An interview with... Simon Reeve
Former Sunday Times investigative reporter turned award-winning BBC travel presenter Simon Reeve is a born adventurer. His career has seen him lap the world three times, during which he’s been arrested by the KGB for spying in a non-existent country and dined on penis soup in Madagascar (delicious apparently). Compass editor Jennifer Cox meets the man who wrote the ground breaking book on al-Qaeda and battled soggy bottoms on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, to hear why he will never follow in Michael Palin’s footsteps.
Jennifer Cox: What’s keeping you busy at the moment?
Simon Reeve: I was just in India recording a new telly series called Sacred Rivers, following the Ganges across northern India. It’s a three part series: Ganges, Yangtze and ... hopefully the Nile. We’re meant to be going in three weeks, visiting Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt – depending on insurrection and civil war.
JC: You’re probably less fazed by civil war than most television travel presenters: you wrote the first book exposing al-Qaeda and predicted the bombing attacks of 9/11. How did that come about?
SR: I left school with hardly any qualifications. I was on the dole and ran charity shops, then in 1991 I got a job in the post room of The Sunday Times. It was a very meritocratic place, and health and safety rules weren’t as evident as they are now: I quickly went from photocopying clippings and making phone calls to: ‘Oh there’s this Lebanese arms smuggler, if you can just follow him from Gatwick airport…’. There were periods where I was sorting the post for eight hours a day, then spending another eight on investigative work. It was fun, exciting, a wonderful place to learn: it was my university.
JC: Then in 1993 the World Trade Center was bombed in New York.
SR: Yes, it was a massive attack that has largely been forgotten now. I started investigating the same day. After the Sunday Times lost interest, I carried on: thinking there’s more to this. I was young, full of enthusiasm, so I spent five years investigating and researching what we now call al-Qaeda.
JC: Sounds pretty dangerous.
SR: At the time it was more a case of there being crazy blokes out there who weren’t mad keen on west London amateur boy reporters asking difficult questions. I was investigating people associated with al-Qaeda who’d fought in the war in the Balkans – former Yugoslavia – now hiding out in Bologna. I remember being in a room with them clearly talking about whether or not to kill me... There were terrifying moments, but there were incredible moments too: I was a 20-something Brit kid being given classified information by James Bond type characters in the CIA and the Pentagon, Pakistani FBI, militants … as no one else was asking them about it.
JC: But you joined the dots and in 1998 published The New Jackals, the first detailed investigation into Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, in which you predicted a massive terrorist attack against the US. Three years later 9/11 happened.
SR: Yes. My phone started ringing before the second tower had been hit and didn’t stop for about two years.
JC: Fast forward to current times, and that mix of boyish curiosity and harder-edged reporting is evident in your television travel series: it’s not all meeting colourful quirky local characters, you highlight serious issues too.
SR: That’s certainly what the BBC and I set out to do: initially travelling to strange parts of the world that we don’t know enough about, and finding out more about them.
JC: Meet the Stans in 2003?
SR: Yes, my first telly series was about the ‘stan countries of central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kurdistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan wouldn’t let us in unfortunately. From the very first day it was wonderful, fascinating, a great adventure, and I knew that my career was taking a different turn from the very serious journalism I had been doing. But it was as interesting and informative as anything I’d done. Pomposity might have initially discouraged me from embracing the jollier aspects of travel, but adventure and unfamiliar experiences are fundamental parts. There’ll always be people who just want to lay by the pool and top up their tan, but it won’t last or linger in the memory as much as if you meet local people, try dodgy local food...
JC: Penis soup? [2008 in Madagascar, filming the BBC series Tropic of Capricorn]
SR: Yes, I used to write books about terrorism, now I eat penis soup on the telly. But it’s fun, completely memorable and I have travel tales to bore my son with for the rest of his life.
JC: You are extraordinarily prodigious: presenting a major television travel series every year for the last 10 years, bar two. One was 2007, was that when you caught malaria?
SR: No that was marriage.
JC: So 2011 was the birth of your son?
SR: Yes. Though you probably shouldn’t draw attention to the number of series I’m doing: I don’t want the BBC to think I’m on the telly too much.
JC: I think it’s a bit late for that: in the last few weeks the BBC has broadcast: Australia With Simon Reeve, Pilgrimage With Simon Reeve, The Tea Trail With Simon Reeve, The Coffee Trail ... You started out visiting countries few of us had been to, now you’re making series about places like Australia. Did you run out of off-the-beaten-track countries (in 2006’s Equator alone you visited 18) or is it that you’ve developed a style – destination, issues and journey – which works in mainstream destinations too?
SR: Incorporating travel with issues can certainly appeal to a mainstream as well as a niche audience. But yes, after Stans, in 2004 I made Places That Don’t Exist: a series about cool countries no one had heard of – that don’t have a seat in the United Nations – which I absolutely loved.
JC: Even getting arrested by the KGB [for allegedly spying in Transnistria, a separatist region of Moldova)?
SR: Well, it’s a story now, I didn’t like it at the time.
JC: It’s only an anecdote when the dust settles.
