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    “No one expected things to go so wild”: how the debacle of the reality show “Eden” turned into madness

    Participants in Eden Photo: TV footage

    Raphael Meade was not looking for a role in Eden, the Channel 4 series about social experiments and ​​reality. The show, which aired in two parts in 2016 and 2017, sent 23 strangers to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands for a year. The idea was complex but rewarding: to see if a group isolated from civilization could create a self-sufficient community of skilled people – a cook, a plumber, a gardener, a fisherman, a hunter, a boatman, a doctor, a veterinarian, a shepherd, and so on. Eden needed a man with Meade's profession – a carpenter – and he received an unexpected call. “They said, ‘How would you like to go away for a year?’” Mead laughs. “I thought it was a prank.”

    He recalls a video interview during which he was asked what he would do if another member died in Eden. “I wouldn’t bury them, I would eat them,” he said. “I wouldn’t waste meat.” Mead believes this secured his place in Eden. “It was a spontaneous remark, but there was some truth in it.”

    It didn’t come to cannibalism, but Eden went wild. In the introduction to the first episode, narrator Paul McGann asks, “If we could start over, what kind of world would we build? Will it be as divided and politically uncertain as the one we live in today?” The second half of the series, aired the following year, answers this question quite clearly. Indeed, the atmosphere of a serene bohemian utopia gives way to moonshine-fuelled consequences, hungry madness and the transition to the alpha world.

    While the real world was riven by the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump (both of which occurred while Eden was in production), the community became something of a microcosm: a Lord of the Flies-style culture war.

    < p >Eden made headlines with stories of bullying, sexism, scandals and strikes. “Let me tell you what happened there,” Mead says via Zoom. “Misandry, misogyny, racism, sexism, procrastination, bullying… It was all here. It was intense. It was right in your face.”

    Raphael Mead was hired as a carpenter for the group. Photo: Television Stills

    The most scandalous headline still hangs over the series, shaping its reputation in the annals of reality television. Due to plummeting ratings, Eden was reported to have been canceled without the participants' knowledge – as if they had been abandoned in the Scottish Highlands out of the blue. But the Channel 4 team behind the show disputed this account, giving varying explanations for why it was taken off air – and contestants said they were notified of the show's cancellation before they left.

    However, the spirit of Eden continued in Channel 4 survival show Alone, which saw 11 contestants forced to fend for themselves in the Canadian wilderness. Stephen Etherington, Eden's chef, saw it. “I felt like I was watching people present the Duke of Edinburgh Award,” he says.

    Eden returned not only to the roots of civilization, but also to the roots of reality television. Like the original Big Brother, it was promoted as an “experiment”. With the opportunity to obtain basic food products, participants will learn to live off the land, build their own homes, raise livestock and catch meat and fish.

    About 2,000 people applied. “The advert was quite cryptic,” says Katie Tann, an artist and marine conservationist who took part. Wanting to get “off the grid” at the time, Tann was ready for an adventure. “I always think that if you are offered something unusual, go for it.”

    Stephen Etherington – like Raphael Meade – was not looking for Eden. The casting agent came up to him and told him: “I met you in a bar – you were very p…—d and very funny.” Etherington resisted, not wanting to participate in the “Come Dine with Me” casting—opposing personalities gathered together, destined to argue. He says he was given assurances – it was pitched to him as a “reality TV documentary” – and signed a contract with production company Eden Keo Films in the hope of eventually landing a job as a TV chef.

    Eden is located on an area of ​​600 acres on the Ardnamurchan peninsula – the westernmost tip of mainland Britain. It was commendably ambitious – a logistical and technical effort as vast as the landscape. A quarry was dug to build the production village – all trolleys and equipment were delivered by helicopter – and a national network stretched a mile deep into the forest. It was filmed by four local community cameramen – an “embedded team” – plus another 40 cameras scattered around. Each participant also had a personal GoPro camera.

    As detailed in a New Yorker magazine expose, a risk assessment at the site “warned of fire, trench, hypothermia and “people becoming aggressive and acting aggressively due to the stress of life in the wild.” Problems were also growing.” anything there. “Sand was everywhere, and soil had to be specially flown in for the garden, but it still ended up going to waste,” says Mead. The locals knew it would be difficult. William Kelly, who managed the estate, believed that the participants had gone “completely crazy” by signing up.

    The community of 23 people entered Eden in March 2016. “When I walked through the gate, my first thought was, 'What the hell have I gotten myself into?' says Mead. “There were trees and dirt everywhere. It looked like a bomb had exploded. It was ugly.”

    How long did it take before things started going wrong? “After three hours, I knew there was going to be trouble,” Meade says. “We had no shelter, and immediately it started to rain, and then the famine began.” Meade admits he was unprepared. “I have a cold,” he says. The group's boatman, Anton Wright, a rowing instructor and adventurer, was much better prepared. “He explored the area,” Meade says. “He knew where to go, what to do… if the world ended tomorrow, I would pack my bag and go to his house.”

