Love Island is back and at the luxury villa in the South African sun, it’s business as usual with the beautiful young sexy singles laughing and lounging in swimwear around the pool or firepit. discussing dating and dumping, star signs and tattoos, in a bid to find love, a career or just have a fun time in the sun. It’s pure escapism and a break from strikes, the cost of living crisis, Covid and everything else that puts our gas at a peep - did I mention the energy crisis? No wonder the ninth series is repeating the stellar ratings of previous seasons, especially among a younger demographic with record-breaking figures making Love Island the most-watched series ever on ITV Hub and the biggest 16-34s audience on any channel last year. Already in the first seven days of the current Love Island, ITVX enjoyed 65 million streams across all content, more than double compared to the same period last year and 1.2 million 16-34 year olds watched the show.
The glamour is a stark contrast to a spare bedroom in London, where dirty washing and golf clubs jostle for position alongside narrator Iain Stirling’s ‘studio’ set up - computer, headphones and mic as he links up with co-writer Mark Busk-Cowley in South Africa to watch footage and record the commentary for each night’s show.
“Welcome to the Love Island studios,” he jokes. “I have a little soundproof thing over there, these headphones, a slightly bigger mic - this is pretty much it. I want to watch it as a viewer which I am, especially now that all the people I work with are in South Africa and I’m sat in the em… office, studio, box room, spare room, what is it…?
He tries again.
“This is my office stroke podcasting room stroke Christmas present dump stroke whatever you want to call it. Spare room… it’s a spare room with a computer in it,” he says.
Clearly the feet-on-the-ground Stirling hasn’t got used to calling this workspace in the home he shares with wife, broadcaster and former Love Island host Laura Whitmore and their young child, a ‘studio’ yet.
“It’s because me and my wife call it ‘the man cave’, many things, but we’ve never called it ‘The Studio’. And it’s that thing as well, speaking with me and you, you get the irony of ‘a studio’, whereas I hate the idea of someone reading this and going ‘Oh he’s got a STUDIO in his house’. You can see in their head what they picture, and they don’t see the dirty washing and the golf clubs just lying against a wall.”
But isn’t he tempted to go to South Africa and catch up on some rays while the rest of us wait out the winter crouching on our sofas watching flickering screens in the dark?
Nope, 34-year Stirling is very happy where he is, with Whitmore who quit as the show’s host last year to concentrate on other projects, and their baby, born in 2021.
“Outside of Covid I’ve always gone. But why? After lockdown it became very apparent that microphones exist in London as well as Spain and South Africa so it was always on the cards, and then with my family situation, it felt like the right thing to do. I think it is in a very minor way beneficial for me to be there but I don’t think that justifies expensive flights and time away from the family and stuff for two months.”
Perhaps it’s the distance between Stirling and the Islanders, now emphasised by the dichotomy between the villa and his ‘studio/box room’, that gives his commentary that edge as he skewers them. That he comes across as warm and funny without ever tipping over into snide or cruel, is possibly because he’s very happy with his lot.
After growing up in Edinburgh, where his parents still live, Stirling left Liberton High School to study law at Edinburgh University but with his sideline in standup taking off he moved into presenting children’s TV and became the narrator on Love Island when ITV launched the hit show in 2015.
Stirling remains enthusiastic about Love Island and happy to hypothesise on why it’s more popular than ever.
“I think it’s because we’ve all got a fascination with love and romance. All of TV has a love story at the heart of it somewhere. Love Island has eliminated all the other elements and just focused exclusively on the one that people find fascinating.
“Also the team that work on it are incredible and it looks so good when you consider it’s a reality TV show, an hour long, turned over in under 24 hours, six days a week, for two months. It’s in a beautiful environment with beautiful young people so I think it’s just nice to look at, a bit of escapism.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Love Island, but ask fans who are slap bang in the audience demographic, like I did with my 20-year-old daughter, and they’ll say yes, they do watch it for the bikinis and beauty, as well as the laughs provided by Stirling and “the drama”, ie the tensions and rivalries as the singles try to couple up to stay in the game, and because everyone likes a love story.
“I think it’s like all popular television,” says Stirling. “There’s lots you can take from it. Caitlyn Moran wrote an interesting tweet thread about how she loved watching it with her daughters because it taught them the sort of behaviour that’s not acceptable in a relationship and how someone should treat you and why you should be upfront and honest. I think there are lots of life lessons you could take from it.”
“A streamer friend of mine said it’s pizza. There’s a little bit of guilt, you know you shouldn’t every day, you need some broccoli, some glasses of water and some rice and chicken every now and again, but there’s nothing wrong with pizza. Love Island is pizza. You know what you’re getting, you know you’re gonna enjoy it, yes you can have too much, but it’s solid and it’s nice. Who doesn’t like pizza?”
One of the consistencies of Love Island, wherever the setting and whoever fills the bikinis and boxers, has been the voice of Stirling. Has he ever been tempted to put on a different accent or change how he does it?
“As the series goes on you are looking for new angles and I would like the idea of having a character that I play, like maybe I could play my mum and what she would say about the contestants.”
