Okay, so imagine signing up for a reality show in which you and a bunch of other contestants are to be stranded in the wilderness for a year. It’s essentially a social experiment without the incentive of earning a cash prize. Let’s say you begin the journey, only to find yourself fighting with the others and eating things like chicken feed just to survive. Now, what would you do if, after a year of this journey, you make it out alive only to discover that the very show that put you in this scenario was canceled months prior?
Yeah, you would be more than upset, wouldn’t you? Well, this is exactly what happened to a group of people in the UK in 2016. The British reality show Eden set 23 men and women up in the Scottish Highlands. But once they canceled the show, the participants were largely kept in the dark.
This is the story of reality TV’s wildest disaster.
In the spring of 2016, billboards across Britain started advertising a new show that claimed to remake society altogether. One poster read, “No poverty. No recessions. No bankers’ bonuses,” while another read, “No slavery. No cyber-bullying. No adults on micro-scooters.” The images were of waterfalls tumbling over cliffs at sunrise.
All the billboards asked the same question: “What if we could start again?” This new revolutionary TV show was called Eden, and it was about to air on the edgiest of Britain’s TV channels, Channel 4. They had been looking for something to match Big Brother since 2010, and Eden, with a rumored budget of 15 million pounds, was the next competitor.
The premise: A group of 23 skilled strangers was going to volunteer to live in the wilderness, isolated from the rest of the world, for a full year. There would be no tasks, evictions, or even prizes at the end. The cast members were going to build their own shelters, hunt and grow their food. Meanwhile, a small fixed crew with a rig of remote cameras would be observing every minute of it.
The project was the brainchild of Keo Films, a production company with zero experience making a reality show. “It certainly set out to be a pure experience,” said Ian Dunkley, who helped commission the show. “Genuinely, we did not know how it would pan out.”
Eden’s timing was promising, coming on the brink of the whole Brexit ordeal. On the morning of the Brexit vote, the ads for the reality show filled the newspapers: “No politics. No propaganda. No more not knowing.” And then, in July of 2016, the first episode aired. The narrator asked, “If we could start again, what kind of world would we build?”
Filming began a few months earlier, in March, with the participants trying to figure out how to farm and feed themselves. The program felt transparent, and it wasn’t obvious whether it was a documentary or a show. The cast couldn’t make up their mind, either.
The men and women seemed to be torn over whether they should build a tepee and just throw parties on the beach or dedicate their time to growing kale in the soil. They wound up doing both. The show started featuring the typical sort of drama that most reality shows expose: The chef kissed the yoga teacher, for instance.
The boatman chose to live in a toolshed. And one small group of guys even discussed starving the weaker members out of the group. Despite the developing drama between the participants, and the potential the show had, it went downhill fast. One participant, a Canadian life coach, named Tara Zieleman, gave up, complaining of being bullied.
During the first four episodes, viewer ratings went from two million to nearly half of that. Then, the show went off the air. The plan was to broadcast four mini-seasons, documenting the wild community’s progress over the year. But Eden never returned to the screen. By October, its Twitter and Instagram feeds dried up. However, the makers of Eden persevered, and the experiment went on. But stories started to spread about the production.
The press was reporting that Eden was keeping its chaos hidden from the world. Rumors spread that the location (in the Scottish Highlands) was full of insect swarms and unexploded bombs and that the participants had broken out and were seen roaming the countryside. But no one knew the truth, not yet at least.
After filming finished, seven months after the show was last seen on TV, NPR’s Morning Edition asked, “If a person lives in the forest and is not on TV, does she make a sound?” Eden and its participants were the news in Europe, in the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, and Slovakia. They were dubbing it “the forgotten of Eden.”
Eden was located on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, an area once occupied for military training during the Second World War. The northern coastline was used for live-fire trials of the D-Day landings. Sam Knight, a writer at The New Yorker, visited the Eden spot five months after they finished filming, and noted that it looked as though it was the scene of a “small but tidy war.”
He saw a shipping container and the outlines of eight small sectional buildings, where a small crew spent the year collecting video and audio footage from the other side of a six-foot-high wooden fence. The fence is what sealed the six-hundred-acre area of Eden on two sides. The rest of the area faced toward the open sea.
