There is a moment in Bear Grylls’s new ITV series in which the adventurer whips off his Bear Grylls-branded jacket to reveal a Bear Grylls fleece, which he sheds to unveil a Bear Grylls T-shirt, which is hauled off to reveal, well, Bear Grylls. He then performs a topless backflip into a Yorkshire river, captured by the camera in slow-motion, muscle-rippling high-definition.
That short sequence is Brand Bear in a nutshell: the former SAS trooper who broke his back but conquered Everest, whose daredevil antics and infectious enthusiasm have won him fans across the globe – including an American president – as well as a multimillion-pound fortune, founded upon his television formats and multitudinous merchandising lines.
His trek with Barack Obama across the Alaskan wilderness earlier this month reveals just how high his stock has risen. Having made his name with Born Survivor, in which he wrestled alligators, chomped on creepy crawlies, and invariably ended up drinking his own urine, Grylls, 41, is now the leading global force in the TV explorer market. Chief Scout since 2009, his recent UK hits include Channel 4’s The Island, in which ordinary members of the public were abandoned on a tropical isle, and ITV’s Mission Survive, where a group of celebrities faced a series of increasingly terrifying outdoor tasks.
Now, however, he’s striking out into new territory, with an ITV series that blends his trademark alfresco exploits with a heavy dose of natural history. Animals that Grylls would have previously bopped on the head and devoured before fashioning their remains into a form of headgear are now celebrated and nurtured, in an exploration of the British Isles that sees him visit Welsh bat lofts, Scottish reindeer herds and English crayfish rearing projects.
It’s all a bit Attenborough, and deliberately so, says Grylls, who wants to pioneer a new brand of adventure-cum-natural history television, in which examination of wildlife is interspersed with death-defying stunts. “If it’s just natural history it can be a bit dry,” he explains. “When Attenborough was 25 it was totally not dry because it was totally new, but to do something for young people now, it needs that adventure, I think, to inspire them.”
Lest this be interpreted as a form of lèse-majesté against the nation’s best-loved naturalist, he’s quick to add that he regards the octogenarian as a “personal hero, a legend and a humble, great man”. Indeed, it’s the lasting appeal of Attenborough and series such as Coast that have inspired Grylls to leap genres.
“I have a sneaky suspicion that these shows are going to do, accidentally, really well,” he says. “If you look at the success of the Attenborough stuff, and Coast over the years, and some of the adventure stuff we’ve done, I think this is a really smart, simple, uncomplicated combination of all of those things.”
Episode one kicks off with Grylls paramotoring over Cardigan Bay, and it’s from this 50-mile expanse of Welsh coastline that he’s speaking, hunkered away on a private island he bought 15 years ago, and where his wife and three sons spend their summers. It is also where, earlier in the summer, he faced criticism after posting online a picture of his 12-year-old, Jesse, on a rocky outcrop as part of an RNLI training exercise. Grylls is unrepentant. “They asked me to do the exercise, they took the pictures, and all of the local RNLI love it,” he says, forcefully.