Why Bear Grylls wants to be the next David Attenborough

He's the biggest brand in adventuring but now the former SAS trooper is exploring new TV territory - natural history

Grylls is two-thirds of the way through the busiest year of filming in his career. His team are finalising the cast for a new series of Mission Survive, which he says will be more extreme than the last. He’s also preparing for a third series of The Island, which he says will get “longer, harder, wetter and more dangerous”, with some new elements that he won’t yet reveal.

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Between the two, he’s shooting a Chinese version of Mission Survive for the nation’s Dragon TV station, and it’s in the land of the giant panda that much of the Bear legend has been written, with his apolitical outdoors shows slipping past the censor and into the lives of hundreds of millions. “I think the shows have been popular in China because they’re neutral,” he says. “All that we’re doing is promoting the natural world and getting out there and exploring. It’s not a westernised show.”

Along with China, the United States is his biggest market, with the UK, ironically, his least successful territory, “which I quite like, because it gives me a bit more privacy back home”. This global reach has allowed him to set up a gargantuan merchandising operation, incorporating mobile phones, protein shakes, and even a £10,000 propeller-powered parachute.

The Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro knife, which retails for around £50, sold a million units in its first year, and Grylls says that in six months he has sold three million copies of his children’s novels in China (versus total UK book sales of 907,000, according to Nielsen Bookscan).

Grylls says he’s “not a great bean-counter” but adds that on the merchandising front, “I don’t believe we’ve begun yet. I still think we’re at ground zero, and if we really get our act together over the next few years, we can build that into an absolutely huge, huge business around the world.”

That canny business brain is evident in the development of his television career. Grylls pent six years making Born Survivor (Man vs Wild in the US) with Discovery in the States, before a bust-up in 2012 led to the broadcaster issuing a statement saying they were sacking him. Grylls says it was because he wanted to stop doing the show, and develop other formats.

“I had almost died however many times, and wanted to finish strong rather than when ratings were going down, so I said, ‘We’re done,’ and they said, ‘No, you can’t be done,’ and there was just a bit of a struggle. They were saying, ‘We own anything you do in the outdoors, we own that brand,’ and I thought, I’m never going to get back into the world of TV without having total ownership of our rights, where we go, how long we film for, and if I want to take three months off and go and take a boat and sail around the world with my family, I need to be free to do that.”

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Having negotiated his freedom, he set about developing a portfolio of shows. “Now, we own Running Wild (the series he’s filmed with Obama), we own The Island, we own Mission Survive, Britain’s Biggest Adventures, the Chinese format – we own all of these, and we sell them well to Discovery, BBC Worldwide, and all these other countries.”