It took a long time to get “Love Island” right. The first series, made about 6,000 years ago, had only two contestants. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight that sounds like a rookie error, but it was a huge improvement over the pilot. That featured a lonely single man, wandering aimlessly round Paradise under the watchful eye of the show’s creator. It’s amazing that anyone saw the nugget of a good idea in there at all.
So the two-person version was a mammoth improvement. Original contestant Adam came back to be paired off with newcomer Eve. They were, quite literally, made for each other, but personality-wise, they were bubble heads at best. Whereas viewers of the fourth series of “Love Island” in 2018 kicked up a fuss when Hayley asked “What’s Brexit?”, Adam and Eve knew quite literally nothing. On the other hand, they were hot, and that’s all anyone really cared about. As celeb columnist John Milton put it in “Paradise Lost” (1674), they were “the loveliest pair / That ever since in loves embraces met”. Adam had a “fair large front and eye sublime”, and his hair was a perfect mass of “hyacinthine locks; Eve had “golden tresses”, worn bed-head style “in wanton ringlets” all the way “down to the slender waist”. There was no pandering to pre-watershed sensibilities about nudity either: it was like they didn’t even know what clothes were. But then it was, I suppose, a more innocent time.
As we all know, that series ended with both contestants getting kicked off the show for rule-breaking. Yes, they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but the real problem was that Adam and Eve broke the cardinal rule of reality TV: they tried to hide from the viewers. As soon as they did, they were out on their ears faster than you can say “Angel with a flaming sword”. Life in the public eye gave Adam and Eve all sorts of problems: they endured labour and pain, and family strife worthy of the Jeremy Kyle show when their sons, Cain, went down for murdering his own brother.
Cut to 2019, and “Love Island” series five (depending how you count it, obviously) is in full swing. Though there have been some big changes, the bare bones of the format are still the same: hot people, mostly with a certain blank-slateness to them, looking for love under omnipresent surveillance and the continuous threat of exile. Callum got dumped on day five, for the sin of being a too old, at 28, and for not having enough “chat”. He was joined on day nine by Sherif, who was kicked off for no less a crime than publicly kicking Molly-Mae in the privates. As for everyone else, as of week three, it’s still all to play for.
To its detractors, “Love Island” symbolises all that is bad and addictive about reality TV. But it is so popular in part because it invokes a mythical archetype of the island that is almost as old as human culture itself: a place, cut off from the outside world, in which society shows up in miniature, as if beginning again, in ways that put human nature under the microscope for all to see. For, though Eden is not an island, insularity and isolation are the true meaning of Paradise. Four-thousand years old, the word itself is proto-Iranian for a walled garden: parādaiĵah. There, as in the “Love Island” villa, what matters is cutting the participants off from everything else, seeing if malign influences can make their way in, or, if they cannot, how humans will act when left to their own devices away from normal life.
Needless to say, the Paradise myth – which most likely found its final Biblical form some time in the seventh or sixth century BC – holds a privileged place in the Western imagination. But it was Plato who helped morph it into its island form, under the name of Atlantis. Writing in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Plato mentioned it in several of his dialogues as a “great and marvellous power” with a vast empire, countered only by the more perfect society to be found in Athens. Once defeated by the Athenians, the Atlanteans retreated to their island, only for it to be sunk in a single day by the gods. It was by no means the ideal society in Plato’s view, but its afterlife saw it become the template for a rash of fables about islands where man might flourish in all his perfection.
In the 16th century, Atlantis returned thanks to philosopher and statesman Thomas More, who invented a new name for it, “Utopia”: a pun on the Ancient Greek for both “No-place” (oú topos) and “Good place” (eutopos). Published in 1516, More’s fable told the story of an island kingdom that had deliberately divided itself from the mainland in order to protect its perfect society. With a rigidly maintained population, it is a place without private property of any kind, in which everyone, women included, must learn a trade and grow crops. In contrast to the bling and bikinis of “Love Island”, gold is so disdained in Utopia that it is used for chamber pots and prisoners’ chains; people wear the same simple clothes, shun riches and live, essentially, perfect lives. It is a regime that – as long as you are not one of the slaves – ensures an existence without want or inequality.
Few books have been more influential. The legacy of “Utopia” can be traced in almost every island narrative since, from the slew of 16th- and 17th-century books, like Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis”, that followed on its heels, right up to modern sci-fi and fantasy. But there is, of course, a darkness at its heart. Perfection comes at a price. Just as in “Love Island”, and in Eden before it, everyone in Utopia is under observation all the time, “in the present sight and under the eyes of every man”, so that there can be no “occasion of vice or wickedness, no lurking corners, no places of wicked councils or unlawful assemblies”. More does not mention if, as on “Love Island”, masturbation is forbidden, but you can bet that if Utopia had swimming pools they would be as strictly time-limited as those on “Love Island”, lest anyone have a truly private conversation. As in all the darker visions of perfected society that have followed in its wake, “Utopia” has dystopia at its heart.
Look closely, and you can see the same dynamic in what may be “Love Island”’s truest ancestor: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The story of Duke Prospero of Milan who winds up cast away on a desert island with his baby daughter Miranda, having been usurped by his conniving brother Antonio, “The Tempest” shows a micro-dictatorship in action. It is one, though, in which all surveillance and manipulation is directed towards one goal: coupling up. Having engineered the shipwreck of Antonio, Alonso the King of Naples, and Alonso’s son Ferdinand on the island, Prospero does everything he can to ensure Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love – ensuring his triumphant return to Milan – even as he ups the drama in ways every bit as calculated as “Love Island”’s challenges, pretending to thwart the match by any means. Never out of sight of Prospero or Ariel, Ferdinand and Miranda, like our modern contestants, have almost no option but to become the happy couple.
In the centuries after “The Tempest”, island literature came to be dominated by a curiously loveless model: Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”. Published in 1719, “Crusoe”, more than any book before or since, helped cement the island as a special focus for the human imagination, but it did so entirely without romance. Central to Robinson’s story was not love, but the quest to recreate society for himself from the wreckage of his ship. Crusoe succeeds, and even finds companionship in the form of “Friday”, a prisoner rescued from cannibals and named after the day of his salvation.
But where do you go from there? Though Robinson swiftly acquired mythic status, his island was never a love island – at least not until other writers came along to recast it. Crusoe’s island crops up again and again in books and TV, from “Swiss Family Robinson” by Johan Wyss (1812) through to “Gilligan’s Island” and, of course, “Lost”. My personal favourite is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos”, published in 1985. In the wake of a global financial crisis and a virus that has led to widespread sterilisation, Vonnegut’s castaways, marooned on the Galapagos islands, become the only human beings left anywhere on Earth. It takes them a million years of breeding, but at the end of it they have made what seems to a pretty good world. Evolved for marine life, they have become furry, streamlined and tranquilly brainless, content to sun themselves on the beach and catch fish. Without war, poverty and all the social vices that go with them, it is certainly one vision of utopia.
I will leave it to you to imagine which version of the island myth the current “Love Island” contestants would live out if they really were marooned on an island. As for a million years of evolution, who knows where the current crop of tip-top physical specimens could take us. With scientist Yewande in the mix (series five’s answer to Dr Alex), it would be unfair to call the contestants brainless, but after the revelation that Anton’s mum shaves his bum for him, it seems they’re already furrier than you might think.