Simon Reeve had a humble start in life and with help from Andrew Neil he became an author and television presenter. He has met some of the most extraordinary people on the planet and has embarked on a nationwide tour. James Rampton found out what makes the man tick.
Taking tea with the Maasai in East Africa whilst filming The Tea Trail with Simon Reeve PHOTO COPYRIGHT: FREDDIE MARTIN
Q Simon, what inspired the terrific idea of doing this new live show, An Audience with Simon Reeve?
A I’ve had some magnificent adventures and met some of the most inspiring people on the planet. So, obviously, I’ve got lots of tales from my travels and this show is a tremendous opportunity to share them with audiences across the UK. There’s a lot that I see and film that never makes it into the programmes, so there’s also behind-the-scenes stories to tell and footage to show.
I also like doing things that are a bit challenging and nerve wracking – and performing a live show is certainly a challenge that gets the ticker going. I like the adrenaline rush.
Q Tell us more.
A I’m very keen that people push themselves into unfamiliar territory. The world can seem a scary place, but it really isn’t. This is the golden age for travel. These days, ordinary people can have adventures that in the past only kings and queens could have dreamt of. You can go anywhere now. But people are sometimes reluctant to leave their holiday resort. They are told that they should simply go to a resort and sit by the swimming pool being milked for cash while being served drinks in primary colours. I’m urging people to go beyond the confines of the resort. That’s where you get the best memories.
Q But will you have some pre-show nerves?
A Yes, of course. Walking out on stage is scarier than many of the experiences I’ve had on my travels – even the crazy ones. Imminent death doesn’t bother us as much as social embarrassment!
Q Do you hope this show might inspire people?
A Definitely. I want to entertain people, but I also want to inspire them – even if it’s just a little bit. I want the show to prompt people to go on their own adventures and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone in life. I also want to remind people that starting from nothing doesn’t need to stop you from achieving your dreams. Everyone seems to think that to be on TV you need to have got straight As at public school, but I don’t come from a media family or a wealthy, travelling background, and I left my local comprehensive with basically nothing and went on the dole. I started work in a mailroom. I never went to university. Don’t tell anyone!
Q Are you enjoying meeting your audience face to face and sharing a Q and A with them?
A Definitely. And they’re great! It’s wonderful to see them, meet them and have a chat and get some feedback. In a strange way I really like being put on the spot and I love probing questions. On stage, I just hope they’re picking up on my enthusiasm for the idea of pushing yourself in life.
Q What might people take away from An Audience with Simon Reeve?
A Well, people are telling me that the live shows are inspiring them, which is wonderful to hear. I’d love it if people left one of the events feeling they can now do anything that they have dreamt about and never got round to trying. We all need a bit of a reminder to live the life we want to live, because time is short. If your goal is to break out of a rubbish job, I’ve done that. It is possible. Have faith. Give it a try. Don’t put it off. Just do it!
Q Was adventure part of your upbringing?
A No. I definitely wasn’t born into it. When I was a kid, we only went abroad once when we took the ferry to France to go camping. I didn’t get on a plane till I was working. When I was growing up, people didn’t travel in the way they do now. We have forgotten that. I remember the first Spanish and Greek restaurants opening in London during the late 1970s. That was the result of British people taking Freddie Laker-type flights abroad. I only came to travel and adventure as an adult.
Q What was your childhood like?
A I grew up in tropical Acton in West London. My adventures were restricted to riding my BMX and my grandmother’s magical mystery tours. She would take my brother and me in her car when we were very little to explore exotic, unknown places like Hounslow. Sometimes we even got as far as Chiswick! I never stowed away on a plane. I never imagined I’d live the life I have today. My aspirations and dreams were very limited.
Q How were your school days?
A I didn’t get on with school. I spiralled down in a bad way and came quite close to deciding whether or not I would end it all. I was at a very low point. I flunked an exam, walked out and never went back. I left school with basically no qualifications.
Q What happened next?
A I was on the dole for a long while. Then I got a few jobs. I ran some charity shops, but organising people of a certain age into a roster was a very tricky art. I worked in a jewellery shop for a day and at the Ministry of Defence for half a day. After I walked out, Special Branch came looking for me because I had worked in a secret department. I got turned down for a job as a white van driver, even though no-one else applied for it. I was lost.
