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Man vs. Survivorman

What follows is something I started way back around Emerald City ComicCon, and never got around to completing. Now that I have the novel behind me (relatively — there’s a minor rewrite to be done on a couple of sections, but I expect to have that in hand by the beginning of September (at which point I intend to post the first chapter or two on the blog, here), I wanted to finish it. It’s mostly rambling, but, hell, if that’s not what blog is for, I don’t know what is.

Fair warning – this, like just about everything else I ever post here, is my opinion, nothing more.

So, Jen and I are in a hotel room in Seattle, Dashiell’s asleep, and the only thing on television that isn’t patently annoying is Man vs. Wild on the Discovery channel. As a whole, our family spends a lot of time on the Discovery Channel. Elliot is a huge fan of MythBusters, Jen and I quite like Dirty Jobs, and even Dashiell enjoys Survivorman.

But at this moment, none of those shows are on.

Instead, I’m listening to Bear Grylls tell me how dangerous Namibia is and how perilously close to to death he stands at nearly every turn. And all I can think is, “you’ve got a fucking FILM CREW with you.”

With this in mind, I did some digging on Edward “Bear” Grylls. He seems like a well-intentioned fellow. He’s got the bona fides to back up his claims. He does loads of charitable work in the UK. And he clearly has been to places I will never see but would love to visit (much like my travel-hero Michael Palin), and found himself in situations (intentionally or not) that I likewise have every reason to believe I never will, and has endured, if not survived them. I do not diminish his accomplishments. Anyone who comes back from a parachute accident that resulted in three broken thoracic vertebrae (and Thank You Interweb for having a website out there called “”) to summit Everest two years later is someone with more discipline, will, and courage than I.

But damn it if the man doesn’t annoy me something fierce.

And then there’s Les Stroud.

Like Bear Grylls, you can find Stroud on the Discovery Channel. Like Bear Grylls, Stroud gets deposited in survival situations that would reduce most folks to a torrent of tears and whimpers prior to curling into a ball to die. Like Grylls, Stroud manages on a bare handful of equipment (“…and my trusty multi-tool, never go anywhere without it…”), wits, education, and improvisation. Like Grylls, more often than not, he begins his scenarios without food or water. A consistent highlight of Survivorman episodes is the “how will Les start a fire this time?” riff.

The difference – and to me it is a hugely substantial difference – is that Stroud does all this while lugging 40-plus pounds of film equipment, and recording everything he does by himself. And while he has a support crew, a team that drops him at his start-point and then establishes a base-camp, they’re not with him. What Stroud does, he does alone.

The format of Stroud’s show, Surivorman, for those of you who’ve never seen it, is fairly simple. He picks a location – say, the Kalahari – spends a week or so (off-camera) learning survival skills specific to the environ from the locals, and then gets dumped – sometimes quite literally – in the middle of the location with his camera gear and whatever his producers decide he gets to have with him. He then has 7 days to “make it back to civilization” where civilization, depending on where he starts, has a variety of differing definitions. He’s not suicidal; he brings a sat phone with him, and, I suspect, a radio, for use in emergencies. On at least one occasion, both have failed him.

He doesn’t always make it back in the time allotted. Sometimes the production crew picks him up on his way back. Sometimes he packs it in early, calls it quits, admitting defeat.

If you can’t tell already, I prefer Survivorman to Man vs. Wild enormously. The thing I’ve been wrestling with is trying to articulate why.

It’s not simply that I feel, on some fundamental level, that Grylls is cheating. I recognize that the danger he’s in is legitimate, that, when he tells me that he could die doing whatever it is he is doing, he’s not shining me on. He absolutely could, I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge that if he slips and falls while climbing the 50 meter rock face, his crew will medi-vac him to safety. He may well be screwed for life, but they’re there, and knowing that must provide him some sense of security, and certainly influences his (in my opinion) occasional recklessness.

But using the same example, Stroud would do that climb at least twice. Once for the camera set-up, then for the shot, and then, potentially, he’d do it a third time for the break-downs. And if he set cameras at both the bottom and the top of the climb, there’d be a fourth trip, as well. And even with two camera set-ups above and below, he’d most likely make the “filming” climb wearing a body rig that would film close-ups of him as he did it.

And then, he’d only make the climb if he felt it was his only route.

But there’s more than that. It’s in the titles of the respective shows. Grylls is picking a fight; he is deliberately provoking nature, and then gleefully biting the heads off snakes “because you’ve got to keep your energy up.” What Grylls is offering is Bread and Circuses, gladiator combat, and everything about his show promotes this – the music, the editing, his narration, his choices. There’s an element of showing off in Man vs. Wild that I find off-putting, very much a sense of “hey, look at me!” But the fix is in, and that’s where he loses me.

Whereas Stroud is, I think, at his heart, both a teacher and a student. Survivorman presents itself, to an extent, as a “what to do if this happens to you” show, although I can’t imagine much of the audience would ever find themselves needing his specific knowledge. He’s testing himself, sure, but rather than confronting nature, as Grylls does, Stroud seems to always move with a profound respect for where he is, what he’s doing. Both men kill animals to survive. Stroud sets traps, and his delight at having a meal after five days with nothing to eat is apparent. There are episodes of Man vs. Wild where, I swear, it seems as if Grylls seems to kill anything he can lay hands on, dramatically and luridly rip off a chunk of its flesh, and then move on. Stroud wastes nothing, and when he does kill, he stresses, each and every time, that he dislikes doing so, and that he only does so as a means to survive.

