We caught up with adventurer Simon Reeve on reflecting the truth in documentary making, how he used to travel to overcome mental battles, as well as his upcoming TV series in the Mediterranean and UK tour…
What do you think Simon Reeve does in his autumn months? Visit some far-flung, war-bedeviled land to deliver a typically insightful travel documentary? Well, this year, the Wanderlust favorite is going on perhaps his most unusual journey yet: a three-month tour across the UK with a theatre show, An Audience with Simon Reeve, letting the adventurer recount his exploits from his adventures across 120 countries and play revealing behind-the-scenes footage to a live audience.
We caught up with Simon Reeve about the shows, his upcoming autobiography, his mental health battles and his next big TV series.
You’re touring the green and pleasant lands of the UK with your stage show. Are you going to get to do some exploring?
Simon Reeve: I’ve traveled around the UK a little bit – more than most, perhaps – but not as much as I would like, and not as much as I would intend to. But my focus has definitely been on the rest of the planet as the BBC have always said, ‘Well, your niche is traveling abroad,’ and if it works, it works. So I’ve generally gone with it. But I would love to spend more time here.
Maybe you could throw in a micro-adventure to keep the tour interesting…
Simon Reeve: I love the micro-adventure idea. I think we just have to squeeze every drop of life out of our short time on this planet and do what we can when we can and enjoy it as much as possible. And so the 5-to-9 idea is brilliant, finishing work and getting out.
It’s tricky when you’ve got children I’ve discovered. But we’ve given it a good go, with bivvy bags and wild camping. Maybe I should be doing it after my event in Dundee – get out to the Highlands and enjoy. God, that would be wonderful. You’ve put the seed of possibility there now!
“We just have to squeeze every drop of life out of our short time on this planet and do what we can, when we can and enjoy it as much as possible.”
– Simon Reeve
We’ve heard you speak at many travel shows in the past. You must be confident in dealing with audiences by now?
Simon Reeve: I think they’ll be fairly friendly, I hope. I’m crossing my fingers that nobody throws anything sharp. But it’s still a nerve-racking idea to stand in front of hundreds of people and chat away. Obviously, I’ll be showing some clips and photos, so it’s not just going to be me gassing the entire time.
To be honest, it wasn’t my idea, so that if it goes wrong I’ve got somebody else to blame! It was the idea of a guy called Giles Cooper, who’s a heavy hitter in the entertainment industry. He’s produced shows for Sir Elton and Take That – he must know what he’s doing. He gets the blame if it goes wrong and if it goes right I get all the credit.
So are you going for a big Take That-sized opening to the show?
I think I’ll amble out – amble and shamble will be the name of the game. Obviously I’ve been traveling for a while, I’ve made more than 100 TV programmes and as a result, I’ve got a few tales to tell. Hopefully, that will fill the yawning chasm of time and I’ll happily share some behind the scenes stories and secrets as well.
I’ve also got tales from before I got into TV too because I was writing books before. I don’t have a traditional TV background, which now seems to be public school and expedition leaders. Leaving school, going on the dole and having no idea of what I’m going to do with my life – that’s not the normal way into the job if there is one. I’m always asked about that and hopefully, I’ll give some hope to other people who also haven’t had a decent start out of the blocks in life.
It’s a shame that people will assume you’ve got a standard Oxbridge background, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
I think it is the assumption and I find that it doesn’t bother me as such. But there is that idea that you can only make it in life if you follow that particular traditional path and I think that hopefully, things are starting to change on that and hope people are realizing that they don’t have to do what The Man has told them to do.
People can break out of that as long as they work hard, have a bit of luck, of course, and not obsess too much about what other people are telling them to do; people can do what they want to do and follow it with a passion and hopefully that’s rewarded but, if not, at least you’re doing what you want with your life.
There’s an assumption that, because I’m on TV, daddy must have got me a job or I was skinning beavers on a school trip when I was 13 or something. We only got as far as Bournemouth with my school – we had one school trip when I was a kid and we were held in Bournemouth by the police because there’d been such an upsurge in crime that day. Yeah, I didn’t have the old Eton background.
