Bear Grylls – a fiction too far?
Somebody asked me a question yesterday – a question that comes up most weeks with clients, or when people find out what I do for a living:
“What do you think of Bear Grylls?
Hmmm. Tough one.
I normally answer cautiously with something along the lines of:
“He seems like a nice enough guy. There is an element of his shows that are staged but he has a lot of fans and generally promotes a positive attitude towards the outdoors, and has inspired lots of kids into getting out more… but don’t take it too seriously.
For me, Bear Grylls is to ‘outdoor’ TV what Top Gear is to motoring journalism. It’s entertaining, fast-paced, enjoyed by millions but isn’t much help when it comes to choosing your next car. Crucially, if you tried following what either the ursine adventurer or the Top Gear trio did on TV you would probably be arrested, injured or dead. Both have big budgets (in TV terms), and big safety crews waiting just off-camera to make sure the valuable talent doesn’t fall off a cliff. But largely it isn’t too bad – TV often shows one version of reality whilst masking another. I do the same with our videos or photos – things sometimes need editing or rearranging to communicate a message. He is the Chief Scout, and thousands of children and adults adore him.
The recent Bear Grylls series on ITV has come under some criticism with the star appearing to kayak, climb and generally bugger about in the British countryside without any kind of safety equipment, over-exaggerating the risks of some activities and not correctly addressing the risks of others. The show seems also to have sidestepped several important environmental and ecological laws put in place to protect sensitive environments and endangered species. Not exactly the best message to be sending out by the figurative head of an organisation that has a stated purpose to: “actively engage and support young people in their personal development, empowering them to make a positive contribution to society”.
So, a new show, similar themes of adventure/excitement whilst blatantly hiding the fact they employ safety crews to keep Bear safe (note the hidden belayer and safety rope in the grass during a ‘free-climbing/soloing’ segment on Snowdon, for example), and little education on how to actually keep safe and behave responsibly in the outdoors. Nothing really of merit, but nothing new either.
Until this afternoon when I saw this post from Heather Eastwood, Chair of the Cave Rescue Organisation in the Yorkshire Dales.
It is a letter of complaint following the latest episode of the new show, focusing on the Yorkshire Dales:
I would like to raise my concerns following the showing of this weeks show which visited the Yorkshire Dales. As Chair of the local rescue team both myself and many of my fellow team members were horrified to see Bear Grylls show a total disregard for safety in the outdoors especially in relation to water and caving.
Bear Grylls is Chief Scout and is an inspirational figure to many young people but both ITV and Bear Grylls himself have shown a total lack of responsibility by portraying some of the activities in the light that you choose to do.
Climbing up waterfalls shows not only a total disregard for the environment but failed to mention the dangers of water in general let alone how that danger increases in waterfalls. For those of us who know the area in question we are well aware of the power and dangers of the water shown even in dry conditions and have had the misfortune of being involved in difficult rescues in those areas.
As for your portrayal of caving and cave exploration I am struggling to express my horror. Caving is a fantastic adventure and is both exciting and challenging especially for young people. However it needs to be supervised and led by experienced and knowledgeable people who understand both the environmental and physical issues involved. To depict caving as something that you can just turn up and do is both irresponsible and dangerous. The fact the he had no safety equipment in the form of appropriate clothing, a helmet and a reliable hands free torch which are a basic necessity in caving was an elementary mistake. Cold and dampness can quickly lead to hypothermia, a condition that can rapidly cloud judgement and lead to death. The lack of a helmet that not only protects your head from loose rocks that may fall but also from head injuries from slips trips and bumps. A lack of a hands free torch means that if a torch is dropped, lost and/or broken hazards can be missed. Caves – even Long Churns, (a well known ‘beginners cave’) can be complex with dangerous drops and unseen holes and people can become lost and disorientated.
I and many of my colleagues feel that ITV has disregarded safety and common sense in favour of sensationalising the activities to draw viewers, and would appeal to you in future to show a moral responsibly and depict and promote these activities in a safe and responsible manner.
It raises many points, all valid and all sadly omitted from the show. Professional volunteer rescue organisations have had criticism for Bear Gryllls before and I suspect they will again.
So what is my point with this long, rambling blog post? Well, this open letter from a respected member of the UKSAR community has made me rethink the answer I will give when asked that same question. It will now probably be more like:
“Bear Grylls seems like a nice guy – he has encouraged a lot of people to get outdoors. But his shows are going to get somebody killed, if they haven’t already.
I know of at least one SAR incident in North Wales where the fact the casualty had been a huge fan of ‘BG’ and trying to follow the techniques and advice on his Born Survivor and other TV shows had led to them getting into serious trouble. There are others where my ex-colleagues in Mountain Rescue suspect that an attempt to copy what they had seen on Discovery channel TV shows had led to members of the public injuring themselves, or worse.
I make my living from either keeping people safe outdoors, or helping them enjoy themselves in the mountains and forests of the UK. Our customers range from complete novices to outdoor, military and emergency services professionals who need extra training to keep themselves and their colleagues safe. I spent a good few years picking up the pieces of things that went wrong as part of a North Wales Mountain Rescue team. I know very little compared to some I have been privileged to work with, and I hope to continue to develop my skills for the rest of my life, but I feel confident in saying this:
DO NOT COPY ANYTHING YOU SEE ON A BEAR GRYLLS TV SHOW
Join a club. Read a book. Read an article on a website or a magazine. Employ an instructor, go on a course or find someone who is experienced or qualified enough to teach you properly. Teach yourself (carefully) or learn alongside others. But for your own safety, and for the safety of those who will have to come and rescue you, don’t watch a carefully edited and choreographed TV show and then go out and try it for yourself. It is fiction, and you are likely to get yourself into a world of trouble.
This isn’t a message from a nanny-state or an argument against taking risks and doing dangerous things. We train people to calculate those risks carefully, we work alongside people who risk their lives in defence of others and who push the boundaries of human endeavour in sport, mountaineering and other adventures. But the big difference between those people who use our services and the services of other businesses like ours, and the TV persona of Bear Grylls is that they work within boundaries, and don’t shy away from taking appropriate safety measures. They concentrate on keeping themselves and each other safe, not on looking good and trying to look ‘extreme’.
Encouraging people to get outdoors, be healthy and be active is very important – but to ensure that they know how to look after themselves whilst doing so is equally important.