TV adventurer Simon Reeve was in a dark place when he arrived at Glencoe but as Brian Beacom discovers, his visit helped him find the strength to banish his demons
Glencoe saved me from a dark place
WHEN we think of TV adventurer Simon Reeve we probably think of a genial, floppyhaired bloke with Kevlar skin who can deflect anything the world blasts in his direction. And why wouldn’t we? The presenter of shows such as the BBC’s Equator has dodged pirates in Mogadishu, tiptoed his way through minefields in the Caucasus and smiled gratefully on being diagnosed with malaria while in Gabon. (He feared it was Ebola.)
Yet, while Reeve can cope with being bombed by Colombians or hounded by the Mafia, the reassuring positivity and calm he presents is only part of the 46-year-old’s character. The boyish, upbeat face he presents to the world, you discover, doesn’t betray his dark past.
We’ll come to that later, but first some exploration of the man who has worked in more than 120 countries in the past 15 years. Growing up in Acton in west London, the hometown of showbiz legends such as Adam Faith and Alan Rickman, and where Phil Collins went to theatre school, did Reeve also fancy himself on stage playing Oliver!?
Not a bit of it. “I am ashamed to admit that I was part of a group that vandalised Phil Collins’s drama college,” he says. What? You’re set to appear in Glasgow as part of a national tour in which you talk about adventuring – and you’re confessing to hooliganism. Surely you must have performed some teenage role other than Bad Boy? “No, I wish I’d been inspired enough to go to theatre school. Instead, I just floated through my crappy comprehensive and hated every minute of it.”
So what was wrong back then, Simon? Confused? Misdirected? Angry? He doesn’t answer the question directly. Not yet, anyway. Instead he offers a wide view. “I think all of us are capable of anything. I’ve met people around the world who live in the most dire, appalling conditions who clearly have a spark about them. If they had been born with my passport they would have achieved something great. And that perspective applies to all of us. We are nudged and pushed into paths in life but what I’ve learned since is we are capable of anything.”
As a teenager, Reeve felt capable of very little. He dropped out of school and took on series of no-hope jobs. (“They were unutterably shit.)” He worked in a jewellers in Oxford Circus, for example, but
lasted just one day, sacked after he took the keys home. He once landed a job photocopying secret files for the MoD, which demanded he be unlocked out of a room to go to the toilet. “I went out for lunch and never went back,” he recalls, breaking into a wide smile. “Later on they sent Special Branch round to my house.”
Reeve laughs a lot as he recounts his tales. You get the sense he’d be great company at a dinner party. “I once went for a job as a white van driver, my mates were doing this at the time, so it seemed a good idea, and at the interview the boss told me I was the only person to apply – and he still didn’t give me the job. During the interview he had the van keys in his hands, rattling them, teasing me, and he wouldn’t give me a reason why he wouldn’t hire me.”
Reeve adds: “Mind you, I wouldn’t have given me keys to the van, partly because I was a bit too good at handbrake turns at this time in my life.”
THE need to handbrake-turn his way through life began to abate by the age of 18. Intelligence/awareness descended and the teenager reckoned he needed to toe the line. Fast. “I was desperate for a job. I had left school, been on benefits. I would have done any job people asked. Nothing was beneath me. And I think that helped me.”
Reeve’s life changed when he landed a post-boy job with the Sunday Times. He was so keen to make this very ordinary job work that others – the investigations editor in particular – saw the potential in this clever grafter. Within a short time Reeve found himself working as an investigations reporter. “It’s hard for people now to understand how fluid and lively a newsroom world was back then, before we were governed by health and safety and risk assessment. Back then the paper played a little fast and loose with employment rules, where anything was possible. And because they needed bodies to do things I was volunteered.”
Yes, but Reeve was game for anything. “Even while I was sorting the post and running errands, I was finding neo-Nazi terrorists who were on the run in the UK.” He adds: “In fact, I chased around a lot after nut jobs.”
The post boy-turned reporter found himself researching terrorism, leaping into opportunity the way TV viewers have since seen him leap onto pirateoccupied beaches. He was in his milieu.
But what if it had been the literary editor who had taken a shine to him rather than the investigations editor? “There was a bit of luck attached to this,” he says, smiling. “My path was set by that. And I can’t claim a huge intellect, that I could actually have written book reviews at that age.
But I was a grafter. Even when I was photocopying I was trying to impress.”
Reeve’s investigation work saw him go on to write a book about Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the first of its kind to explore the organisation. Luck, or fantastic instinct? “I can’t claim a huge number of skills but I can see a story if it appears in front of me,” he says. “I was 19 in 1993 when the World Trade Centre was attacked and I sensed a bigger story so I began beavering away.”
After five years at the paper he decided to leave and write a book, The New Jackals, about the terrorist threat. “Which you can do if you don’t have a mortgage. But the paper had been my university and I came out a different person. I’d dealt with some really difficult situations.”
The New Jackals became an international bestseller. (Reeve had predicted an apocalyptic terrorist strike was almost inevitable.) Subsequent events saw the prescient young man being interviewed by the world’s major news organisations.
