Adventurer Bear Grylls on what makes him cry, why Grayson Perry is mistaken and why ShortList won’t survive The Island
This interview is happening on your barge. It’s called Mercurius. Tell us about your barge.
We bought this when we first got married, 15 years ago. We were about to buy a one-bedroom flat in Battersea, which I couldn’t really afford, and then I saw this. It was owned by a guy called Robert Swan who was a polar explorer. We bought it for a quarter of the price of the flat we were trying to get – about 60 grand. There’s community, you know? We have a little boat on the side, we can bomb up and down the Thames.
Are you tempted to do a Lonely Island and shout “I’m on a barge, motherfucker”?
Let’s do it. Let’s do it.
Your second novel, Burning Angels, has just come out. Is it harder to write a novel or drink your own piss?
Novels are hard. We didn’t plan on writing novels. What happened is that we found out, based on finding these Second World War chests in my grandfather’s attic, that he wasn’t just a normal army officer; he’d actually commanded this clandestine unit that Churchill set up, called T-Force. It was tasked with protecting high-ranking Nazi scientists and high-ranking officers at the end of the war, when they probably should have faced war crime courts. It was an amazing story. I did it with [author and reporter] Damien Lewis, who did a lot of the SAS stories over the years. He’s fun to work with.
And you’re due to embark on a live tour in October…
Endeavour is going to be amazing. I came up with the idea a couple of years ago. I was in Vegas at a Cirque du Soleil show in-between filming something. I thought, “Imagine bringing some of the acrobatic stuff and live mapping and taking that into the adventure space.” There is something special about live shows that you don’t get from TV. I knew it would work well in big arenas – you can take people on these journeys. I know it’s good because the technicians, who are invariably hard to impress with anything, went, “This is a winner.” You’ll have never seen a show like this before. It will be quite shocking at times, a little bit gruesome. But at the end it’s very uplifting. The goal is to leave you feeling like you can get out there and conquer the world. But there’s always pain first.
Speaking of pain, I did your survival academy in January.
Ah, great! Good for you. They’re all over the world now. It gives all sorts of people a real taste of the outdoors, not in a boring, bushcrafty, whittling-a-spoon way.
I ripped the head off a live grasshopper then ate its body.
Course you did.
There’s a dead wasp on the floor, just wondering if I should…
Don’t touch that, that’s pudding.
My colleague Louise is applying to appear on The Island. What advice would you give her?
Tell her to put her glass of wine down, go to bed, wake up in the morning, and re-think it. The hard reality of survival is that it hurts. It just hurts. You’re covered in mosquito bites; you’re tired; you’re hungry; you’re thirsty; you’re scared. And suddenly it’s a little less romantic.
How prepared do you think a 26-year-old writer from London is likely to be?
I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. The Island isn’t about your skills, it’s about your spirit. It’s all about celebrating that fire inside. So the person from London who’s never lit a fire in their life, you can’t judge because it’s often like grapes: you squeeze us, you see what we’re made of.
Are you ever worried that the contestants will die?
Out of all the shows we do it’s the one I’m most nervous of. We do some training with them before, dump them on it, and they have zero contact unless somebody’s life is in danger. But still, stuff happens. There have been occasions where I’ve had to stick a note in, going, “Never do that again. You’re in a big boys’ arena now. Step outside of these basic survival rules and you’re gonna die.”
When was the last time that you cried?
I cried watching Jesse, my eldest, do a speech competition. I was a wreck. And stories of real courage inspire me. I think Endeavour will make you cry; it’s going to be full of 10,000 young adventurers who are tough guys, but it will move them. The technician cried. I told him to man up.
Grayson Perry believes that you promote a “useless” version of masculinity. What would you say to that?
I would say I don’t think it’s a version of masculinity that I promote. I think what he’s saying is that I promote a version of masculinity that’s all chest-thumping and muscles and mud and blood. But actually, you look at The Island – it’s actually celebrating humility, kindness, brotherhood, sisterhood, quiet determination. So if he sat here and asked me what makes a modern man, I’d say all of those things. I think, ironically, we’re probably saying the same thing. But our window-dressings maybe are different.
Tickets for Endeavour are on sale now; beargryllslive.com