As estate workers and TV executives worked out the logistics of Eden, pre-shooting, veteran workers from other reality shoots were struck by the extreme conditions of the area. “We sat round the table going, ‘This could either be great, or it is going to be Lord of the Flies?’” said Mick Bass, the man who ran the installation of the camera rig.
In 2015, a risk assessment was conducted for the show, which warned of the dangers of fire, hypothermia, trench foot, and people “becoming aggressive and acting violent due to the stresses of living wild.” The ground at the site was also too poor to grow crops, so they had a helicopter fly in a hundred tons of topsoil.
Remember, this was supposed to be “Eden” after all – a place for people to build a community all on their own. The reality, however, was not conducive to such a hopeful idea. A location scout and manager of the Ardnamurchan Estate named William Kelly thought these participants “were fully mental.” He said, “We couldn’t believe anyone would be f***ing stupid enough to volunteer.”
Eden was set up with 46 cameras, power lines, and 22 kilometres of fibre-optic cable. Sam Knight, the writer, scoping out the scene, found sheep skeletons and old fire pits. When he stumbled upon a woman walking her dog, he asked her if she knew what the area they were standing in was for. “Aye,” she said. “That reality show.” Then she asked him, “Are they still in there?”
About 2,000 people applied to join Eden. The producers had placed ads on military forums, Christian environmentalist websites, and Facebook pages tailored to doctors who volunteered overseas. The pitch was: “Do you want to start a new life?” The show was looking for those with “an enthusiasm to not only survive but thrive in an area rich in natural resources but very little else.”
Glenn Moores, a 27-year-old I.T. contractor, turned deer hunter, emailed Keo Films, not expecting to hear anything, but they called him back within 15 minutes. “We put them together based on skill,” Liz Foley, the show’s editor, explained. Robert Pattinson, a veterinarian, signed up six days before the shoot began.
By late March 2016, the 23 cast members were taken one-by-one to hotels in the Scottish Highlands and checked in under fake names. They were only allowed to bring one large backpack and their “tools of the trade.” On the morning of March 23rd, they all went through Eden’s gates, equipped with microphones, GoPro cameras, and G.P.S. packs to monitor their heart rates and locate them if they got lost.
Moores taped 12 bottles of whiskey to his pack, while another volunteer, Robert Jackson, forgot to bring waterproof boots. It rained badly the first night, and the men and women, who barely knew each other, had to sleep huddled together under tarps.
When the producers were preparing the site, they left the initial supplies there — rations for 100 days, seeds and plants to grow, and the toolshed. After a few days, the group opted to set up camp there. The production team, watching the footage from the outside, was happy to see what they were witnessing. Foley thought to herself, “Look at what they are achieving. This is going to work.”
The group really did show potential: There were doctors, paramedics, a carpenter, an army captain, a shepherdess, and a fisherman. Anton Wright, the boatman, had rowed the length of the Amazon. While Jackson felt lucky to be among these skilled individuals, others were more skeptical. Andrew “Titch” Whitelock, a plumber who taught survival courses, noted the few supplies they brought with them.
It started to become obvious that everyone, the participants, and the crew, was unprepared for what they were going to go through. It also became quickly apparent that the participants had different attitudes about being on TV. Wright, who had once applied to be on Big Brother, was nothing like Josie Hall, a fair-trade supermarket worker who didn’t even own a TV.
The camera-shy volunteers looked for places in Eden to disappear for a bit and take off their microphones. But the loudspeaker system placed in the trees, known to them as the “Voice of God,” told them to put their mics back on again. On day six, Hall wrote in her diary: “I’m trying to believe in this community, and to trust in Keo…”
“But did they really choose people to make this work? … TV is weird. I don’t know if I can get past that.” Things were getting increasingly difficult. The group’s gardener, Rachel Butterworth, lost weeks of the planting season just preparing the soil, and Pattinson, the veterinarian, wasn’t able to gather the sheep.
Moores, the deer hunter, realized there would be nothing to shoot until July. Eventually, the group decided to make do by using their initial rations over the entire 12-month period, leaving the task up to the army captain. “People kind of panicked,” Pattinson recalled.
