Lord of the Flies?

How re­al­ity show Eden took a turn to the dark side

Sunday Herald - - NEWS - BY PETER SWINDON

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

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