Alex Casey chats to Love Island UK narrator Iain Stirling about creating voiceover magic, smoking around the firepit and the fatal flaw in Love Island NZ.
Iain Stirling is holding up a small black case like a Deal or No Deal lady. He’s in his spare room in North London, against a backdrop of bare white walls. On the mantel over his shoulder is a smattering of bric-a-brac – a Love Island water bottle, a broken Bluetooth speaker and a framed photo of him and a friend on the set of The Voice UK. The whole scene is unremarkable at first glance, but it is what he is cradling in his hands that has transformed this bloke from the “rough bit” of Edinburgh into an essential part of pop culture history.
“This is it” he says, unzipping the black case to reveal a large mushroom coloured Electro Voice RE20 microphone. “This is the actual Love Island mic. I’ve recorded all 10 series on this.”
People will throw around the word “iconic” to describe absolutely any old thing these days, but Stirling’s voice has truly earned the right. The stand-up’s Scottish lilt has narrated Love Island UK since 2015, poking gentle fun at the series while reminding us who is lipsing who. His narration includes sing song rhymes about cheating scandals (“Lily told Milly about Liam being silly”), repeatedly teasing fishmongers named Luca Bish (“the man sells fish”), and the most over-the-top delivery of the word “tonight” in human history.
Stirling’s commentary has not only elevated Love Island from an observational documentary about hotties to a self-aware satirical comedy, but it has also had huge influence on the entire genre of reality romance. Before Love Island UK in 2015, self-serious dating shows like The Bachelor reigned supreme, with po-faced rose ceremonies and soaring proposal scenes. There was no voiceover at all, let alone a comedic one, and certainly no working class Scottish bloke telling the audience to flick over to Traffic Cops if they were getting bored.
When Love Island strutted onto screens in 2015 it proclaimed, to borrow a beloved contestant mantra, “it is what it is” – low stakes, high drama, and not an ounce of seriousness to be found. There is an argument that without Iain Stirling and Love Island, high concept comedy dating shows like Too Hot to Handle and FBoy Island wouldn’t exist. Closer to home, without Stirling there may have been no Aunty Jodie Rimmer ribbing the boys on The Bachelorette NZ, no Bree drooling over Art Green on Celebrity Treasure Island.
With all that said, Stirling is sheepish when I suggest that he is not only one of the most famous voices in the world, but the literal voice of a generation. “It’s hard to respond to that,” he shrugs. “It’s one of those quotes that my management love, because then they can put it on posters.” It’s a suitably understated response from a man who is giving the exact opposite energy of the sun-soaked, bikini-wearing glamour of Love Island. He’s wearing a hoodie, and his face is so dimly-lit he looks like he’s trying to be anonymous on the news.
“It’s not much to look at the minute because I just moved house,” he says, gesturing around the room, but by Monday this will be a full recording studio.”
Stirling is just days away from starting the mammoth task of writing and recording Love Island voiceover six days a week, for the next two months. Given the sheer volume of episodes and daily deadlines, I ask how he gets it all done. “I’ve got a writing team… his name is Mark,” he laughs. “Me and him have written every line of every series for the last 10 series. And we just sit in a room, or on Zoom, from about two in the afternoon – maybe one if we have a bit of lunch – and we’re normally done by about 6.30.”
The writing “team” receives the episode with some guide voiceover and then has to “gag it up”, says Stirling. It will be close to the final cut, but there is wiggle room in the edit if the joke demands it. “We have said to the editor before, ‘can you leave a little gap in there? Because he’s stroking her arm and it looks like she’s like a guitar’,” Stirling laughs. “I just love really silly, really stupid stuff like that.” Job titles are always fertile ground for roasting, and Stirling describes getting the cast list as “Christmas morning” for him and Mark.
“All we are thinking is ‘please be a fishmonger, or a farmer, or work or in a circus… please don’t just work in an office, because we can’t do puns about that’.”
But Stirling’s all-time favourite joke structure is where the voiceover sets up the contestant to deliver the punchline. He remembers one from the most high stakes recoupling ceremony from season five, when boxer Tommy Fury (brother of Tyson) was deciding whether to couple up with Molly Mae (now mother of his child) or Maura Higgins (now Dancing on Ice contestant). “So I just said, ‘he doesn’t know if he’s picking Maura or Molly, but he has decided what he’s doing with his driveway’,” says Stirling.
