When Simon Reeve first pops up on Zoom from his cosy Dartmoor bolthole, he appears the very picture of a BBC travel documentarian. Then the man who’s visited more than 120 countries and has been described as a young David Attenborough for his stunning nature footage starts telling me how he misses the Northern line.
“My God, I miss the Tube,” he sighs as dogs Lyla and Obi tug at his heels for a walk. His wife Anya, a camerawoman and former Green Party candidate, had to “slightly” force him to decamp to the countryside eight years ago and he thumps his fist against his chest in pride as he lists the things he craves most from the city where he was born: the people, the bright skies, Hampstead Heath, Soho, grime, “even the cocktails and 24-hour bagels”.
Reeve might be a city boy at heart but like many Londoners trapped in lockdown, he misses the thrill of adventure now. After a difficult upbringing in west London and almost taking his own life at 17, travel has become a lifeline for Reeve and what started as a postboy job for a newspaper has resulted in a 15-year career bringing flagship travel shows to millions of people. He now has 115,000 followers on Instagram and his 2018 memoir with tales of walking through minefields, dodging bullets on frontlines and journeying across epic landscapes became a Sunday Times bestseller.
Since March, however, the world that Reeve, 48, has made a career out of has been under threat. Travel is top of the agenda right now but not for good reason: UK borders are now closed to anyone without a negative test result, airline chiefs report an industry on its knees, and now the vaccine has raised a new question of whether it will be ethical to travel in a post-Covid world.
“Even if I have this vaccine… and pitch up in a village in Bolivia with all the best intentions, what if I take the virus with me?” asks Reeve, saying he’s met tribes almost entirely wiped out by viruses as commonplace as measles.
Thankfully, this was not a dilemma Reeve has had to confront for his latest BBC2 show. The four-part series, Incredible Journeys with Simon Reeve, started on Sunday and sees the presenter look back over travels from the past two decades, from a £10,000-a-night hotel in Mexico to eating soup made from ox penis in Madagascar. Episode one focuses on the characters he’s met along the way, including a homeless woman living inside a railway bridge in Hollywood and a Bangladeshi child labourer called Jahangir working barefoot in a glass factory. Narrations (and an emotional Zoom reunion with Jahangir 10 years on) are filmed in a Covid-compliant manner from Reeve’s family home in Devon. As a “contrary type”, Reeve wasn’t keen on making the show at first: “Everyone and their mum and dad seemed to be making a lockdown compilation archive series.” But quickly he realised there was benefit in telling untold stories — not just those of his interviewees, but also his own.
“I didn’t go on exotic foreign holidays when I was a lad,” the presenter tells viewers in Sunday’s episode , referencing his teenage years in “tropical Acton”, vandalising cars and letting off fireworks, one of which hit a policeman. He didn’t step on a plane until he was an adult and struggled with depression and panic attacks growing up. At his lowest point, aged 17, he found himself clutching the railings of a bridge and considering taking his own life. “I can still project myself back into those moments and that fear,” he tells me, his voice cracking. “It was a very, very life-threatening time for me.” Reeve spent years in counselling but credits the catalyst for his recovery to a lady in a job centre who told him to take things “step by step” — the title of his memoir. After leaving school with no qualifications, he found himself a job as a postboy for The Sunday Times and was later promoted to the newsroom by then-editor Andrew Neil, developing a specialism in terrorism.
“Within a few years I went from being a terrified, suicidal teenager to a writer,” he tells viewers. Reeve has since found ways to manage his mental health (historically travel and now walking), but says that depression will always be a part of his “wiring”, likening it to a smell. “I can still sense it — it encourages me and drives me forward — but it still lurks there”. His memoir was the first time he talked about it publicly and meeting readers on the subsequent book tour highlighted how many people were struggling in his own country.
“People who can seem stable as a rock can have just a few moments of bad luck and they can be thrown into a very difficult place,” he says, noting that poor mental health can affect anyone. “Nobody should think they’re immune.”
Writing about his upbringing also opened a door for Reeve to discuss the subject with his son Jake, aged nine. He jokes that he’d only give himself three out of 10 as a parent but says he and his wife were determined to reward Jake for speaking about his “head health” from an early age. His most pressing concern while homeschooling is letting Jake’s world get too small, like his own did. “My gaze was just a few streets in my area,” Reeve says of his teenage years. His concern is that young people’s imaginations and aspirations will suffer if the same thing happens for them. As a parent, Reeve would also like to see greater guidelines on social media and body image for young people, with restrictions on photoshopped images. Even as a TV presenter, he “can’t stand” watching himself back and mocks the “hideous” photo of himself on his assistant’s Zoom background.
Today, Reeve says he still suffers with “voices” in his head and like many people, he has struggled with feelings of helplessness during the pandemic.
“I think a lot of us feel impotent,” he says of the last 10 months. “We want to play our role in this great national crisis, and our role is to sit on our butts and watch telly. It doesn’t quite feel like storming occupied Europe during the Second World War.”
If we must watch TV, Reeve’s work at least offers some much-needed fresh material. When lockdown hit, he and his crew had to pause their The Americas series, so swapped South America for adventures closer to home. Last autumn Reeve explored Cornwall as the tourist destination raced to survive post-lockdown, while Sunday’s show takes him closer still: to an island off Devon.
We took travel for granted — I hope that will change
This appreciation for what’s on our doorstep has been the silver lining of the pandemic, Reeve continues. Though he is “a little bit addicted” to foreign travel, he will always relish the homecomings to family, the dogs and Radio 4, and his adventures along the South coast have reminded him how to be a “wide-eyed traveller” in his own backyard.
He hopes this renewed appreciation will change people’s views on foreign travel, away from sunny breaks by a pool towards leaving one’s comfort zone. “Life is too bloody short and the planet is too bloody special to waste it on just getting a tan,” says Reeve. “I think we’d started to get to a point where we were taking travel for granted — I hope that’s something that will change.”
He hopes his new show could help those who are struggling. “I’ve been to some of the darkest places in the world and personally, I’ve been in darkness. I know that for all of us there can be light at the end of a tunnel.” For him, that light has always been adventure. “We will go on journeys again. It’s important we retain that belief with absolute certainty.”
Incredible Journeys with Simon Reeve airs every Sunday at 8pm on BBC2. Episode one is now on iPlayer