Eden: “a place of great happiness; an unspoilt paradise”. Not, then, a place of shoe-sucking bogs, skin-scouring gales and soul-sapping midges.
This particular isolated spot in the western Highlands of Scotland isn’t a place that many people would choose to live for a week, let alone a year – yet 13 men and ten women have done exactly that for a new Channel 4 reality TV show.
Eden isn’t typical of the genre. There are no fiendish tasks, manufactured discord or scheduled evictions. Instead, the participants have been allowed to take only what they can carry, with the tools of their respective trades and some basic provisions and equipment provided on-site to get them started.
The 600-odd acres of land, ranging from dunes to woodland to marsh, are enclosed by a fence on three sides and the coast on the other: there’s no walking out, however tough conditions may get (although protocols are in place should someone insist on leaving.) Instead, it’s up to them to figure out how they build shelters, feed themselves and run their society for the next 12 months.
Comparisons with 2000’s Castaway, which made a star of Ben Fogle, are inevitable. Yet the BBC’s turn-of-the-millennium series was made when reality television was in its infancy, and its integrity as a pioneering format was diluted by what some participants have since argued was the production’s obsession with conflict, as well as regular interference and assistance from the outside world.
An entirely unmediated documentary series like Eden has been discussed by broadcasters for over a decade, but it took an alignment of technology (the rise of fixed-rig shows such as One Born Every Minute and ever-smaller, more versatile cameras), television tastes (the spectacular decline of Big Brother from social experiment to hysterical grotfest) and national mood (the growth of disenfranchisement and interest in self-sufficient living) to make it possible. And in this post-Brexit age of starting again, such prescience seems brilliantly well-judged or happily fortuitous.
In Eden, the participants have been chosen for their skills (paramedic, builder, botanist, life coach etc) rather than their personalities, although the 23 aren’t lacking in character, and production intervention is kept to a bare minimum: footage is gathered from fixed cameras, four embedded camera crew and the GoPros worn by each participant.
The hope for the producers is not that the community will fall apart but that it will thrive, contrasting sharply to the life-or-death heroics of Bear Grylls’s The Island. Yet this in-built optimism will not, we’re promised, mean humdrum television, even if those anticipating a real-life Lord of the Flies may be disappointed – there’s not a conch shell or pig’s head in sight.
“We’re not short of stories, by any stretch,” explains producer Liz Foley. “They’re interesting people doing an interesting thing in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a human story as much as a practical one: if people watching are asking themselves, ‘Could I do that?’, then that would be amazing.”
Today, they’re already three months into the venture. Foley won’t reveal much about how they’re coping – or indeed if anyone has yet quit – but journalists on a tightly controlled set visit saw evidence of plenty of hard graft, including a camp with animal pens and other rudimentary structures.
“It’s not totally harmonious, but it’s not explosive in a negative sense,” she says. “There are times when they question what they’re doing, but they come together when things get tough. The biggest surprise is what they’re achieving. I’ve been really impressed.”
Eden premieres 9pm Monday on Channel 4