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.
And now there’s a new, four-part BBC Two series 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.
Ahead of Incredible Journeys with Simon Reeve hitting our screens, we chat to the London-born father-of-one about career highlights, emotional memories and his tough teenage years.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE REACTION TO CORNWALL WITH SIMON REEVE?
It was slightly overwhelmingly brilliant, to be honest. 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.
HAS IT MADE YOU WANT TO MAKE MORE TV SERIES CLOSER TO HOME?
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 INCREDIBLE JOURNEYS WITH SIMON REEVE, YOU VIDEO CALL JAHANGIR, WHO YOU MET AS A 10-YEAR-OLD IN BANGLADESH IN 2010…
I had a right old sob about little Jahangir – now Jahangir the dad, who’s building a new and better life for his family.
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!
YOU ALSO OPEN UP ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL STRUGGLES AND HAVING TO GO ON BENEFITS AS A TEENAGER. HOW WAS IT TO REFLECT ON THAT?
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.
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.
HOW DO YOU THINK SHARING YOUR STORY WILL HELP PEOPLE?
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.
ARE PEOPLE SURPRISED TO HEAR YOUR HISTORY?
Well, I suppose there’s a bit of an assumption that people naturally make that some bod 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.
HOW ARE YOU COPING WITH LOCKDOWN AND THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 IN GENERAL?
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.
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.