    Eden competition participants set up camp

    Wright initially recommended that the group build shelters in the woods, on the other side of the hill, away from the shore, where they would be exposed to 70 mph winds. Despite protests, Wright began building a shelter on land—the first of several conflicts that would make him an outcast. Mead became friends with Wright (Mead became his best man from then on) and they lived together in a forest retreat called Roughton Towers.

    There were problems in the community: disputes over separation. about the workload and who was doing the work; Arguments over who would do the heavy lifting and who would wash the dishes escalated into a row over sexism when one of the men suggested that men should do men's jobs and women should do women's jobs.

    Hunger was also a problem: livestock were not ready for slaughter; the garden did not bring the expected results; hunter Glenn Moores struggled to find deer; and fishing trips yielded minimal results.

    They were so hungry that some of them put raw sugar in their mouths. Katie Tann and team veterinarian Rob Pattinson started eating chicken feed. “We laughed about it,” she says. They mixed it with milk or lamb colostrum, or made their own version with salt and vinegar. “Every now and then you can detect a little bit of grit,” Tann says. “Eventually we received a letter from the producers saying, 'We insist that you stop eating animal food.' jpg” /> Katie Tann resorted to eating chicken feed

    Strong hunger took its toll. “It caused me to stop getting my period,” Tann says. “And my hair did thin out—it took years for it to grow back properly.”

    Etherington recalls that money, which members described as an expense, also disrupted the group's dynamics. “Everyone had different money,” he says. “Everyone is hungry, wet and in the middle of nowhere, and someone turns around and asks, 'Just out of interest, what are you getting?' Ninety thousand?! What the heck?” This caused a huge controversy.”

    Another problem, according to Meade, was that deserters were allowed to return to the camp. “We were told that if you leave, you can’t come back,” he says. Jasmine Comber, a yoga instructor, tried to leave, but producers persuaded her to stay – and she was allowed to call her father. “She left for about three hours and came back,” Mead says. “It showed us that we have some power and they need us. This set in motion people's thinking: “Wait, we can turn this in our favor.”

    Two others, Tom Wah and Glenn Moore, also left, but Glenn returned. The incident provoked a mass strike by almost the entire camp. The series editor had to persuade them to return over the phone.

    “People left because they were fed, cared for and persuaded,” Meade says. “It was, 'Come on, have a cup of tea.' You can have a beer and go home,” and all that. Those of us still inside thought: “I could use a packet of custard!”

    The first episode aired in July 2016. The series was supposed to be shown seasonally, in four episodes of four episodes each year. But in the first four episodes, ratings dropped from 1.7 million to 800,000. By September, it was reported that the contestants had fled from hunger, disappointment and bullying. Tom Wah criticized the show on Twitter: “I left because it wasn't what I was told, what you see on TV is complete rubbish.”

    In October, Eden's social media stopped as rooted to the spot, and the second part of the series was never released. In March 2017, a year after the experiment began, The Telegraph asked if we had ever seen the rest of the Eden footage.

    “What you see on TV is nonsense”: the participants were pushed to the extreme. Photo: Television Stills

    That same month, Variety reported that the contestants, who by then had already left Eden, had just discovered that the show had been taken off the air. In fact, they have known this for a long time. Tann wasn't particularly concerned. “We knew it was a flop and no one was interested,” she says of the first batch of episodes. “If we went on TV, we would do something simple… I wouldn't change my mind if they said it wouldn't be shown on TV at all. It wouldn't have changed my coming there.”

    Mead and Etherington recall that the news came from a passerby. “One of the crew took a gamble,” says Mead. “When he came back, he told us the show was cancelled. If you approach the fence, tourists will pass by. They threw cigarettes. They will give you information.”

    Indeed, Eden was not as isolated as the series suggested. Passers-by left supplies and contraband “parcels” – alcohol, chocolate, cigarettes. “Some people here were well taken care of!” laughs Mead. The discovery of a secret mobile phone caused particular outrage.

    “It became diluted, which compromised its integrity,” Etherington says. “They couldn't show much at Christmas because there were so many big brands in the background! This must have been done for the producers. It's a survival show, but there's a pack of Pringles. This does not mean that we were not hungry for most of this time. When someone throws a bag of Mars Bars, it doesn't last long!

    One of them, Etherington says, organized a trip to the hospital to contact a friend and deliver marijuana. Participants will also slip away. “Another mistake,” says Mead, “is that there were people who lived in the area. They slipped away, went to friends for a cup of tea and came back.”

    Etherington and the group's plumber Andrew “Titch” Whitelock made a daring escape by sea one night. “We had this crappy little rowboat that we rowed for an hour and a half in the pro—– rain,” he says. Eventually they found a house, the door of which was opened by a “terribly posh Englishman.” “We walked up to the dinner table with about 16 people,” Etherington laughs. “We're sitting there with all these prim and fashionable people. I drink Remy Martin XO and smoke a cigar.”

