John Walker's Electronic House

Unscripted TV Part 3: Survival

by on Jul.20, 2007, under The Rest

That’s proper survival, rather than survivor.

The best channel currently broadcasting has to be Discovery US. With Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, Man Vs. Wild and Survivorman, they’ve struck upon an excellent format for something midway between reality, documentary and entertainment. The latter two are the focus here, as they go head to head in their most difficult task yet: suriviving being written about on my blog for seven minutes.

Both shows feature a survivalist showing you how to not become instantly dead when stranged in dangerous conditions. The major difference is the filming – Survivorman has star Les Stroud do all his own camera work (apparently), while the far better named Bear Grylls takes a two-person crew with him on his adventures. And both are deeply problematic.

Man Vs. Wild

BEAR GRYLLS. That’s the name of a hero. Or a gay porn star. But Bear is a hero, and his private life is his own. Far more dramatic than the Survivorman it’s clearly mimicking, Bear is helicoptered in to the middle of a volcano, or parachutes to an Arctic glacier. He then has only three days to find a road or town, and only his wits, a knife, some flint, and a production team to help him.

Bear’s ex-British Forces, ex-Foriegn Legion, ex-Justice League action hero status is contrasted by his youthful appearance and lack of shouty behaviour. BUT, he does jump 15 feet and then tuck and roll. Awesome! Which is where the programme starts to fall apart. With at least one camera and one sound guy, when you see Bear stuck in a ravine, having dangerously swum underwater only to emerge in a dead-end gorge, it’s extremely cool to see him just about manage to climb his way out, defying falling to his death. Leaving you wondering rather whether he just left the others behind to die, and picked up a new crew. It becomes increasingly ridiculous when he takes impossibly dangerous routes, climbing down sheer faces of rock and then swimming across alligator-infested rivers, as the crew films him disappearing. There’s no choice left but to realise it’s faked. There’s no doubt Bear is achieving these dangerous feats, but there’s very little likelihood that any of them were necessary.

Highlights are definitely his hunting. You’ll see Bear suddenly leap to the side and down, and stand up holding a water buffalo. Well, close. But a turtle, and indeed a tree frog. And remember, with the tree frog, “You have to make sure the first bite kills it, or it will wriggle all the way down.” The turtle you kill by stabbing it in the neck with your knife, then just roast it in its shell. And who cannot love seeing a man parachute into the rainforest, get caught in the trees, absail the 60ft down only to discover he’s got 50ft of rope, and then cut himself down and fall?

It seems that the show is well researched, with crews checking the areas out for a couple of weeks before Bear goes out there. It’s all common sense, of course. You don’t want the presenter dropping dead midway thorugh the series. But at the same time, it’s hard to relax and enjoy it, constantly conscious that you’re being deceived.


Les Stroud isn’t really all that heroic a name. This is going back a bit, to 2004, but it’s come to attention again thanks to Man Vs. Wild basically stealing its format. Stroud gets a lot of kudos for filming his own endeavours, and thus adding a lot more credibility to the reality of his situation. Whether in the Canadian woods or the Arizonian desert, his gentle approach shows him doing the very basics to stay alive, starting fires, building camps, and, well, starting another fire. Peculiarly food doesn’t seem important at all, appearing to last on some cashew nuts, beef jerky and two snails for seven days. The realism kicks in with the claim that if he doesn’t make it to civilisation within seven days, the producers will swoop in with helicopters to look for him.

Most strange is his apparant inexperience. He seems to be genuinely bewildered about what to do, hurting himself building the most simple traps, and there’s little logic to his attempts to survive. Day 1 in the Canadian woods is spent building a shelter, with day 2 then spent, um, doing apparently nothing at all, skipping straight to the evening. Clearly there’s a lot of trouble taking seven days of footage and editing it to 45 minutes, but the selected moments seem to accentuate boredom, rather than death defying skill.

A big problem is the contrast between Les The Survivalist, and Les The Narrator. Gently chatting to the cameras he drags around, he mentions that he’s a bit hungry. Then in his voice over he near-shouts, “Time is running out. I HAVE to find some food soon to fight off STARVATION!” The false drama mocks the calmness of the programme.

It contains the gross-out we need, like chomping down a live (tiny) scorpion. But then somewhat loses its cool by having him burst out laughing and saying, “I can’t believe I just did that.” It’s also a little odd that he claims to take no equipment with him, and yet produce things like pliers from his pocket. Um.

But again the problems come about with the filming. Why does Stroud need two cameras with him, when the over-produced Man Vs. Wild manages with only one? He’s remarkably diligent when setting up his shots, arranging two angles on whatever he’s doing so they can be cut between. And thus making it feel very much like there’s no urgency to his survival. It gains so much by demonstrating the honesty of his isolation, and then loses it all when you see him having successfully traversed a river, throwing his stick into the water, and then disappearing into the woods beyond. Are you leaving that camera behind, Les? And what about the seven other times this happened this episode? What’s going on?

The seeming dishonesty is far worse here since it goes to such lengths to claim otherwise.


It’s tempting to give the props to Survivorman for portraying a much more genuine sense of survival, and a much more practical programme for learning anything from. But the win has to go to Man Vs. Wild. Sliding down sheets of ice, leaping off cliffs, picking up alligators – who cares how fake it is? What he’s doing is so incredibly cool, and so educationally useless (despite the show’s premise being to “show you how to survive”). In the end, the crew being there can make it seem more tense. His panic as he tells the crew to “GET DOWN!”, or “CLIMB A TREE!” as monsters come close is thrilling. Also he climbs 30ft trees with no branches just using a shoelace. And he’s called BEAR GRYLLS.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Masked Dave

    They show that Man vs Wild thing on the BBC under a different name don’t they? I’m pretty sure they do anyway, I’ve only seen a couple but it sounds identical. I always have the problem with the ‘And then did the crew climb down the waterfall too, huh? Did they?’ question, but while the filming is kinda fake, what he himself is doing is clearly genuine. And it’s awesome.

    Although I don’t think I can remember a single piece of advice he’s given.

  • Tim R

    I’m a Bear Grylls fan. The British version of Man v. Wild was Channel Four’s Born Survivor. I have the book of the series, thus ensuring that if my helicopter crashes on my way to work i’ll be able to set snares and catch rabbits as I trek to safety.

    Furthermore, Bear is cooler than you think – he broke his back in three places in a parachuting accident and then three years later was the youngest man ever to climb Everest and survive. AND he’s called Bear Grylls!

  • ste

    depends what you mean by ‘climb’, really. i know someone who worked on the tv show about that and to apparently all intents and purposes he was carried up there, went ‘yay’ and then was carried back down again.

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