Eden on Channel 4: The social experiment that began with a dream but ended in a nightmare

“It does get quite dark,” series producer Liz Foley says. That is a serious understatement...

144867.dee746f2-96cd-44c7-a413-17ddae6714fa

Launched by Channel 4 amid great fanfare a year ago, the optimistically titled Eden was meant to showcase a model for a new way of living. But for the 23 people dispatched to a stretch of fenced-off shoreline in the Highlands for a year to build their own self-sustaining community, it proved the very opposite of paradise.

Advertisement

Bullying, factionalism, depression and hunger led to the establishment of two separate camps, and an air of rudderless chaos. Accusations were levelled of scrounging or skiving, and gender divides opened up across the community. One local resident recalled seeing participants being treated at a Fort William dentist after eating chicken feed grit, while another suggested contraband cigarettes and junk food had been smuggled in. Eventually, no more than a dozen of the original participants made it to the end of this modern morality tale in March this year. 

Reports circulated that the series had been scrapped, that the discord in camp and poor viewing figures for the opening episodes meant we would never see how Eden imploded. Not so, says series producer Liz Foley. “It was always going to return. It would be completely immoral to allow the contributors to think they were still taking part in something that was no longer happening.”  

The broadcaster’s commissioning editor, Ian Dunkley, says waiting until now to show how the story unfolded – across five nights – allows for greater perspective on the project. And, perhaps, a Lord of the Flies-type narrative that will draw in viewers.

“Eden was a gamble,” he admits. “We genuinely didn’t know what we were going to get, but it’s paid off as fascinating telly that says something about human nature and society. We thought it would be much more about how they interacted with their environment, but they mastered that quite quickly. More interesting was how the characters interacted. The participants went in with a rose-tinted view of how society would evolve when you started from scratch, but things went in a different direction. People reverted to their base instincts.”

Yet even this gradual disintegration doesn’t necessarily represent a failure, as far as Channel 4 is concerned.

“It does get quite dark,” Foley says, “but it’s what happened and it’s interesting – we didn’t manipulate the story, we just filmed events as they unfolded. Whether the society that evolved is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not for me to judge, but there was a community built and some amazing, lifelong friendships made, so as a social experiment it worked. Their emotions were laid bare in there, and I remain inordinately proud of all of them.”   

Below, two contestants recount their experiences…

Anton 42, boatman 

144866.3dbbdf88-66dc-403d-aeff-d11caf3752eb

Not everyone saw the amazing opportunity that it was. I hate negativity, but you get dragged down into it. A lot of the boys – and they were boys, they weren’t men – egged each other on. They didn’t have the maturity to break that downward spiral. 

There were people who knew what they were doing. There were also people who said, “I know how to do this, I saw it on YouTube.” I had to walk away whenever I heard that. It felt very youth-orientated, and my friends in the real world are practical and have life experience. Yoga and ukuleles aren’t my thing. A lot of people were expecting beach parties and living for the moment, but that’s not about community or a social experiment, that’s Love Island or Big Brother.

We were expected to stay in one house, like scout camp, for 12 months, and I struggled with that. In real life, you have your escape routes. I’m a team player, but I can only pretend to be having a whale of a time for so long.

I missed my partner immensely, but put yourself through that pain and it can enrich you. I’m very proud of the person I was in there. Leaving there was calming. No regrets, no pressure, just satisfaction and pride. If you measure success by the number of friends you’ve got at the end then it was crap, but people came together, survived together and produced something fantastic.

Katie 31, artist/forager

144865.b879b170-2c9e-42dc-877c-6b3582a67f8f

I was very naive. I thought, “This is going to be brilliant. We all want to live in nature, sit on the beach and reduce our carbon footprint – what could go wrong?” People fell into one camp or the other: those who had an industrial way of looking at things, and were interested in building and using resources, and those like me who were softer, more hippy-dippy, living as if this was the way we’d live for ever.

Some people come from city backgrounds, others from farming backgrounds, and it showed when it came to how we treated animals and the way that we ate them. 

Gender was another divide. I’ve never had to prove my worth as a woman before, but for the first time I found that the boys thought it was easy for the girls, that we didn’t do as much. But if you’re in a storm, with no roof, in pitch-black darkness and you’ve got your period, girls are bloody tough. 

A lot of people saw strength only as physical. There’s so much more to it – mental strength, the ability to get through hard times on your own – and some people in there didn’t understand that that exists.  

Advertisement

Eden: Paradise Lost is on Monday 7th to Friday 11th August at 10pm on Channel 4