I am on a mission with Bear Grylls. “Are your shoes OK?” he asks, urgently, and gestures to my feet. They’re fine, I tell him. A quick glance to check the coast is clear and he beckons me on. Can we make it to the other side? Or will his wife Shara suddenly appear, in which case, I suspect, we’re sunk. Because we are attempting to cross his pristine cream carpets WITHOUT GETTING MUD ON THE FLOOR!
Unlike the contestants stranded by Grylls in the Pacific in the latest series of The Island, we are bobbing around comfortingly close to civilisation. Battersea, to be precise. We are on board Grylls’s houseboat, which is moored permanently just down the road from the power station. The recently refurbished old barge is the family home where he, Shara and his boys – Jesse, 14, Huckleberry, ten, and Marmaduke, eight – stay when they aren’t living on a remote island off the coast of north Wales.
Why am I surprised the great adventurer’s living quarters are pristine? The bedroom looks like a showroom, the galley/kitchen, too. The boys’ berth is a suitably nautical bunk-bed affair, but even here everything is a startling bright white. There is clearly a strictly enforced No Shoes policy. Impressive with three boys, is all I can say. Or perhaps they never really stay here.
With his sons Marmaduke and Jesse in 2011
Do the kids go to school in Wales? “No, no,” he says. “Huckleberry has just done a term with us in the Alps – we do a few months there every year – in a little international school. Marmaduke is at prep school and Jesse’s just started at boarding school. So it’s a whole new journey for everyone.” Is he missing his eldest? “I loved it when we walked down the road and, even though he had all his schoolmates passing by, we were holding hands. It’s wonderful. Long may that last.” I tell him to enjoy it while he can, because in my experience, as a father of three boys, I know young Jesse isn’t going to want to be seen with Dad much longer. But, then I realise, he is Bear Grylls – a hero to millions of schoolboys.
“I don’t know,” he says. ‘Nobody is a hero at home, are they? When I say to Jesse’s friends, ‘Never give up!’, which is my greeting or farewell, he’s like ‘Argh! Dad, you never stop banging on about your messages.’”
On the bow of the boat is an enormous Union Jack bean bag that matches the Union Jack chairs arranged around a small table. There is just enough room for two drinks at our table as we take our seats on deck. For those who have only ever seen Grylls drink his own urine – or the juice he can squeeze from elephant dung – I can report he prefers a diet cola on board, served ice cold. The only food in evidence below deck is a bowl of prawn crackers. Obviously more appetising than the yak’s eyeball, raw snake or the giant larvae we’ve seen him devour on screen in the numerous clips from his greatest hits, but possibly not as nutritious.
“We bought this in 2000 when we were looking for a flat,” Grylls tells me, trademark sunglasses in place, dressed in his off-duty uniform of untucked shirt, jeans and box-fresh – of course – trainers. “Then we saw the island in Wales and fell in love with it. This mooring and the freehold for the island cost less than £200,000, or the price of a two-bed flat. It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
Bear Grylls has made many life-changing decisions since 2000, nearly all of them for the better. And along the way he has become one of the most recognisable television stars in the world, with his own TV company and merchandising business, reportedly worth £6 million. In the States, his Running Wild series attracts millions of viewers; guests have included Barack Obama, who called Grylls up in 2015 and asked to join him on an excursion to Alaska. Now everyone from Roger Federer (whom he has just taken to the Alps) to “the most famous actress in the world” wants to hook up for an adventure. It turns out he is talking about Julia Roberts.
Who would he take to a desert island if he had the choice? “That’s a difficult question. A compadre to work really hard with?” Since he’s already been away with Obama, perhaps he’d like to take Donald Trump? “It would be amazing. Of course. And, there’s no doubting he’s tenacious. Obama liked stepping out of his comfort zone, and that atti tude is good in the wild. He told me it was one of the best days of his presidency. But I don’t know… Donald Trump is a person who likes to be king and the one thing I’ve learnt in the wild is you’re never the king. You’ve got to learn to put the crown down. I’m actually on the same network, NBC, as The Apprentice. But I kind of hope he’s got more important things to do than to go on an adventure with me.”
He pauses then asks: “Can I not take my family? Obviously Shara and the boys would be first, because if your light inside is burning bright, everything is possible.”