Or what about mixing up the age range and having some older contestants?
“I think it would be a really nice way to mix Love Island up to have spin-off series with different demographics. Maybe it’s time to bring in something with a bit more grit. I want to see people with baggage going in there and offloading it,” he laughs.
But wouldn’t older contestants have to wear more clothes as Love Island has set a high bar in aesthetics?
“Absolutely not. Less clothing, that’s what I think. Over 40s Love Island.”
Isn’t there a risk of frightening away the audience?
“I think you’d be surprised,” he says and laughs.
So are people going onto Love Island to find love, or are they doing it to launch a career?
“I think they’re going on for tonnes of reasons. People are going on Love Island to further a career or start a career because they can get exposure but I think it’s come full circle. Let’s say 35 people go on a year and about four will have successful careers in something like influencing.
“So I think they go on for a summer in the sun, to be on the telly for their mates and to find love as well. Love’s a really powerful emotion so even if you’re going on for other reasons, you’ve got to be coupled up to stay and if your partner chooses someone else, that’s a very humanising experience and you watch the person go on a journey.
“Put a bunch of young attractive people in a villa, they’re going to get feelings for each other. You’d need to be an android to sit watching a 23-year-old semi-professional rugby player doing barbell lifts and not think ‘aw he’s a bit of meat’. Love will always get into it, or feelings, no matter how cynical the person’s reasons for going on. There’s always an element of they’re single, I’m single, why not?”
What’s different about season nine is the Islanders’ social media accounts are unused while they’re in the villa, rather than having someone posting for them.
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant,” says Stirling. “If you had a family member on a reality TV show and had access to everybody’s thoughts about them, it’s just not a healthy thing.
How does Stirling handle his own social media, being someone with a high profile?
“I’ve got public profiles but I feel it’s very healthy to have a space between your public and private life. It’s difficult, being a comedian, because you draw on what happens in your real life but I do think there are certain elements, for example, I’ve got a child and I don’t particularly like talking about them because they’re not old enough to decide if they want their information out there. When they’re old enough they can make that decision.”
Stirling stresses that although he’s a parent, he isn’t didactic and every day wonders if he’s doing it right, but what kind of parent does he want to be?
“I think I want to be approachable. I want them to be able to talk to me about anything and not be scared to. I want to create an environment where they can totally be themselves and say how they feel. But in 15 years time everyone will be so progressive I don’t know how things will evolve. Hopefully I won’t become an old stick in the mud, I’ll still be a little champagne liberal having a nice time.”
As well as Love Island Stirling is planning another stand up tour and has a new series of his very loosely autobiographical sitcom BUFFERING, co-written with Steve Bugeja, launching this week on ITV2 and ITVX. It follows the lives of a kids’ TV presenter Iain (Stirling) and his housemates [Rosa Robson, Jessie Cave, Paul G Raymond and Janine Harouni] as they work through their late twenties and try to get their lives sorted.
“It’s called Buffering because it’s that age where you’re not quite fully loaded into adulthood and wonder when that moment’s going to come. I think I’ve found out that adulthood is the moment when you realise that it never comes. But there’s definitely a stage where you’re like, right, I just need to get this job or relationship or house and then all of a sudden I’ll keep my leftovers in Tupperware and always have milk in the fridge.
“Season one we had harder issues but it’s a lot more silly this year and fun although there are still a lot of themes about friendship and open-ness and it being OK to be flawed.”
As well as the housemates, Buffering season two has guest stars, including Laura Whitmore, Emily Atack, Sophie Duker and fellow Scots David Carlyle and Gordon Kane.
“My favourite episode is where they visit friends who’ve moved out to the country and it has David Carlyle from It’s a Sin who is brilliant. And the one with Gordon Kane playing my dad, he’s so funny and everyone says, ‘is that your dad?’ No it’s not, that is just every Scottish dad ever, proud and private. If you achieve something, they have to go into the toilet to be proud for a bit then come out and get you to tidy your room or whatever it is they want you to do.”
Stirling hopes to make more Buffering in the future.
“It’s my favourite thing to do. I’m really proud of it and it’s a nice medium to talk about my personal life because it mixes fiction and reality so no-one knows what’s real and what isn’t. I get to be really open and honest but no-one knows specifics. That idea of how hard it is to be a grown up is universal, it’s always ‘how have I not got these bills sorted, how have I got too drunk at Christmas again?’”
But he is grown up, he’s got the job, the house, is married with a child, he’s got a ‘STUDIO’...
“That’s the thing. Because you know yourself, you know the insecurities and imposter syndrome you’re feeling every day. But no-one else can see that and you’ve just got to style it out. I’m still working on myself, and there are things I need to do, but yeah certainly becoming a dad, I do feel I’ve taken a big leap and found a gear I didn’t think I had. When I started Love Island I was a 27-year-old single man that lived in a bedsit… Yeah, I definitely am a lot more mature than I was.”
Buffering starts Monday 30 January at 22.05pm on ITV2 with a simultaneous full series drop on ITVX.
Love Island airs tonight at 9pm on ITV2 and ITVX.