Simon Reeve turns 52 this year, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Before our interview begins I find him pacing around, trying to find a coffee for his colleague.
“What about this secret door?” he asks, turning the handle and poking his head through. Adventure, it seems, can even be found in the basement of a London hotel.
It can also be found along the Tropic of Capricorn in Australia, and in South America – to name just a few of the BBC series that Reeve has presented in recent years. Turkey, the Lake District, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean. If you have been following Reeve’s two-decade television career closely, you might wonder if there’s anywhere left to explore – without air-dropping him smack-bang in the middle of Earth’s most remote landscapes, that is.
Enter Wilderness with Simon Reeve. This four-part BBC series explores some of the planet’s most inhospitable locations, “where nature still has the upper hand”: the Congo rainforest, the Kalahari desert, the Pacific Ocean and the mountains of Patagonia. Green, orange, blue and white. This is, in the words of the series’ executive producer Sam Bagnall, “his most ambitious series yet – brutally tough”.
In episode one we find Reeve on a boat, revving up the River Congo as he and a guide attempt to track down the nomadic hunter-gatherer Baka people, and then the elusive bonobo – perhaps mankind’s closest relative. It is territory that few Western people have explored, yet it is familiar to the armchair traveller. In his mid-Noughties series, Tribe, Bruce Parry immersed himself in indigenous communities around the world. Sir David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries, meanwhile, will simply never be surpassed.
So what sets Reeve apart? Well, in Wilderness we see a jigger flea pulled from his cameraman’s foot in the dead of the night while Reeve looks on in disgust (“that is properly gross”), we see him join a wildebeest hunt, get mobbed by bees and enter areas that are days away from medical help. We are, with this series, coming close to the limits of what a television production company can feasibly – and safely – film.
And crucially, our protagonist, Reeve, isn’t some rock-chested ex-marine; nor is he the former director of the BBC. He’s what many might call normal. A “tall, pasty Brit” in his words. He is proud of getting properly stuck in, carrying his own gear and tying his own hammocks (no Winnebagos in the jungle). But his superpower, which keeps viewers coming back, is his knack of disarming the people he meets along the way. So what’s his secret?
“Eye contact definitely helps,” Reeve says. “But really, it’s all in the editing. ‘Oh I’m so friendly, what a jolly chap.’ Obviously I’m awful as a human being and they make me look good,” he teases; this is his default setting and the true key to his approachability. On a serious note, he adds: “People are really lovely across this planet. I’m just trading off their niceness.”
His public relations advisor interrupts to order Reeve some food; he’s been here for six hours in back-to-back interviews. He asks for a portion of chips, but she insists on ordering him something more substantial. They settle on fish and chips. I say he must be exhausted.
“Bloody ‘ell, people work down mines for God’s sake!” he says, mock-outraged, in his Acton twang.
This accent, and his background, set Reeve apart from his travel broadcasting peers. He went to comprehensive school in west London and his difficult teenage years – getting in trouble at school, contemplating suicide – are documented in his bestselling memoir, Step By Step.
“I don’t come from that traditional background that seems to give people the confidence,” he puts on the voice of an army major, “to go straight out there in the world and start making programmes about it.” He actually cut his teeth as a political journalist, writing about the threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in his debut book, The New Jackals which was published in 1998 – three years before the 9/11 attacks.
Still, it is an unavoidable fact that he follows in a long line of television travel presenters – Parry and Attenborough, but also Ray Mears, Bear Grylls, Michael Palin – who all fit a certain demographic. Isn’t it time that the BBC’s most-commissioned travel presenter handed the baton to a different voice, with a different perspective on the world?
“I’m definitely a privileged white bloke from London,” he says. “If I’d grown up in the northeast? Not a fricking chance. How would it even happen?
“The only people who ever ask for me to mentor them, or give advice, they’re all public schoolboys. It’s never a teacher running a media studies course at Preston College. That ambition has to be encouraged in people,” he blows his lips. It’s a much wider societal issue, he says. Of course things need to change.
“I’m amazed I’m still on telly, representing male middle-age privilege as I do. And I totally understand that I’ll lose my lovely gig. But I’ll hold on as long as I can, by making my programmes less about me, but more about the people I’m meeting.”
Given the opportunity, he may be holding on for some time yet. In middle age, Reeve clearly still loves the job – “it is an incredible privilege” – and the fire in his belly burns bright. If anything is going to stop him, it will be his body. At one point he shows me a book that he was given as a gift by another interviewer, and theatrically holds it a good foot away from his eyes as he reads out the title. Is he starting to feel old, I ask?
“I was very ill the year before last, I had paratyphoid. It was the illest I’ve been since I had malaria in 2006. I nearly died on both occasions. I was flushed with antibiotics, and that’s taken its toll. My gut’s going to take some proper rebuilding,” he says, racking his brain for other bodily problems.
“My knees have been a bit of a problem. I’ve got orthotics in my shoes…” he trails off. All things considered, he’s holding up well.
A wholesome and outdoorsy home life might have something to do with it. Reeve lives in Dartmoor with his wife, Anya (a camerawoman and campaigner), and son, Jake, aged 12, and he says he hopes to take his boy on expeditions one day. Even to the Congo? Maybe. Although he baulks when I suggest his son might follow in his footsteps as a presenter. “I’m going to lock away his passport,” he retorts. “He’s my one child!”
The fish and chips arrive and we’re nearly done. But I have to ask one final question, which I promised my mother-in-law (a fan) that I would ask. The floppy brown hair, the unblemished skin, the pearly grin. What’s the secret to his eternally youthful appearance?
“It’s luck. Everything is luck in life. I’ve got the wig, of course, no I mustn’t even say that. I once said, flippantly, to a journalist that I had plastic surgery and they put it in an article. My mum freaked out.”
Does he not even dye his hair? He leaned in so I could get a closer look.
“I don’t even dye my hair.”
“No! That’s revolting,” then he checks himself. “But if I needed it to keep the gig, who knows? People do what they have to do.”
Wilderness with Simon Reeve airs on Sundays at 9pm from January 21 on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.