Grylls is a man of many parts, like a Boys’ Own hero. He’s a poster-boy for the evangelical Christian Alpha course (he’s loud and proud about his faith), he’s Chief Scout, a former SAS reservist and is now an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines Reserves. But it’s his effect on boys that’s interesting. Since he became Chief Scout in 2009 he has seen numbers boom; he proudly tells me there are more Scouts in Britain than ever before. Indeed, reports last week suggested the Scouts have a waiting list of 51,000 children because of a shortage of volunteer leaders. “Young people in this country get such a hard time,” he says. “You know, the so-called ‘hoodie generation’. But my experience as Chief Scout is that young people are incredible. What they lack is opportunities.”
Young Bear didn’t want for opportunities. The only son of former Tory MP Michael Grylls, he was sent to Eton. “I look back on that time and think it gave me some of my strongest memories and best friends of my life. It was a totally forward-thinking, progressive school and I am always grateful to them.”
Was he academic? “I was never very brilliant at school. Never the sportiest or the cleverest, but the one thing I could control was I could be determined… The SAS was the first time I really proved that to myself, when I passed selection. And ever since I have leant on that feeling, that if I hang on in there I can do it. That’s what helped me through my time on Everest [he climbed it at the age of 23, just months after he had broken his back in a parachute jump] when people were dying up a mountain, it’s helped me through countless expeditions, it’s seen me through endless jungles, deserts and mountains on eight years of Born Survivor. And that’s what I try to instil in people when I take them to The Island.”
The danger is he is so busy instilling these life lessons in other people he isn’t around to pass them on at home. “I try never to be away for more than a couple of weeks at a time. And even if, like in the last month, I’ve been away solidly I try to come back for a weekend. And then if it has to be a long time I get the family out with me. Break a few school rules so maybe the boys are out [of school] for a bit longer than they are meant to be.”
Taking his sons out of school during term-time makes him sound like a rebel. Is he strict? Boys the age of his three are just the sort to spend hours on screens. “There aren’t many manuals as a parent and we try to figure it out in a way that’s balanced and fair. I think, generally, we let our kids spend too much time watching screens. That’s when they’re worst-tempered. Their relationships are worse with each other and everything suffers.”
Do his boys have phones? “Only Jesse. It can be brilliant. I love texting him when I’m away – I love the banter, the emojis. I love all that because we’re using it to communicate and build a great relationship. But it’s about who’s master. My line is, ‘Make sure the phone’s your servant, you’re not its’ – you become that when you can’t do anything without blankly staring into the thing. If we go on a long car journey, I’ll say we must chat for a bit. We’ll never out-think kids, because their imagination is God-given and fresh. Ours, like a muscle, decays. But nothing decays imagination faster than screens.”
Does he think our schools are coming up short when it comes to equipping our children for adult life? “I do, and the people who suffer are the kids. I want my kids to be equipped for life and life is not a sprint to get to the top at 18. It’s a long haul. Life kicks the s*** out of you and it rewards the persistent. Schools have got to empower kids for life, rather than getting to a certain level on a league table. The brain surgeons, the high achievers in life aren’t always the best at school, they are just determined to get there. I bet that brain surgeon is the guy who got Bs and Cs at A-Level.’
Which sounds unlikely, but things have changed since Grylls finished at Eton in the early 90s with an A, two Cs and a D in his A-levels. But as an advert for “bloody-minded- ness” there can be no doubt that he knows what he’s talking about. And if life is a marathon, he’s only halfway there. “I’m 42 years young! I train harder than I ever have before, I get smarter and I’ve learnt to be very mindful of risk. But I don’t want to reach the end of my days in a perfectly preserved body. I want to come in sideways, covered in scars, beaten up and screaming, ‘Yahoo! What a ride!”’
It’s inspirational stuff. No wonder 150,000 people applied to Channel 4 to join him on his island. In fact, I feel I should leave immediately and climb a mountain. Except there isn’t one in London SW11. As I jump back onto shore he apologises for having to wave me off, but he needs to get out the shoe polish because he’s the guest of honour at a Royal Marines regimental dinner. His boots will be spotless, of course. Even if he does have to put them on at the door.
The Island with Bear Grylls returns to Channel 4 on Sunday 23 April
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news