You mentioned behind-the-scenes footage, which brought to mind the recent Will Millard documentary My Year with the Tribe.
Do you think balancing ‘the truth’ versus the expectation of the truth is something that troubles every documentary maker?
It is a problem if you go out with an absolutely set idea of what you were trying to do, I think. We’ve been very lucky in making the shows that I’m doing in that we can just change our plan to the reality that we find on the ground. If we go somewhere that we’ve been told is a really struggling community and there’s no fish left in the sea and then we get there and discover that this community seems to be thriving, because a female leader in the community decided to stop dynamite fishing and that’s encouraged fish stocks, we can simply change what we’re trying to film and focus on that.
I don’t go out with a script, I don’t have anybody whispering in my ear about what we’re absolutely going to do that moment, or that day. We make it up as we go along to a certain extent. We have an outline, a rough idea, but that can adapt and change when we make contact with reality. It makes it much more seat of your pants, which makes the show much more dynamic, as people in telly would say. It’s more interesting as a result.
But there are lots of different versions of the truth. We just try and get as close to what we think is the right line as possible. But we certainly don’t always get it right. We are filming now for about three weeks for one hour of TV and we will film between 16 and 120 hours of footage on perhaps five different cameras from a GoPro to a full broadcast rig; inevitably there are going to be stories that are lost and different takes that could be had on a situation if we so choose.
Finding our way through that to some sort of truth or some sort of fair representation of what we’re encountering is definitely tricky. Certainly, there is a personal interpretation that I – and we as a team – get to put on a situation but we do try to be as truthful and as fair as possible.
You’ve done nearly 20 full series about your travels now. Do you have any regrets or places you’d like to revisit?
I’d love to go back to the series that I did, Places That Don’t Exist, and that was in many ways my favorite, as it felt like we were going so far off the map to countries that aren’t officially recognized as countries – places like Somaliland and South Ossetia: often very obscure but quite extraordinary parts of the planet, but when you look into them you discover anything up to 300 million people live in unrecognized countries or consider themselves unrepresented people. That was one of my absolute favorites and I’d love to go back and do more on them.
In terms of what we did wrong and general feedback, we did a two-part series about Ireland and the start of the first programme was slated a bit by quite a few metropolitan Irish viewers who felt it was a little bit focused on the twee and the rural. I think there was some truth in that; I think that was in part social media not letting the programmes roll through [to the rest of the series, which wasn’t so rural focused]. I think I would have made it a bit clearer that this was a programme that was going to use religion to explore the country.
Generally, I’m pretty proud of the programmes that I’ve done. We’ve definitely made mistakes and things go wrong but we try and incorporate them into the shows.
What’s been your most exhilarating adventure?
That’s a tricky one to answer because the word ‘exhilarate’ is a troubling one in the sense that sometimes the most exhilarating has been the most frightening as well. I’ve been on frontline situations, which is terrifying but very thrilling as well and it’s a moment when you can feel very alive and often-times people can be a little bit disappointed or shocked to hear that, but that’s the reality – that war and conflict can be exciting until it all goes horribly wrong for you or someone you love.
The moment that I felt a great sense of thrill was going into a prison in Honduras that was controlled by the inmates. It’s a prison in the most dangerous city in the world outside of a war zone, and we went into this prison as we wanted to meet some of the gangs who were responsible for the horrific violence that plagues Central America.
Inside the prison, the guards generally won’t go across the yellow line that runs around the interior of the prison and if the guards cross the line into that, their lives are at risk. If the prisoners step out, then their lives are in risk. So we went in with the best bodyguard we could find. We thought about having special forces and things like that, but actually, the best guard was the Bishop of San Pedro Sula. So we went with just one guy with his crucifix prominently displayed and he took us into an environment of utter madness, frankly.
Meeting prisoners who tattooed tears down their face, indicating how many people they killed, leaders of the most fearsome gangs in the Americas. It was like a refugee camp combined with Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley high street, with little stalls and tiny factories making candles and clothes and a café and a barbers – all higgeldy-piggledy on top of each other. It was just madness.
