My route into media was from the bottom. I’d gotten very low in my teens. I had a realisation after I left school that I had no idea what I was going to do, and I was all on my own. I’ve never felt as lost on any of my journeys as I did at home in Acton when I left school, realising that there was no key anyone was giving me that I could unlock my future with. It was a very dark place.
I woke up one morning and decided I needed to go on a journey. I decided to go to Scotland, set off on the train, and made my way to Glencoe. It might not sound like much to me now, but as a kid who’d never left London on their own it was a hell of a thing. I made it there late in the afternoon, and started pottering around in this place that I’d heard of as a place of myth and legend. It’s a rough old climb up there, but it wasn’t impossible, a breezy tough walk. But it was getting late in the day, and I had no supplies, no proper clothing, no food or water, and this was long before mobile phones. I started meeting people coming the other way who were raising eyebrows at me, because I was going the wrong way at the wrong time. I had nothing on me, just my trainers and a jacket, I was so clearly one of these muppets who eventually get lifted off by mountain rescue. In many ways it all should have gone horribly wrong, but I kept going. I was scrambling up the ridge in near darkness, except for the stars out above me so bright. It was such a glorious moment, I remember sitting there on the stony ridge just taking it all in. I felt such a rush, a sense of satisfaction. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite the thrill of discovery and achievement from anything I’ve done as I did at that moment alone on the ridge in Glencoe. I scrambled back down in the dark. I survived and it changed my life.
Eventually, after trying and failing to get lots of other jobs, I got a job as a postboy on The Sunday Times. I took that chance when it came; I started working at the paper and volunteering, going on little missions, and eventually became an investigator and writer on the paper. That was pretty much the making of me.
I had the dubious distinction of having written the first book in the world on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, a book that came out in 1998. It started out as an investigation into the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993, and when it came out, hardly anyone read it. It sat at the back of bookshops on the dusty shelves. Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly I was thrust onto TV to talk about perhaps the biggest story ever. I went from talking about events on TV, to being asked about appearing on TV.
I started out with a BBC series through Central Asia, in the early 2000s, which was a budget TV series shown in the graveyard shift after Newsnight. It went down pretty well, and they’ve let me carry on making series ever since. The budget meant that we didn’t have the money to make it ludicrously glossy, it was a self-shooting producer-director making them, and not enough time to rehearse and finesse things. You just have to make it up as you go along. But I loved it, it was so much more interesting than some TV projects where people have recces and scripts and rehearsals and multiple takes on different situations. That’s not a hugely interesting way of making TV for me. So I was really lucky that from the start I was brought into a project where the style appealed to me.
I think Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Tropic of Cancer were successes because the very idea of following a somewhat random imaginary line automatically forced me to go to parts of the world that people very rarely visit. Those particular trips were exploring the tropics, the most beautiful and benighted region of the world. Obviously the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer mark a boundary that we’ve identified, but they are also a geographical zone of the planet, with a specific climate and geography, and problems that result as well. It took us to places that people didn’t often see on the box, and there’s a joy in that.
Those projects were the key ones for me, because they took me from doing late-night programmes to something a bit glossier. Sometimes the BBC has asked me to make a series around Ireland or Australia, which clearly aren’t in forgotten corners of the planet. But filming around the Caribbean or across Russia – we’ve definitely gone to places that aren’t often seen on the TV.
I’ve just filmed a series travelling around the Mediterranean and we tried to find situations that are more surprising, perhaps a bit counter-intuitive. We ended up in Benidorm, as you do. While for many travellers Benidorm would be their absolute nightmare, there are experts on sustainability who suggest that actually Benidorm is one of the better models for mass tourism because it’s cramming people into smaller areas so their overall footprint can be reduced. They’re very hot on collecting rubbish, recycling and making sure that plastic doesn’t go into the sea. That was a lovely, different take on a place that we just associate with boozy, bashed-up Brits.
There’s always an artificiality to making TV programmes. There’s always a little bit of manipulation and creation in everything. We try to be as authentic as we can, but I worry a lot about the messages and the images that we’re receiving from even some of the best wildlife shows that are out there, because they do wallow in the imagery of the wonderful natural world. I’m not convinced they’re giving enough context to the problems that are out there, they haven’t been adequately identifying just what is happening with more than seven billion people on this planet. I think it is a failure and a shame. We can’t, as programme-makers, avoid telling the truth to people and showing them what’s going on, because otherwise we’re not just part of the problem, we’re helping to create it in the first place. We risk feeding an image of the planet as a place still teaming with wilderness and beautiful life and that, tragically, is changing very rapidly. It’s a duty, a responsibility, to try to convey that.
There are certainly too many stale, pale, male blokes doing travel shows – doing everything, in fact. There needs to be a real attempt, an insistence, on having more diversity in TV programmes, behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. I think it is quite important to remember that it’s not just about gender and ethnicity. It’s about that whole issue of class as well. We’re still not creating a fully representative country if we have yet another ‘posho’ who’s a different colour or gender representing the people actually in the situation. We’ve got to open opportunities to all.
Since I’ve realised people were quite interested in the fact that my background isn’t Oxford, it isn’t public school, it isn’t education at all really, I’ve started being more open about that because I just think people need to realise that it is possible to make a little something of your life, even if you happen to come from somewhat pathetic backgrounds. So I think we’ve got to encourage others, and there have got to be schemes to push and prod people into interesting positions who don’t come from a conventional background of privilege.
I can watch my shows professionally when I’m scripting them and doing the voiceover, but I don’t sit down and watch them for anything resembling pleasure. I don’t think any presenter should be doing that, that would surely be outrageous narcissism. I still find myself far too irritating for that – my voice I find particularly irritating. But I’ve put up with it to try and get my lad to watch some of them, just so he can see where on Earth his dad disappears to. Sometimes he’ll watch bits of them, and then he’ll just start laughing at my dopiness and we’ll switch over. But I certainly don’t watch myself.
Simon Reeves' book, Step by Step: The Life in My Journeys, is available now
This was published in the November 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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