“And it just cuts to him going ‘I’m bricking it’.”
Although Stirling finds plenty to joke about on Love Island, he does have boundaries. “I try to never talk about their appearance or who they are as people really,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve actually ever been vindictive or nasty.” That said, he does give himself an allowance if a contestant has been, to use a Love Island-ism, a mug. “If someone behaves in a way that is morally repugnant, we give ourselves a free pass for that episode,” he explains. “If someone is nasty, aggressive or rude, we might be a little bit harsher on them than usual.”
Stirling is also purposefully not told anything about what is coming next in the series, a production choice that he is grateful for. “If I’m being honest, originally I was kept in the dark because I thought it would be better for the jokes that I was watching as a punter like everyone else,” he says. But as the show has become more and more popular and generated more and more attention and headlines from voracious local media, he says it is also good for his mental wellbeing to not know what is around the corner.
“It’s very much in my interest to not know anything that I can accidentally give away and get myself in trouble,” he explains. “So I don’t know anything about the audition process, or how the islanders are chosen, or anything… I just do my job and I make sure that everyone has as pleasant and as lovely a time as possible, and then we all go home to our families and have cold beers.” It’s a healthy balance, especially given that his phone once crashed from the sheer volume of people demanding to know what happens at Casa Amor.
Although he delights in making his “stupid” jokes, Stirling has thought hard about Love Island and its appeal over the years, comfortably labelling it an “exploration into the human psyche” without irony. “When you’re young, you might be the good looking one in your school or your town,” he explains. “So it’s interesting, then, if you put a good looking 20-year-old into a room full of loads of other good looking 20-year-olds, you can sort of watch them going, ‘Right, well, what’s my place now?’ Because that currency is no longer of use.”
He also says it’s fascinating watching people fall in love, season after season. “I’m using that term loosely – I’m not saying they’re gonna get married and have five kids – but just that journey of people slowly getting to know each other and trust another person is so interesting. And then there’s the little back steps where they get things wrong and the walls come back up, watching that all develop is fascinating,” he says. “I’m a comedian, so I just like people. And the show is, at its heart, about people finding other people.”
Love Island UK has evolved a lot over its 10 seasons, introducing a slew of bombshell contestants endless twists, but Stirling’s main memory from the early seasons is tobacco-related. “No one smokes as much as they used to. It was actually mad, they all sat around and smoked all the time,” he laughs. Stirling has evolved a bit too – he used to record the voiceover on location in Mallorca, and his life looked quite different. “I was 27 and I was in Spain, so I was just out drinking all the time and then crawling into work in the morning.”
These days, he records from home and is able to spend much more time with his “little one” and his wife, former Love Island host Laura Whitmore. Outside of Love Island, he does more “sporadic” work as a stand-up comedian, TV writer and Taskmaster contestant, and welcomes the structure that Love Island provides. “I really like having an alarm and getting up and showering and getting dressed and everything, which I know sounds mental, but it’d be so easy for me to basically live in a pair of pants for like four months of the year.”
With all this talk of expansion and evolution for both Love Island and Stirling, I ask if he would be interested in the much-discussed idea of Love Island NZ. He has some immediate concerns. “I worry about population and if you’d have a wide enough gene pool. There’d have to be DNA tests to make sure people aren’t cousins,” he laughs. “Also, I feel like Love Island New Zealand would just be a bunch of people going ‘What school did you go to?’ and then someone would go ‘Oh, do you know blah-de-blah?’ and it would just be that, forever.”
All of this is to say, he’s 100% keen. “I would be so up for it,” he adds. “I would be so up for it that it would be unbelievable.” But before you get too excited by the notion of a snarky Scot narrating our bumbling local bumpkins, Stirling’s got at least another UK season to narrate first. That is, of course, if he can muster the energy to get his sound booth set up in time to narrate episode one in just a few short days. “I will do it,” he tells me, and perhaps himself, as our interview wraps up. “I will probably go and do it right this second.”
In classic Love Island cliffhanger style, whether he got it together in time remains to be seen – you’ll have to tune in tonight to find out.
Love Island UK is available to stream on TVNZ+ from today.