Q How did you turn things around?
A I got a job as a post boy on The Sunday Times and my world began to open up. I owe my career to Andrew Neil – I’m sure you’ve rarely heard that sentence before! I was very lucky. His idea was to give the post boys an opportunity to have a crack at working on the paper. Everyone else on the paper was Oxbridge, and I was very London. I was pretty unusual, but I was keen and eager and they gave me a chance.
Q How did your career progress from there?
A I was this pathetic kid suddenly thrown into an environment where people were doing very exciting things and working on serious investigations. I carved out my own niche – and that was the making of me. At first, I became an expert in fixing these vital big photocopying machines they had, so they couldn’t sack me. Then I fell into investigating terrorism, as you do. I started researching the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and eventually wrote the first book on Al-Qaeda which came out in 1998. Nobody read it. Then I wrote some other books and worked on hardcore investigations where I spent time undercover.
Q What changed things for you?
A 9/11 happened and suddenly I was chucked into the world of TV.
I’d written the only book in the world about the biggest story of the time. I also knew people who died as the Towers came down – I’d met them when I was researching my first book.
Q What did that lead to?
A The BBC wanted me to make a series for them. The first ideas were a bit daft. They included wanting me to infiltrate Al-Qaeda. I didn’t think that was a very good idea. In the end we settled on the idea of going on adventures in parts of the world that weren’t often on TV, and into which we would try and work light and shade, both adventure and issues. The first BBC series I did in 2003 was called Holidays in the Danger Zone: Meet the Stans, and it was all about my journeys in the Stan countries to the north of Afghanistan, including Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. I loved it from the first day of filming. It was very well received, which was a surprise to me as the presenter. So, the BBC had me back, and since then I’ve made more than 100 programmes around the world.
Q What can you tell us about the BBC TV series you are currently filming?
A Well, it’s top secret of course. I probably shouldn’t say anything. But OK, twist my arm. I’m filming a new series where I’m travelling the length of the Americas. From top to toe. It’s my biggest, most dangerous, most epic journey yet. I’m travelling through the two continents that together form more than a quarter of the land surface of our planet. We’ve started the journey already, and right from the beginning it’s been completely mind-blowing.
Q Is there anywhere you wouldn’t travel?
A I don’t think so. You can go almost anywhere. I’ve had extreme experiences that are unfiltered, upsetting and raw. But I don’t think we need to shy away from them. We just have to approach them carefully and sensibly. You need to go in with your eyes open and keep your wits about you. It really is a very safe world, as long as you take some basic precautions. We have to get things in perspective. Remember we live in a country where thousands of people are hospitalised each year just putting on their trousers! You can travel almost anywhere, as long as you wear a seatbelt and avoid hotel salad buffets!
Q What are the most unusual things you have eaten on your travels?
A I’ve eaten everything from penis soup in Madagascar to barbecued rat in Laos. That was so bad that even the scrawny dogs in the local market wouldn’t touch it. I’ve even had a roasted sheep’s eyeball, which was actually rather delicious. Food is obviously a real window into a culture. If you want to rack up some memories, I’m always pushing people to eat the craziest food. Food is often where the most interesting experiences lie.
Q On your travels, you have done some extraordinary things, such as being arrested for spying by the KGB, electrocuted in a war zone, protected by stoned Somali mercenaries and witnessed trench warfare in the Caucasus. But what has been your most extraordinary experience?
A It’s hard to pick just one. But in the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras – the deadliest place in the world outside an active war zone – two colleagues and I went into a prison controlled by the inmates. It had thousands of men crammed into a very tiny space. It housed some of the most dangerous people on earth, people who have skinned other gang members alive. It was a cross between Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and an eighteenth-century sweatshop. It had all sorts of shops like a barber’s and a café, and people were making candles, clothes and wigs in their little cell factories.
Q So how did you approach it?
A We thought of going in with Special Forces as our guards, but they would have been ripped apart, and the inmates would then have turned on us. So, we went in with the very best bodyguard anyone could have in that situation: The Bishop of San Pedro Sula, wearing a very large crucifix. He could look after us and stop the ludicrously dangerous gangs from holding us hostage or chopping off our heads.
Q So, who did you run into there?
