Cast your minds back to March 23rd, 2016. Obama was still in the White House, Brexit was virtually unimaginable, and ‘I Took A Pill In Ibiza’ was at number one.
Now, imagine that this is your last day in civilisation before being completely cut oﬀ from the rest of the world for twelve months.
That was the premise of Channel 4’s Eden, which ﬁrst aired last August (the ﬁnal episode was broadcast last week). The idea behind the reality show cum social experiment was for 23 people to survive for a whole year on Scotland’s isolated Ardnamurchan peninsula. So far, so Bear Grylls. However, before ﬁlming began, series editor Liz Foley spoke of her wish to see the participants not merely survive, but thrive – ‘to be everymen, everywomen, doing ordinary jobs, rather than a bunch of hippies living in a commune’. This is where Eden’s lesson in realism begins.
The Eden site covered 600 acres of largely infertile land, in a location notorious for its harsh weather conditions – hardly a promising environment. It seems that the series producer, Keo Films, felt the need to make up for their choice of such an inhospitable site by supplying 100 days worth of basic rations, various construction materials, livestock, seeds and specialist ﬁshing and hunting equipment. In the very ﬁrst episode, a civilian boat arrived on the peninsula’s shore with a care package, and all participants were allowed to bring in items such as cigarettes, chocolate and alcohol from home. From the outset, then, the participants weren’t quite as removed from the modern world as viewers might have expected.
Perhaps the problem is that Channel 4 wanted to achieve too much. Their adverts heavily featured the tagline ‘What if we could start again?’, plugging the hope that these 23 people, who have been conditioned all their lives to stick to certain social standards and patterns of thought, could really escape all that and fashion a functioning community. I’m not saying that the producers never expected (or hoped for) some friction or drama between the group. It may be that from the very beginning they were eagerly awaiting footage of modern Brits turning feral in the woods. But it seems much more likely that the average viewer had hope of 23 people creating some semblance of a fair and balanced society. If so, neither will be satisﬁed by the show’s ﬁnal outcome: Eden didn’t descend into total chaos, but nor did it form a community in which most people would be proud to live.
All this is reﬂected in the style of the show’s ﬁlming. All footage was produced either by the participants themselves on GoPros, or by the many cameras rigged up throughout the site. Originally, Eden was to be broadcast documentary-style all year, but due to low viewings the show was withdrawn after only four episodes, before being resuscitated a year later for a week’s worth of reality-style TV (presumably to avoid the wrath of the unknowing participants, and also in the wake of Love Island’s unprecedented success). But even a voiceover by Iain Stirling wouldn’t have managed to rescue Eden from the disaster it had become. When the show returned in August, all was not as it had once been. Ominously retitled as Eden: Paradise Lost, and with participants leaving the site one after another, the show now seemed to be aiming to document the community’s regression into savagery. And while nobody began worshipping a pig’s skull, it’s true that the behaviour of some members of the group was far worse than the state of hippiedom which Foley had originally feared.
The island, described by participant and army ofﬁcer Jack Campbell as a ‘turbo pressure-cooker’, allowed issues between group members to fester, and also removed the standards of behaviour which people had been used to. One of the most disquieting examples was a caveman-themed birthday party fuelled by home-brewed alcohol and smoking ﬂares, resulting in physical violence, sexist lewdness and a general disregard for modern social customs.
Hunger, depression, raised tensions between members of the community and the departure of several participants allegedly caused order to collapse, with groups splintering off to form their own sub-communities.
One such group which attracted a lot of attention on social media was the so-called ‘Valley Boys’, ﬁve alpha-male types determined to live on an isolated part of the island, surviving on a meat-only diet and slaughtering a huge amount of deer and livestock to support this. Other participants and viewers alike were shocked by what seemed like a total regression to unsettlingly patriarchal, sexist and homophobic behaviour.
It disgusts, infuriates and terrifies me to think that human beings can become so vile as the men on Eden Paradise lost #edenparadiselost
— M. (@_MIXIV_) August 10, 2017
The theme of people turning feral when isolated from society is not an uncommon one. It pervades dystopian ﬁction and ﬁlm, and hit most of us during GCSE English Literature. But perhaps it is because of this that we didn’t expect it to happen in Eden – since such behaviour is usually relegated to Aldous Huxley novels.
Yet Eden has shown us that it becomes very possible – even probable – when people are driven to breaking point. Interviews with Katie Tunn, one of only three women to remain on the show until the very end, reveal her shock at the Valley Boys’ behaviour and paint a worrying picture of the experiment’s outcome. Tunn views her experiences as damaging rather than beneﬁcial, as they ‘brought out the worst in people’ and revealed just how much social conditioning is responsible for human behaviour.
Lessons can be learned from Eden. Firstly, that there was an unrealistic and idealistic hope that the group would create some sort of society which would uphold the best of human values without including the worst of human prejudices. In short, we expected too much. Secondly, though our society is far from perfect, that we should value the relative human respect and progress which we have achieved – given the right circumstances, it can vanish all too quickly.
Words by Annabelle Fuller.