The first months in Eden were marked by hunger. Still, there were moments when it seemed like the experiment was actually working, like when the mackerel (a type of fish) came in. But, when you find yourself surviving on measly bowls of potatoes or barley, the breaks start to appear between those who feel they’re contributing to the community and those who feel dominated. It was only natural for a hierarchy to form based on physical strength.
Group meetings were not going well. “You could see that some people were yearning to take control of things,” Jackson said. Hall, who even wrote a book about communal living, asked each member to write down their vision for the community. Titch, the plumber, said he heard a lot of “hippie-dippie stuff.”
There were very few residents of Ardnamurchan who knew what was going on behind the fence. David John Cameron, whose family had lived there for hundreds of years, took on the role of a production assistant. His job was to mail hard copies of the footage to London. “It drove me insane, watching 12 of them have a meeting about how to dig a furrow,” he said. “Just get on and dig it. You can see the clouds coming. Get on with it.”
Back in London, the producers at Channel 4 were watching it all go down. “I don’t think we realized until early summer quite how dark it was going to get,” Dunkley stated. They watched as Titch suggested in a group meeting that the men should do “manly” jobs, like fishing, whereas the women should do “womanly” jobs, like doing the dishes.
The chore system fell apart, and the initial split in the community was now firmly established. Ali Blatcher, one of the doctors, was reading the famed book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. She read a passage about how 100,000 years ago, men would control access to food and tools in hunter-gatherer communities. “I was seeing that play out right in front of my eyes,” she said.
The group’s cook, Stephen Etherington, was the type who wanted his own TV show. He skipped most of the group meetings and rolled his eyes at most of their behavior. While he said that “People took themselves pretty f***ing seriously,” he himself would make one of the crew members film his knife work and detail the recipe of the day.
Back in the production room, some of the team found his cooking-show reel pretty hilarious. As for the volunteers’ interactions with the production team, they were allowed to leave notes with their mic packs, which were recharged every day. But when they asked for more supplies, they were rejected. After all, Eden was supposed to be a self-reliant environment.
The production wanted them to all play by the rules, but every group has its rebels. Eden’s fence ran next to a public footpath, and some volunteers would go up and chat with those walking past and ask them for snacks. Rumors went around about chocolate and cigarette drop-offs. When Zieleman, the Canadian life coach, walked out of the pact prematurely in late May, it was apparently due to cheating.
According to her, “it killed the integrity of the whole thing.” The group’s yoga teacher and one of the youngest of the bunch, Jasmine Comber, tried to leave twice in June, but the producers convinced her to stick around. She was the one who was seen making out with the chef.
By early July, a few weeks before Eden was set to air, five people had already left. On July 7th, deer hunter Moores and an outdoorsman named Tom Wah chose to walk off as well. Their reasons? Wah didn’t get the kayak he thought he would have and was missing his girlfriend, and Moores had lost 60 pounds and was fed up.
Once they arrived back at the crew’s headquarters, they ate pie and drank beer. Moores ended up being cajoled into go back in on the basis that the community needed him for their winter meat supply. That afternoon, Moores returned to Eden. When the community saw him, some were pretty angry. It was clear now that even the production was breaking the rules.
The atmosphere started to change. They covered cameras and took off their microphones. They stood together and swore to escape and drink in the closest pub, which was about 60 miles away. 15 of the 17 remaining participants joined in the protest. The other two were in the hospital with a broken finger and whittling oars instead.
And so, the 15 of them made it about three miles until a crew member handed them a cell phone: Foley was calling from London. She warned the protestors that they were about to ruin the entire program. “This is not what you want to do,” she told them. The group, who just minutes before were ready to escape to a pub, turned back, and the gate closed behind them.
10 days later, the first episode of Eden aired on TV. However, the fundamental dynamic of Eden had changed. “If it was a train, it was on a junction,” Cameron said. “It didn’t keep going the way it was envisioned from that point on.” Cast members now demanded that those who choose to leavecouldn’t be readmitted without a community vote.
They asked for more supplies and were, this time, granted their wishes. They were given cement, a chimney flue, and 25 kilograms of sugar and yeast. The group was making booze, which they flavored with nettles and pinecones. But now, with the fast-acting yeast, they could make a forty-proof moonshine in a couple of days.