    Was Eden really canceled due to falling ratings? Kelly Webb-Lamb, Channel 4's head of factual entertainment, told the New Yorker that it took so long to return to screens because they wanted to give the contestants a chance to explain their behavior (which they do in talking head interviews filmed later). ). “When we started noticing some of the darker, more uncomfortable things, we felt like it was right to let them come out and be able to reflect and talk about it,” Webb-Lamb said.

    Ian Dunkley, editor of Channel 4 (which also commissioned Alone), offered The Guardian a different explanation. “It was so different from what we imagined,” he said. “We wanted to focus on the strongest stories and characters, and we could only be sure of that after a year. I don’t think anyone expected it to be so wild and dark.”

    'What if you could start over?': the contestants were sent to the remote highlands of Scotland

    But Etherington believes it was because producers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of footage. “I think they were shooting with so many cameras, with so much material, that they were just drowning in it,” he says. “Obviously they didn't meet the schedule.” Meade agrees: “I think they had too much material and didn't know what to do with it. It was not assembled and cut quickly enough. It's just all messed up.”

    In August 2017, the rest of the series finally aired, and the rest of the year was cut down to just five episodes. Now the show has been renamed Eden: Paradise Lost – dark, wild, aggressive, more typical of reality TV.

    As seen in these later episodes, the group voted Wright and Meade out – the result of a drunken confrontation stemming from an argument over their stash of logs. Looking back now, it looks like Wright was pushed toward collapse—a calculated attempt by others to oust him. Wright and Mead responded by burning Roughton Towers to the ground. “They didn’t want us there,” Mead says. “They wanted our house. That's why we burned it.”

    The series takes a particularly dark turn when a faction known as the “Valley Boys” forms, squatting in a wooded area that Mead calls “Bro Town.” Alcohol-fueled and wild, some of their locker room banter descends into sexism and outright homophobia. This paints an ugly portrait of an out-of-control alpha state.

    Because the Valley Boys ate an all-meat diet, livestock slaughter increased. Vet Rob was emotionally drained by all the animal slaughter – much of which he had to do himself – so he escaped through a fence and walked nine miles. He was eventually found by an estate worker. At some point, Tann made a similar escape attempt. “I climbed over the fence,” she says. “I ended up in a production camp… the next morning they brought me back.”

    “Everyone has had those days when they said, “Damn, I want margherita pizza, I want a cold beer, I want it.” now, I'm leaving,” says Etherington.

    Savagery: Participants slaughtered pigs by hand. Photo: television footage

    In the end, only 10 remained. After leaving Eden, they were taken to a nearby castle and presented with a video of the news of the year – Brexit, Trump, affairs. “It was just terrible,” says Tann.

    Etherington remembers seeing Paradise Lost for the first time at a wrap party for the film. “We're gathered around a table – all the Channel 4 executives are there, everyone from [production company] Keo Films and everyone from the show,” he says. According to him, his reaction to watching the first episode was: “What the hell was that?” The documentary-like experiment he was offered gave way to controversial television. “It felt like a betrayal,” says Etherington.

    Etherington estimates that Paradise Lost was “expanded by about 10,000 people” as the focus was on the showdown. “It was something, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But that wasn't the only storyline.” Although he also admits: “Have people gone a little wild? Perhaps people have gone a little wild. But Tann, who encountered the Valley Boys, believes Paradise Lost is a fair reflection of how things happened. “Yes, I think that’s accurate,” she says. “I feel like it captures the mood.”

    Still, not all was savagery in Eden. “We had some good times there, playing volleyball and other games,” Mead said. “Anton was a good storyteller – we had story evenings and poetry evenings.”

    Tann also has fond memories. “One of the most amazing things for me was spending time in nature and seeing the seasons change,” she says. Tann also remembers how, towards the end, when she was living in a small cabin in the forest, animals would come and join her for breakfast. “Like Snow White – if Snow White slowly lost the plot and cursed a lot.” Unfortunately, on the last day the hut burned down.

    But what were the consequences? Etherington says he did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, although he moved to Bali when Paradise Lost aired to get away from the press and social media backlash. Meade readily admits that he suffered from something. “I’m just not right in the head,” he says. “I’ve learned to live with it now… but after about a year and a half I wasn’t quite myself. I fell asleep and dreamed. I actually had some kind of PTSD and couldn't think straight and felt uncomfortable no matter where I was. A little gloomy, but I can't understand it.”

    He's also thinking about the film crew. “They were just as mentally damaged as we were,” Mead says. “Even though they weren’t locked, they were within their boundaries. They were there for months.”

    Eden remains a fascinating piece of television, both for what it says about the people and for the concept itself.

    “If only there had not been there there were certain people,” Meade says, “and some people didn’t leave, it could have been absolute paradise, it really could have been.”

    Alone is available to stream on the Channel. now 4

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