The morality, if I can use the word, of the differing situations is, perhaps, questionable. One wonders if the thesis of Survivorman is any more relevant than that of Man vs. Wild. Grylls purports to teach means of survival as much as Stroud does, just in case you or I should ever find ourselves stranded in Siberia, for instance, and needing to urinate on our own survival knife to free it from where it has frozen to our flesh. But the fact is certain that both men are quite intentionally putting themselves into these situations for entertainment as much as education.

Maybe that’s my problem. With Stroud, the education is entertaining. With Grylls, the entertainment is occasionally educational.

13 Responses to Man vs. Survivorman

  1. anw

    “I feel, on some fundamental level, that Grylls is cheating.”

    He is cheating. I’m surprised your digging didn’t turn up the scandal (well, kerfuffle) we had with Grylls over here last year where it was revealed that Grylls was pretending to sleep in the wild on one of his shows but was actually going back to a hotel room at night.

    “[A] crew member said yesterday that after the camera stopped Grylls would often stay in hotels – including one with internet access and blueberry pancakes for breakfast – and that many of his daring missions were stage-managed.”

    I don’t watch survival shows (I like my nature Attenboroughy), so I’ve never heard of Stroud, but I understand the preferred choice of TV survival expert over here is Ray Mears – though I’ve no idea if he uses a camera crew or not.

    The challenge show I’m enjoying at the moment is Dangerous Jobs for Girls, where each week three high achieving women are sent out to do a job that apparently no woman has ever done before. The first week involved ranging cattle, the second was logging and this week it was ocean fishing. The Times critic hates it and thinks it’s patronisingly anti-feminist, but I think it’s an interesting fish-out-of-water show that nicely challenges a few last male bastions. God knows these girls do better at these jobs than I ever could.

  2. davidwynne

    Bear Grylls drives me up the bloody wall too. Although in my case, I think it’s his public school accent that really makes me want to see him fuck up and die on one of those programs.



  3. atticreviews

    My friend pointed out, about a year before the “sleeping in hotels” thing broke, Bear Grylls never has stubble. Seven days in the wild and you’re clean shaven?

    And the Survivorman that takes place in a raft(!) in the Carribean is frightening. Frightening.

  4. gryphart

    Yeah, I’m with you. Stroud just fundamentally seems more like the kind of guy I want to spend mental time with – Grylls, on the other hand, comes off like the kind of guy who makes me want to walk on the other side of the street.

  5. davidwynne

    That’s a very good point.

    Maybe he shaves with the teeth of wild animals that he has killed with his bare hands? BLINDFOLDED?

  6. admin

    I actually did know about the “sleeping in hotels” kerfuffle, and also about the subsequent “retailoring” of the show, including the new disclaimer, etc. As the episode in question that had started this particular entry was one of the “post scandal” shows, I thought it best to leave it out.

    I suppose, more than anything else, it’s the – for lack of a better word – ethics of the situation that I was attempting to untangle.

    Haven’t heard about Dangerous Jobs for Girls; my interest has been piqued.

    Edited to add: Ah, see, I thought I’d referenced the scandal in some fashion; it’s the link under the “intentionally or not” bit, I think

  7. admin

    Easy there. He might freeze you to his knife or something….

  8. admin

    That’s an excellent point.

    The “Lost at Sea” episode of Survivorman is a personal favorite. I’m also very fond of the “Labrador” episode, and would love to see Stroud make a second attempt.

    He did an interesting documentary about moving his family out of Toronto (I think) to a self-sustaining locale called “Off the Grid” that I recommend watching. I found it worthwhile, at least.

  9. davidwynne

    No no no he’d hear my SAFF LANDUN accent and quiver in the bushes. I’m from Peckham, me. Jungle? Pfft. Try Lewisham A&E on a friday night… (which is exactly where I am right now).

  10. anw

    Ah, I didn’t know there was a disclaimer on his show now. Is this a ‘scenes have been recreated’ type of disclaimer? I think once someone’s been exposed as a showman, you’ve no good reason to put faith in their authenticity thereafter. I think the guy who mentioned Grylls’ clean-shaven look makes a very good point, and I’d add to that; the more successful Grylls has become, the more well-groomed he has appeared (and the more often he seems to find an excuse to strip off). These days he’s a bona fide heartthrob, at least in the UK. Match that with the fact that he calls himself ‘Bear’, and it the least bear-like man you’ve ever seen, and he begins to look a lot like a product – which is fine if your schtick is, say, extreme sports, which is a bit glamorous, but not if you’re a survivalist, which shouldn’t be glamorous at all.

  11. admin

    I wish I could remember the actual phrasing of the disclaimer they run now. It’s something like, “On occasion, Bear seeks out additional help in acting scenarios blah blah blah…”

    Very much a non-denial denial kind of thing, as if to say, it’s all right that it’s not real, he’s doing it to TEACH you something!

  12. matchesmalone

    Clearly this raises the question….

    Having only seen a random clip of ‘Bear’, it calls into question if he’s actually doing what he says he is, as I’m not quite sure that filtering urine through a snake skin is even a good idea….

  13. snoristed

    Dick Proenneke

    Ah, but what do you think about Dick Proenneke? Personally, he’s my favorite. Something about him reminds me of my dad.

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