That was one of the most intense, mind-blowing places that I’d been to – very exhilarating to be in and every relief to escape.
“We don’t have to be traveling in the further reaches of the planet – there are extraordinary things happening close to home.”
Is there a danger of people recognizing you while you travel? Is there a case of, “If you’re here, we must be in trouble?”
I did get that filming in Cyprus a couple of months ago. And on the plane out there, there were some Brits saying, ‘Oh flipping heck, maybe if you’re going we shouldn’t be going there on holiday!’
But I do think a virtue of traveling in the way that I would claim that myself and the team do – which is to go with your eyes open and look for the light and the shade of the place we’re visiting – means that everywhere is interesting. We don’t just have to go for dark places to look for stories; we can find really extraordinary stories and extreme situations even in Europe. We don’t have to be traveling in the further reaches of the planet – there are extraordinary things happening close to home.
What would you say is your moment of pure travel bliss?
The one that’s leaping into my head is sitting on Baboon Cliff in Lake Nakuru in Kenya. It’s a very special moment for me where I got to climb up and look over Lake Nakuru, which is home to about a million flamingos and watch as a giraffe ambled slowly past below us and just soak in this incredible view and atmosphere.
I was with a guy and a guard who were just telling me so much information that to this day helps form my thoughts about so many issues on conservation and how humans are encroaching into wild areas and the value of tourism. So I was learning a lot at the same time. It was like having the best lecturers while in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet.
Where’s next for you?
A series called The Mediterranean. We’ve gone anti-clockwise from Malta around one of the most important patches of water on the planet, the sea around which endless civilizations have risen and fallen.
A few people have said to me, ‘Well that sounds a little bit tame compared to what you’ve been doing,’ but I tell you, we have had some had some completely extreme situations: from the Gaza Strip to crawling down a mafia escape sewer pipe in Southern Italy while on a surveillance mission with Italian special forces who’re trying to tackle the most powerful crime gang in Europe. It’s been very eventful and exciting so far – we’ve got a little further to go on that journey.
And you’ve been writing your autobiography at the same time?
Yes! Sounds a bit mad when you say it like that. Hopefully, there are a few stories in that and again, but a lot of it is growing up and challenges that I faced personally.
When I left school, things got very dark. I got very low and I found myself very unsure about what I was going to do in life and whether I could go on quite frankly. I had a lot of counseling when I was a teenager, with mental health issues that no doubt linger to this day. So I’ve written a fair bit about that and I’ve been quite honest about the situations I was in and how low I managed to get. It was quite cathartic actually to go through it all and think about it and talk about it with family. My brother never knew how bad it got for me.
So I’m getting out there and being honest about it as we don’t discuss these things enough and that’s partly why we have this epidemic of suicide among young men at the moment. I got very low and things got very dark for me and eventually, it was actually going on the journey that helped get me out of it.
That’s not all my early life as it were, but all I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t easy for me and I know it’s not been easy for other people. I’m just keen for people to know that there are ways out and that’s alluded to in the title of the book, which will be Step-by-Step. Because that’s how I climbed out from a very dark place and far be it from me to tell others what to do, but what I’m saying is that it worked for me and maybe it could help somebody else.
What do you hope people will take away from these shows?
The one thing I’d love people to take away is a willingness to be pushed out of their comfort zone – or pushed a little bit further out of their comfort zone because I’m sure Wanderlust are fairly adventurous types already! Because the tour is going to be about why people should travel, how to travel to a certain extent and it’s going to be for people who love to travel and who want to travel.
There’ll be a Q&A as well for people to ask telly bloke some questions but the main thing that people will take away a sense that they can take a few more risks — they can go a little bit further and that they’ll leave realising that, even more than they came in, that life is shockingly short; we’re living during a golden age of travel and people should take that chance and opportunity as much as they can and they should do anything they can to fill their lives with a bit of meaning, soul, and a journey – there is no better way of racking up powerful and wonderful memories. I hope that people take that away and will push themselves and their family and friends to go further and do more.
For full dates and information of An Audience with Simon Reeve, visit shootandscribble.com.