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How adventurer Bear Grylls took American TV, and Barack Obama, by storm

A wildlife spot in Dillingham, Alaska, where Barack Obama touched down as part of a stopover visit intended to highlight the damaging effects of climate change, has been renamed the Bearack Viewing Area in his honour.

The bear in question is of the four-legged variety. But it is another unlikely alliance between Bear and Barack that has more vividly captured the public attention. Obama also used his trip to Alaska to trek through the wilderness and be taught survival techniques by Bear Grylls, the British television presenter and survival expert. The encounter will form part of a new series, Running Wild With Bear Grylls, and will be aired later this year on the NBC network.

It marks an extraordinary coup for Grylls, 41, an Old Etonian father of three, who lives on a remote Welsh island and is known for combining a profound love of risk with a streak of distinctly British eccentricity. A former SAS reservist and the son of a Conservative MP, Grylls is one of the youngest men to climb Mount Everest. He also once circumnavigated the British Isles on a jet-ski and rowed naked in a bathtub along the Thames to raise funds for charity.

All of which means Grylls is not the most likely export to make it big in America, and yet the country has taken him to its collective heart. “We like survival-type shows, whether it’s Batman fighting a villain or Bear fighting nature,” says Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of the TV Media Insights website and a member of the American Television Critics Association. “He’s a young guy, he’s personable, there’s something very appealing about him. Hell, I wish I was him. I don’t want to be myself, sat in an office. I want to be 35, jumping off a cliff! He’s a hero and over here we like heroic tales.”

It is certainly true that Grylls combines derring-do with an easy on-screen personality. He is unafraid to entertain, and “has less in common with Sir David Attenborough than he does with Kim Kardashian”, according to the Washington Post.

NBC has now commissioned three separate programme strands from Grylls, including The Island, a reality show featuring 14 contestants struggling to survive without modern amenities. The first US series of Running Wild With Bear Grylls, which aired last year, routinely attracted four million viewers and featured celebrities including Kate Winslet, Zac Efron and Channing Tatum, attempting to take on the extremes of nature with mixed results. The actor Will Ferrell ate reindeer eyeballs washed down with his own urine when he took part. Tatum backflipped out of a helicopter.

Off-screen, Grylls has quietly been building up a branded personal empire and is now believed to have a net worth of around £6m. The Bear Grylls Survival Academy, which offers a range of courses teaching self-rescue skills to the public, operates in several parts of America, as well as the UK, Australia and Zimbabwe.

A Bear Grylls line of survival tools can be purchased in Walmart and includes the $121 Bear Grylls Ultimate Pro Fixed Blade, which comes with two holes in the handle so that the knife “can be lashed to a stick to create a spear”, and the $55 Bear Grylls Survival Hatchet that has a 3.5in razor-sharp blade “equally adept at limbing saplings as splitting logs”.

For Grylls’s fellow countrymen, his growing popularity on the other side of the Atlantic is a surprise. According to Berman, Grylls is now “a household name” in the States despite fairly average ratings – viewing figures of four million are steady, but hardly exceptional.

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Yet his impact is substantial: it is rumoured that the president’s office made the approach to Grylls, rather than the other way round, as part of a broader strategy for Obama to reach out to potential voters turned off by conventional political debate.

Last Tuesday the two hiked along the Exit Glacier, a south Alaskan river of ice that has shrunk by 1.25 miles in recent decades. There was no extreme skydiving or abseiling. The results, according to the White House press secretary Josh Earnest, promise to be “interesting”.

What lies behind Grylls’s extensive American appeal? Mary McNamara, the Pulitzer-prizewinning television critic for the Los Angeles Times, says that his programmes tap into an ever-present nostalgia for the wild west. “The American ethos is still so rooted in that pioneer spirit, the idea of the frontiersman pushing out to the west, and we’ve become a little anxious that if most of us were dropped in the middle of the wilderness we’d die in five minutes,” she says. “We want to be reassured we haven’t strayed quite so far from our national identity as we fear we have … There is this whole genre geared towards sedentary office workers wanting to know how to survive.”

The British accent doesn’t hurt either. Over recent years, US television viewers have been enthusiastically lapping up UK exports from Downton Abbey toSherlock and Luther. Whereas a British accent used to be the hallmark of a movie villain, these days it is seen as more redolent of class and wit.

“We are in the middle of an anglophile storm,” says McNamara. “It’s like: ‘Say it to us in British, we’ll believe it more!’”

Grylls has been canny, too, in allying himself with other celebrities. “Part of the reason he has them on his show is that they [the celebrities] bring their own fan base, so more people watch,” says Dan Schawbel, a personal branding consultant and author of the New York Times bestseller, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. The celebrities also get a chance to show a more “real” side to themselves, so it becomes a virtuous circle.

“A good comparison is The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Schawbel says. “Fallon makes celebrities do random things like play basketball or lip-sync to music. This really shows different aspects of their personality people would not normally see and that makes them more relevant.”

McNamara agrees this is what makes Grylls’s pairing with Obama so compelling: “It certainly takes Obama out of his personal wheelhouse which is: he’s a wonk, he’s smart and dapper, and if he can’t put a tent up in the wilderness, he’s going to look like an idiot.”

Grylls’s success in America comes at a time of some homegrown criticism. He has attracted controversy in Britain for allegedly taking part in a tax avoidance scheme and staging some scenes in his television programmes. In August, he caused an outcry after posting a photo of his 11-year-old son, Jesse, on Twitter standing on rocks in the middle of the sea without a lifejacket. Grylls later defended his actions, claiming Jesse had been part of a Royal National Lifeboat Institution training exercise and that “all children have a right to adventure”.

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Friends of Grylls say that this love of adventure lies at the heart of who he is. When he was 22, he was almost paralysed in a parachuting accident and spent 12 months in a rehabilitation centre. His response was to fulfil his childhood dream of climbing Everest. An evangelical Christian, Grylls has spoken openly about how his faith is his “backbone” and perhaps it is this that makes him unafraid to take risks – sometimes even life-threatening ones.

Of course, Grylls had to scale down his usual derring-do for the presidential visit. When footage of the exchange airs later this year, the chances are there will be no eyeball-eating or urine-drinking, but instead a sober discussion about climate change. And if Obama has to put a tent up, let’s just hope Michelle has taught him how.


■ Bear Grylls, 41, was educated at Eton; Birkbeck, University of London; and the University of the West of England, Bristol. He is married with three sons.

■ Spent three years in the British Special Forces, before presenting the TV seriesEscape to the Legion and Born Survivor: Bear Grylls. Also fronted The Island with Bear Grylls in 2014, where 13 male Britons were left on an uninhabited Pacific island.

■ He has written 15 books, including an autobiography, Mud, Sweat & Tears.

■ Despite breaking his back in three places after a free-fall parachuting accident in Africa, he went on to be one of the youngest climbers of Everest at 23. He has since led expeditions, from Antarctica to the Arctic, which have raised more than £1.6m for children around the world. In 2009 he became chief scout.


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