Simon Reeve: People assuming I’m a toff does wind me up

Simon Reeve has visited more than 100 countries in his 17-year career. He tells Georgia Humphreys about his life and his most incredible journeys ahead of his latest BBC series.

Simon Reeve in the £1 billion Mardan Palace Hotel, Antalya - Photographer: Craig Hastings/BBC

The Covid-19 pandemic may have made travelling the planet difficult, but that hasn’t stopped adventurer Simon Reeve from making remarkable television programmes.

Cornwall with Simon Reeve, which aired in November last year, was a fascinating investigation into the future of the county as it emerged from the first UK lockdown.

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And now there’s a new, four-part BBC Two series, Incredible Journeys with Simon Reeve, in which the 48-year-old presenter and author takes a look back at some of the most remote destinations he has visited – from Arctic glaciers to tropical reefs – while reflecting on what he has learned from his extraordinary travels.

Simon Reeve with the son of Mamo Luntana of the Kogi tribe. Photographer: Craig Hastings/BBC

The London-born father-of-one says he was thrilled with the reaction to his Cornwall series.

“It was slightly overwhelmingly brilliant, to be honest,” he reflects. “I think people felt that it painted a more accurate picture of Cornwall than a lot of the programmes that are filmed there, and there was quite some surprise from the rest of the country, and maybe even within Cornwall, about the stats and facts about Cornwall’s place on the poverty table.

“We’ve just got into such a mindset in this country over a long period of time of everything being on a north-south axis – rich comfortable south and 
grim up north – and it’s way too simplistic.”

Reeve adds doing the series with something of an eye-opener for him as someone used to travelling much further afield.

Simon Reeve has visited more than 130 countries. Photographer: Eric McFarland

“I think what it’s made me realise – and it was quite a bit of a surprise, frankly – is that Brits are not as buttoned up as perhaps we’ve appeared for a long time and that we’re as warm and welcoming and open – crucially – as anywhere else in the world. And there might be people who think, ‘Well, yeah, of course we are!’, but my impression was that Brits, they’re not that keen to open up about things when somebody points a camera at them.”

In his new series, Incredible Journeys, one scene involves an emotional reunion over a video call with a young man called Jahangir, who Reeve met as a 10-year-old in Bangladesh in 2010.

At that time Jahangir was working in a sweltering glass factory for less than 50p a day.

“I had a right old sob about little Jahangir – now Jahangir the dad, who’s building a new and better life for his family,” Reeve says.

“Knowing what had happened to him was very powerful, and seeing and hearing what he’s doing was even more intense, both for me and for Jonathan, who was the cameraman who filmed me for this Incredible Journeys series, but he also filmed me with that lad Jahangir more than 10 years ago in Bangladesh in that glass factory.

“Jonathan was crying behind the camera, I was crying in front of the camera and Jahangir was crying on the iPad. So it was a right tear-fest!”

The new show also sees Reeve open up with viewers about his own personal struggles and going on benefits as a teenager.

“My process of looking back began a couple of years ago when I started having a bit more time to think about where I’d come from and the path I’d taken and how lucky I’ve been – and how so very easily it could have been very, very different for me,” he says.

“I think it’s always been good when anyone who’s had a tiny modicum of success opens up about their luck and their difficulties.

“And then I started to realise – with the mental health crisis that particularly young men are experiencing at the moment – that it wasn’t just a sort of opportunity for me to talk about it, it was a bit of a responsibility, as well.

“I think there is merit to people knowing, at a time when we’re a very unequal country, that my background was more ‘normal’ – if you want to put it that way – than most.

“I managed to leave school with basically no qualifications and went on the dole and was in serious risk of falling into long-term unemployment and welfare dependency, and drugs and everything else that you can get when you’re a slightly lost lad growing up on the edge of inner-city London. And I was lucky!

“And what I hope partly, I suppose, is that it helps people to be a little bit more understanding of those who slip off the path, and deserve help 
and guidance to find their way back on.

“That’s not to condone kids who get into murderous gangs, but it is to point out it’s not impossible for almost anyone to take the wrong path in life, and our existence is often based on nothing more than sheer luck.”

He says people can sometimes be surprised to hear of his background given his job.

“Well, I suppose there’s a bit of an assumption that people naturally make that somebody on the telly who goes off on these journeys is going to be yet another public school-educated bloke from a connected family. And that is not my background at all.

“It did wind me up a little bit because sometimes people would say it overtly.

“I would meet them, and there’d be this bristle because they thought I was from a particular background.

“But I’d just say a few things that humanised me a bit more and made them realise I wasn’t a toff.”

He says, like everyone, he has found the situation with Covid-19 and the pandemic to be challenging to get through.

“It’s all been tricky, but I’m certainly not a frontline health worker and so, more than anything, it’s just been a bit more boring, and it’s felt like a bit of a waste,” Reeve says.

“I’ve felt slightly impotent, and useless, which I don’t like.

“And I’ve tried to remind myself that my main responsibility is to nudge and encourage my lad to watch less telly and play more football and try and do a little bit of studying and learn some French, like any parent.”

Reeve says the opportunity to take a look back at some of the remote destinations he has visited around the world – from the forests of Borneo to the deserts of central Asia – has reminded him of how “blessed” he has been from his time on the road.

“They have been incredible adventures,” he says. “I have been to some absolutely stunning places on the planet and I’ve been lucky, so blessed, to meet the most astonishing cast of humans around the world and that’s been the best thing about the journey.”

As he told the BBC when the new series was announced last autumn, he is looking forward to future adventures when circumstances allow.

“The pandemic has put a stop to many of our travels, but eventually the pandemic will pass, and we will start travelling again. I can’t wait.”

Show is a powerful look back

Incredible Journeys With Simon Reeve “will allow the audience to reflect on some of the most ambitious travel journalism in modern television”, says BBC Two controller Patrick Holland.

John Hay, chief creative officer of The Garden Productions which made the programme, adds: “When we came to putting Incredible Journeys With Simon Reeve together, I couldn’t believe that it had been 17 years since Simon’s travels for the BBC began.

“He’s managed to cover 130 countries in that time, so looking back through those journeys has been an enormously pleasurable armchair world tour, and it’s a privilege to be working with him as he revisits that incredible record himself.”

Incredible Journeys with Simon Reeve airs on BBC Two from Sunday, January 24.

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