Lord of the Flies?
How reality show Eden took a turn to the dark side
IT was the reality television programme billed as the chance to follow over a year a thriving off-grid, on-camera community in a remote corner of Scotland. But it became “dark and feral” – and unknown to the participants this modern-day version of Lord Of The Flies was pulled from screens after only four episodes. Now Eden is back for five more episodes – the edited best and worst of the year-long filming – which will tell the story of how 23 contestants became 10 when the experiment on the private Ardnamurchan Estate in the western Highlands descended into a mess of bullying, misogyny and fistfights.
When Eden began in March 2016, the men and women went to the wooded, coastal site with high hopes. They had been given a starter kit of staple foods to last the first 100 days while their livestock grew and they cultivated a kitchen garden.
The estate is owned by Donald Houston, the largest contributor to the Better Together campaign, who gave £600,000 in support of the Union. He also owns the Adelphi distillery, the westernmost in the UK.
A risk assessment submitted to Highland Council by the producers – seen by the Sunday Herald – said the “plan” was to cut off the “specially selected volunteers” with a two-metre-high fence “to see how they might create a thriving community living off the land”.
The aim was to “build a new, self-sufficient society over the period of one year”, according to the 20-page document which was rubber-stamped by the local authority shortly before 45 fixed-rig cameras began filming the contestants.
Keo North Films, which made the programme for Channel 4, was not blind to the dangers. Its risk assessment noted a number of potential problems including illness, injury, animal attacks, fires and food poisoning. But it placed its trust in two junior doctors and a paramedic who were among the participants in the series.
The risk assessment said: “At least one person in the community will be a doctor with experience in dealing with accident and emergency situations” who would “diagnose” any illnesses or injuries. But there were fears that vital treatment could be “delayed” due to the remote location. The document also warned of an “added risk of persons becoming aggressive and acting violently due to stresses of living wild”.
The first episodes, screened last summer, showed a woman leaving and a split in the remaining group, with one participant also choosing to isolate himself in a makeshift shelter away from the main camp. Soon after, the two doctors and the paramedic departed.
Ratings fell from 1.7 million to 800,000 over four episodes and suddenly Eden was no longer on our screens – but the experiment continued. So when the remaining 10 participants emerged in March this year they found out that no-one had watched their progress.
The show was costly, too, for the production company. Keo North – a subsidiary of Keo Films, one of whose directors is the TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – lost £1.7 million over the year.
It is not known how much Eden cost the company or how much Channel 4 paid in commission, but according to the company’s latest accounts, the “loss has been exacerbated by a loss made on a significant single production”.
Channel 4 commissioning editor Ian Dunkley said: “It became so different to what we imagined. We wanted to focus on the strongest stories and characters and we could only be sure of that once the year had played out. I don’t think anyone expected it to go as feral and dark as it did.”
Women were picked on for their perceived physical weakness. Some started started shaving their heads. Some saw their periods stop due to starvation. Former contestant Caroline, a shepherdess from Hawick, said: “If you want Lord Of The Flies, honestly, watch.”
Series producer Liz Foley insists they would have stepped in “if someone had been in mortal danger or was desperately traumatised” but she admitted “it went quite dark”.
She said: “As humans, when we cut ourselves off from our structures and our norms of society, it enables other sides of our personalities that we often keep hidden to come to the fore.
“They had to negotiate how they survived in that environment, and people came to it with different ideas and desires, sorting those out pushed them to places in their psyche they weren’t expecting. It was a shock.”
As more participants fled the camp to return to the comforts of the real world Foley was forced to warn that if they all left the project would be finished. “It was a terrifying moment that underlined the fragility of our relationship with them,” she said. “They had the power.”
But the guinea pigs who remained in the confines of the fenced-off 6,000-acre woodland were participating under the assumption that their every move was broadcast on national television, perhaps hoping for fame afforded to the likes of the winners of Big Brother or The X Factor.
Despite the blackout, Foley insists the project – which returns to our screens tomorrow night – is a success because “people got to the end … they had moments of absolute glory and beauty”.
She added: “All communities have fractures. We used to put people in the stocks and throw tomatoes at them. They didn’t go that far.”
Eden: Paradise Lost starts on August 7 at 10pm on Channel 4.
The reality TV show became ‘dark and feral’ and was pulled by Channel 4 – but now it’s back