SR: Exactly. But no, we shifted from Places That Don’t Exist going out on a late slot after Newsnight, to Equator going out in prime-time, shot by a proper camera man who filmed it beautifully. Trading on the allure of sunshine, tropics, beaches, we lured – to put it bluntly – in an audience to tell them interesting stuff. Indian Ocean  and Australia  were other classic examples of that: it’s a means of telling stories, wrapped up in a journey.
JC: Where do you get your ideas from?
SR: I’ve got a giant map of the world on my desk and I sit there and think: ‘Hmmmm, where has Michael Palin been?’ Because that’s out immediately. I’m not going to do a series on the Himalayas or the Sahara, I’ve got to come up with something different.
JC: Was Michael Palin an inspiration?
SR: Completely. I grew up in Acton, west London, and didn’t get on a plane until I started working. I don’t come from a travelly background, but I watched Around The World in 80 Days and it was very different to other TV travel programmes. It wasn’t patronising, talking slowly and loudly to strange, foreign people, it was sitting down on their level, putting his headphones on them and letting them listen to his music. It was ignoring the barrier of language and race and treating everybody as a fellow brother and sister. We try and do the same, that’s why this stuff matters: ok, they’re in Somalia or Paraguay but we’re connected. Yes it’s a long way but, believe me, it can have an impact on us.
JC: Do you feel this is now the responsibility of a travel presenter, to raise awareness?
SR: There is a fundamental responsibility when you’re making telly programmes to get it right, and reflect the reality as I find it. It can be quite a burden if I’m honest, and there are lots of times when I don’t feel we get it right. I’ve wrestled with that. The responsibility is not just to give people what they want but help guide or educate them so they’re properly informed. That probably sounds very pompous.
JC: You mentioned wrestling … David Attenborough and Michael Palin are getting older and the BBC must be on the lookout for the next Everyman Traveller. Do you think it will come to a fight between you and Professor Brian Cox?
SR: I could take him, I’m from Acton. But seriously, I don’t think he’s got anything to worry about: he’s a professor for god’s sake.
JC: What has travel taught you?
SR: Gobsmacking amounts about the world: about the challenges facing the people of Paraguay, the uplifting stories of the nation of Somaliland. It’s taught me a lot about us as well: how – beyond avoiding war and having enough food on the table – we are all searching for the same purpose or meaning in our lives. I’ve had plenty of time to sit around campfires with indigenous people talking about what motivates them to get up in the morning; hunting for food; why they have that ceremony … Just as I have sitting in a pub with mates asking them the same sort of questions.
JC: What has it taught you about baking? In 2013 you competed in The Great Comic Relief Bake Off.
SR: I honestly thought, not having seen the programme, that you just turned up and were taught to make something. Then several weeks before, I was in Australia and these emails started arriving asking what I was making, what ingredients I needed … it was bonkers. Then my wife explained the idea is: you turn up, make a fool of yourself, everyone is amused, everyone goes home happy.
JC: And you succeeded beyond your wife’s wildest expectations.
SR: I haven’t done a lot of baking, and frankly that became extremely clear to everyone concerned. Though to be fair a couple of my fellow contestants had practised: Warwick [Davis} had seriously practised. And Duncan – Dragon’s Den Duncan [Bannatyne] – had got his butler to whip up a few recipes for him. That’s a bit unfair. And I’m sure Warwick took my sieve at a really crucial moment, thus sabotaging my cake making process.
JC: Top travel moment?
SR: When I was growing up in grey Acton, I had a poster on the ceiling of this perfect tropical beach: glorious white sand, beautiful blue sky, palm tree hanging over the glorious sea … I found that beach in the Maldives, a private island owned by the conservation guide we were working with. It was a lump in the throat moment, thinking this is as close as I’ll get to paradise.
JC: Worst travel moment?
SR: When I thought I was dying from malaria in Gabon, west Africa. It wasn’t good – vomiting blood, temperature, a touch off brain damage – I didn’t think it would end pleasantly.
JC: You said in your most recent BBC series Pilgrimage, ‘’Every journey needs a touch of jeopardy, it helps you feel alive’’.
SR: Did I say that? What an idiot. But we do live very safe lives nowadays. When you’re out of your comfort zone – it doesn’t have to be physical danger, it can be testing your taste buds – it makes travel more memorable, more special. And you’ll come back with not just a tan but a new take on your fellow humans, a new realisation how delicious penis soup or bats’ eyes can be.
JC: You’re a father now. Is there anywhere you’ve been on your television travels that you’d like to return to with your son?
SR: I’d love him to see the world the way I’ve been privileged to see it. We live at a fortunate glorious moment, and people forget how damned lucky we are to be able to hop on a plane and go to the other side of the world, or travel within Europe. It’s something our ancestors could only have dreamt of, and our descendants will think was a gobsmacking luxury. I would like to take my son to Bangladesh. I would like him to see the colour, the vibrancy. The challenges that face most people on this planet, how they have to struggle and adapt to survive – even flourish – even when they don’t have fresh water coming out of the tap. I think it would help him feel a little bit more fortunate about his blessed existence having been born on this little island with a British passport. I also plan to take him up mountains. I love climbing to the top and looking at a view. I’d love to do that with my son.