Butterworth, the gardener who worked in food education, was worried about how Eden would be televised. “People were spooning white sugar into their mouths because we were starving,” she stated. She lost motivation and the garden soon became full of weeds. By August, she felt as though she was having a breakdown.
She started to believe that she was stuck there forever and that if she tried to leave the police would catch her and take her back. That is how ill we all got in there,” she recalled. On August 16th, she climbed the fence and walked away.
As the weeks passed, Eden grew increasingly lawless. Wright, the boatman, claimed it was the “most horrific thing I have ever lived through.” He took planks from the fence to build furniture, and on one night, broke into the crew’s electrical shed to steal a chair, which he then made into a makeshift toilet seat.
Wright befriended a man who lived in a cottage across the bay, and he would sneak out to get drunk, dodging the production team’s flashlights on his way back. By the fall, most of the volunteers were drinking for most of the day. Naturally, brawls started to break out. Moores started sleeping with a hammer under his pillow.
Eden was divided into two communities: the Valley Boys and everyone else. By October, the group learned that the second edition of Eden had never been broadcast. But they stayed put – for whatever reason – and stuck it out. But boredom was becoming a major factor.
To kill time, Titch and Etherington looked for unexploded shells from World War II. Bomb-disposal squads were sent there a total of seven times. A rumor spread about a cellphone among the group. They soon learned of Brexit and Trump’s election from passersby. Participants would pass notes to one another. One day, Etherington opened his book to learn that Prince had died.
Pattinson, the vet, cracked on December 7th, waiting until dark to jump the fence and run into the woods. He walked nine miles in the rain before finding someone’s holiday cottage. After finding a key under a stone, he walked right in and slept on the floor. “I was so pleased to be free,” he said later on. The following morning, an estate worker saw him hitchhiking and picked him up.
Kelly, the estate manager who thought they were all “mental” from the get go, phoned the production office to say, “We have found one of your escapees.” After Pattinson left, there were only 10 left in Eden. By then, it was winter, which meant it was dark for 16 hours a day.
The remaining participants counted down the last 100 days, and on March 20th, 2017, 12 long and grueling months after they had entered Eden, the last 10 cast members left in pairs. They were filmed by drones as they walked out of Eden. They were taken to the headquarters where they were shown a newsreel of the year they had missed in the real world.
The survivors spent three days there, resting and getting debriefed by a psychologist. There was still no airdate for the rest of the show that never aired. So, in time, the cast slowly entered back into their old lives.
Pattinson went back to working as a vet; Jackson went back to the construction site; Moores returned to I.T. contracting, and those who wanted to be on TV just wondered how they came across in the edit. Etherington, the cook, landed some pilots for cooking shows and met with production companies. Once the British press noticed that the year was over, the story of Eden made its way around the media.
The headlines revolved around how the reality show set in the wilderness was canceled without its participants even knowing. Word went around about the delayed broadcast and about the volunteers’ behavior in the woods. Kelly Webb-Lamb of Channel 4 said they wanted to give the participants a chance to explain themselves.
“When we started to see some of the darker, more uncomfortable things, it felt like the right thing to do to let them come out and be able to reflect and talk about that,” Webb-Lamb said. The participants were later invited to London to be interviewed individually on camera. By July 2017, Channel 4 announced that the final eight months would be broadcast as Eden: Paradise Lost.
Wright watched the show in the back room of a pub in Cambridge, where he lives on a boat. While he was watching himself onscreen, he checked his phone to see how social media was reacting. One viewer tweeted, “I do hope this ends with Anton being flayed alive and eaten while the rest of the team dance around wearing masks made out of his skin.” Ouch.
Pattinson and Katie Tunn, the artist of the bunch, watched the show together. “It is hard to watch because you know that so much happened that they can’t put on,” she said. Etherington flew to Bali to get away from it all. “I just hope that people can use their f***ing brains and work out that it is not exactly how it was,” he said.
Less than 900,000 people tuned in to watch Eden: Paradise Lost, with diminishing numbers throughout the course of the week. Butterworth, the gardener, who had left Eden a year prior, could barely watch it. “They didn’t know what it was like to be in there. It still haunts us. It is not something that just ends as soon as you climb over the fence.”
Looks like a cash prize would have been more worth it.