A We met men with tattooed tears running down their cheeks, each one indicating a person they had killed. We met the leader of one of the most fearsome gangs in Central America, and all he wanted to talk about was this Nativity scene made out of recycled rubbish that he had been building in the prison yard. A panel was coming around the next day to judge all the prisoners’ Nativity scenes. It was bizarre beyond belief. That is how surreal life on this planet can get.
Q Are you not terrified in a situation like that?
A No, I wasn’t nervous. But it was certainly very, very intense. When you walk in to somewhere like that, your senses are so alert to the danger you don’t have the chance to experience fear. After visiting the prison, we sank quite a lot of whisky as we did a post mortem on the experience.
Q Do you let your young son come face-to-face with danger?
A I’m really keen on people doing more and going further and pushing themselves. But that doesn’t entirely apply to my seven-year-old son who I intend to tether to my ankle till he’s in his 30s! I love him too much to let him go. Having said that, we’re fairly relaxed about most dangers. We live in a wild and remote spot and every day my son runs through the forest with our big dog. He’s got an enormous playground to enjoy right there.
Q What does your wife think of your trips?
A For some reason she’s just keen I up my life insurance above the rate of inflation. No, she’s very adventurous herself, and she knows that adventures add huge meaning to life. I’m not foolhardy and I’m not doing it for my own delight. I think there’s real value in travelling the planet and sharing experiences with others – whether that’s your grandmother telling everyone how wonderful Namibia is or me coming back from a remote place with a TV programme. My wife worked with me on some of my earlier programmes, so she knows they’re not a jolly jape.
Simon in Mogadishu filming Indian Ocean PHOTO COPYRIGHT: ANDREW CARTE
Simon ReeveSimon is an ambassador for the nature conservation organisation WWF and has been awarded a One World Broadcasting Trust award for an “outstanding contribution to greater world understanding”, and the prestigious 2012 Ness Award by the Royal Geographical Society. His books include Tropic of Capricorn and The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism, a New York Times bestseller, published in 1998, which predicted the rise of Al-Qaeda and a new age of apocalyptic terrorism. His book One Day in September, the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre is also an Oscar-winning documentary film.
Q What qualities do you need in your job?
A I’m very enthusiastic about the world. Part of my job is to go “wow!” a lot – and I can’t stop doing that in real life because that’s how I really feel! I also have a great deal of curiosity – that’s crucial – and I’d like to think that I do care. I cry a lot. I get very emotional and uplifted by the sights and people I meet. An openness to other people really helps. That is how we understand each other and how we break down the barriers that divide us.
Q Do you think you’ll ever get bored travelling?
A Absolutely not! What telly presenter would say: “I think I’ve seen enough now”? As long as I’m allowed, I’ll be out there. When I’m travelling, my senses are not just tingled, but rattled every minute of every hour.
Q You were brought up in Acton, but you now live in Devon with your wife and son. How do you find life in the country?
A I was pretty happy in London, but my wife, who’s also a Londoner, said: “We’ve got to move to the countryside. This is our chance to go and live somewhere healthier.” She sort of forced me. Now, whenever I say perhaps it might be a bit easier with my work if we moved back to London, my son tells me: “You can, but I’m not going. I’ll be really cross with you.” He loves it in the wild.
Q Your wife Anya Reeve is a camerawoman and campaigner. Can you tell me how you met?
A We met at a rather glamorous party. I had a proper love at first sight moment. I saw Anya across the room and that was it – I was instantly smitten.
Q What common misapprehensions do people have about you?
A I’m in my 40s, but I’m really lucky that some people think I’m a couple of years younger. I’ve stopped telling people I’ve had plastic surgery because they take it seriously – I’ve even had emails asking where I got the cut! People also think I must be yet another public school graduate posho, but I grew up in Acton. I lost my strong west London accent, but I can still put it on when needed.
Q Finally, what are the benefits of going travelling?
A Travel teaches us that we should embrace life and not live it on our knees. It’s a wonderful and immediate way of pushing our buttons and exciting our senses. We have an enormous planet of seven billion stories and magnificent sights to see and incredible food to eat. Anyone who isn’t mortgaging their grandparents or their grandchildren to get out in the big world needs their head examined! v
Tickets for An Audience with Simon Reeve are available at www.simonreeve.co.uk.