hard. I’m not that bulletproof underneath it all!

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture, Syracuse University: How much reality do we demand from our reality shows? In this case, all the voltage of the show comes from the adventure and danger. This scandal gets at the fundamental heart of what the show is about.

Laughton: I don’t believe that it makes the slightest difference. If the production company books you a room, you wouldn’t go sleep in the car park instead just to show the world how tough you are! It is a TV show, not an expedition.

Grylls: As to the question “Are things ever staged?” the answer is, on occasions, yes. We have to condense so much action into a few days, and that involves good prior planning.

Thompson: Not everyone’s watching for educational purposes. Steve Irwin’s show was educational, but where would he have been if the crocodiles had been robots? The fact that he died while filming … he was in real danger out there. Some of these shows rely on street cred.

Wienert: My experience with TV is that if you sit there and film someone sitting in the brush for 45 minutes, you are not going to have much of a show. But did Bear risk his life? Did he put himself in all those shoots I was involved in? Absolutely.

On November 9, the Discovery Channel will air a two-hour special covering Grylls’s May expedition to the Himalayas, which had him piloting a motored paraglider at an altitude higher than the summit of Everest. A week later, Man vs. Wild will kick off its second season. The new shows will also run a full two hours, a format that Grylls and producers say will allow them to depict how the programs are put together. Each episode will also begin with a disclaimer stating that Grylls and crew “receive support when they are in potentially life-threatening situations.”

Lovering: We’re trying to supersize Man vs. Wild. We want Bear to go to some of the most extreme environments in the world. So he’s going to the Sahara and Patagonia and possibly Siberia. If we’re going to these kinds of places, it’s better to do a two-hour show.

Grylls: We’re going to go into more detail and to see more of the role and challenges faced by the crew. I think people will enjoy that.

Thompson: My guess is that viewership will go up a little for the new season. A lot more people have heard of the show now.

Lovering: Our position is that safety equipment should be there to protect Bear and not to assist him. In other words, whatever he’s doing, he’s able to do. But there’s protection when necessary so that he doesn’t hurt himself.

Grylls: I have learnt that this show is not about me; it is about what it brings out in other people, such as a desire to climb, explore, or just get outside.

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