Chance of a lifetime…

By, Sergio Burns

In one of the toughest jails in the world, where even the guards dare not enter, we find him on the inside with the Bishop of San Pedro Sula (Honduras) who takes full responsibility for his safety. In Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the darkest, most lawless places on the planet, he is surrounded by 12 Kalashnikov-carrying bodyguards, all stoned on the local drug of choice. On a long sliver of debated land called Transnistria, somewhere between Moldova and Ukraine, he is detained for spying.

“It is emotional,” BBC travelogue filmmaker Simon Reeve admits. “I am a bit of a wreck from all these experiences. I haven’t become hardened to people’s stories, I am very pleased to say, in one respect, but on the other hand I find it quite difficult to deal with… the strength of the stories that I have heard over the years. I get very involved and very affected by what I hear, and I think that’s how it should be. I don’t work with people who have cement hearts. We are all touched and moved by what we see and experience, and some times it can be hard to stay focused when we are talking with someone… telling us of their joy or their tragedy. But we have to try and remember that…we are just a portal to try and capture that story for people watching. I think I try and give as much as I possibly can whilst still remembering we are making a TV programme.”

He reflects for a few seconds, tells me he is nursing a sore mouth, the result of recent dental treatment (Wisdom teeth) but is now dosed up on Ibuprofen.

“I mean,” he starts up again. “I see the world as a very safe and welcoming place. That’s been the great surprise for me since I began travelling extensively. But having said that, yes, I have had to go to some scary places, that is part of the job.”

Simon Reeve’s documentaries are famed for their transparent unravelling of a nation’s cultural, social and, often, dark side. The tragedy, comedy and, sometimes, absurdity of distant lands as travelogues are driven by the man’s insatiable curiosity, and easy going, personable nature.

He makes compelling viewing, often appearing as if he has just accidentally stumbled across these areas of the world. Some beautiful and hospitable, some God-forsaken and hostile. No matter, it always seems as if he has just witnessed something important and is, in the most natural and genuine way, reporting from the scene.

It is a long way from his awkward teenage years, riven with doubt, uncertainty and aimlessness.

“I was lost,” he told me quietly when I asked about his early working life. “Hopeless, fired (after a day in a jewellery store)… but I was looking… so I did try. I think people can often forget how difficult it is when you leave school with not much direction or qualifications and sometimes…sink, and that was me, I sank quite deep actually and it took a long time for me to claw my way out.”

Salvation gradually arrived. He found himself on a road which finally allowed him to develop his talents.

– Craig Hastings, Series -Australia

– BBC TV series ‘Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve’  © Andrew Carter

Swallowed by his early experience of drifting through various jobs, the ‘lost boy’ was first given a break when he found a job at a newspaper and got interested in investigative reporting. This led to him writing an unlikely, though gripping book – I have it at home – on terrorism ‘The New Jackals’.

“As you say, yes I have the dubious distinction of having written the first book on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda,” he agreed, “That was something I worked on during the 1990’s from the age of 21 which sounds astonishing to me now. I started working on that the… same day as the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. A lot of people have completely forgotten about it basically, but I was working on investigations on the newspaper at the time and I was quite fascinated by what had happened, and the more I learned about it the more I thought there was a bigger story behind it. So, I started working on it as a story in my spare time and that evolved into what I randomly thought could be a book, and I left the paper.”

Over five years Reeve poured himself and all his money into the book which came out in 1998 and 1999 in the USA and UK respectively. It was the first piece of literature to tackle the subject of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and prophetically warned of a new age of terrorism. It was, with hindsight, groundbreaking.

“The book sank like a stone,” he told me, not missing the irony. “Nobody took any real notice of it. My parents went round bookshops, moving it from the back of the store to the front. I went off and worked in other things and 9/11 happened. Well, obviously, the world changed and I had written the only book out there on Osama Bin Laden, and so I was thrust onto TV to talk about the subject and the group and what and where and why and how and that ultimately led to my strange little TV career “.

He also refers to being ‘relatively’ young at the time he started getting regularly booked on US TV in the wake of 9/11. Additional attributes were that he had his own ‘hair and teeth’, something the television world, in its shallowness, adores.

He now has a highly successful television career. His vocation suits him, what he does fits him and in many, many ways it is him. His work is a flow between the person he is and what he does, built on his understated charisma and his unique sense of what this global existential ride might actually be all about…

The one disappointment is that, though he is certain he has been to Ayrshire and returns to Glasgow on Saturday, October 13, to appear at the Pavilion, his memory is vague.

“I think that this is one of the most beautiful islands on the Earth,” he says enthusiastically. “Yeah, I don’t know Ayrshire well enough, so I need to get out and explore more of the UK regardless of whether the BBC are going to send me or not, you know I have flipping well got to come and take a look around, you’re right.”

He remains busy. A new journey is in the process of being filmed, not Ayrshire (yet) but around the Mediterranean, due to be on the BBC’s Autumn schedules.

“It sounds like a right jolly,” He laughs. “But if you think of the east of the Mediterranean and the south of the Mediterranean… it is actually pretty extreme out there.”

Reading Reeve’s story should, perhaps, give us all hope. An inspirational trek across the valleys of utter disaster and the dizzily high mountains of success. But his own personal success comes from doing something he is ultimately good at and has a passion for. Isn’t that inspirational? Because, probably, somewhere inside us all we have that potential.

Simon Reeve will appear at the Pavilion in Glasgow on Saturday, October 13, 2018.