Was he surprised however when the offers came to front adventure television? “I’d done a lot of punditry in really big TV shows across the world. But while sitting in a studio it was never put to me: ‘You will be a TV presenter.’ It was more about me suggesting I go on the road. And I loved it from the first moment I arrived in Kazakhstan.”
Reeve had never flown before he began working. Now, here he was revealing the world’s dangers and wonders through his eyes. “It was adventure with meaning, if I can say that without sounding too pretentious. It wasn’t new, but it was brilliant to do.”
I had no idea where I was going. I wasn’t dressed for climbing, I had nothing with me but I climbed and scrambled from rock to rock, and somehow I made it up to the top as dark was falling. I felt I had actually achieved something. This was the first time in my life I felt I could move on
Reeve went on to make more than 60 programmes for the BBC. Does he look back now at high school and wonder why teachers didn’t recognise his potential? “Maybe, but I don’t blame anyone. Timing is important. I wasn’t inspired or inspiring as a lad and there are lots of reasons for that. But I’m so happy to have found a job with a purpose and meaning. So many people do jobs in which they can’t contribute. And it’s destroying. That’s why when I’m on this tour I want to encourage people to travel, to show them where to go.”
ISUGGEST that many young men’s lives are wasted, sometimes lost, because they lack a sense of purpose. In previous generations, there was easier access to good jobs. Even National Service played a part in character formation ... The comment turns out to be the key that unlocks Reeve’s memory chest.
“Yes, I don’t come from a traditionally telly, Oxbridge background,” he says. “Actually, what happened after I flunked out of school was I went to a very low point. In fact, I came close to ending it all. And I really understand the youngsters out there who feel the world has nothing to offer. I’ve been there. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was at that point.”
Why didn’t he take off backpacking, or speak to his parents about what he needed? Reeve opens up about that part of his life. “I had a terrible relationship with my dad at the time. I had been rebelling and he was a taskmaster. My dad was a teacher in a tough London comprehensive, and he was quite chippy because he was never going to advance. So I couldn’t turn to my parents.” He adds, in soft voice: “Sometimes you need someone outside your circle to point you in the right direction.”
What pulled him back from the edge of the cliff? “I sensed how painful it [the end] could be. And a few people said things which I took as great wisdom.” He pauses to reflect: “I owe a lot to a lady in a DSS office in Ealing, who one day realised what was happening to me. She told me to take things step by step. I never had that sort of comment before. It wasn’t just what she said, it was the way she said it with a warmth and a humanity, all at such a difficult point in my life. So I tried to dig myself out of the hole.”
His voice reflects those dark days. “A lot of people tell you to reach for the stars these days. That doesn’t help at all. I think this is ludicrous. I was struggling just to get out of bed at the time. To make it to the Job Centre was a huge challenge.”
Reeve knew he had to choose life. But how to find a positive in life. He needed a dramatic solution. “I felt I had to drive somewhere. I don’t know why but I hired a crappy car and came to Scotland. Maybe I’d been watching Highlander. Anyway, I went up to Glencoe, to the Lost Valley [Coire Gabhail], completely at random.”
He adds with a wry smile. “I had no idea where I was going. I wasn’t dressed for climbing, I had nothing with me. But I climbed, and I scrambled, from rock to rock, and somehow I made it up to the top, and dark was falling, and I felt I had actually achieved something. This was the first time in my life I felt I could move on.”
TACKLING one of nature’s incredible challenges proved he could face whatever the world could throw at him. Although not that same day. “I was one of those urban muppets who ends up being saved by mountain rescue services,” he grins.
The experience made him realise what he’d missed out on as a child. He’d been a boy who needed to be tested, challenged, pushed to adventure by his parents. “I should have gone further as a kid, gone out of my area,” he admits. “Now I truly realise what I get from the [TV] journeys.”
Reeve’s upcoming tour, should perhaps be made compulsory viewing for high school students, particularly young men who feel unchallenged and lost. Otherwise, they should read his upcoming autobiography, Step By Step. But while Simon Reeve has discovered what he needs to challenge him, he is now married with a son (the family live in Devon).
Does this heighten a sense of his own vulnerability? “Yes, and I take that on board. I’m not blasé about risks. I don’t work with adrenalin junkies or nutters. The first trip after my son was born, we went to Mogadishu, which was mad, but it’s my job. However, we are as careful as we can be.”
He adds: “I realise accidents and risks are everywhere. I want to come home to my lad. And if the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I’m filming somewhere, I’m soon demanding we get out.”
Will he move into less demanding areas of television? “I’ve never played the long game,” he admits. “I just look at things as they come up.”
His face breaks into a wide smile. “But what I have come to learn over the years is I’m on TV because I’ve got my own hair and teeth.” The smile graduates to a full-blown laugh. “TV is shallow enough to need that. So I may go on doing what I do a little while yet.”
An Audience With Simon Reeve, the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, October 13
Below: Simon Reeves (pictured here with brother James) went through a difficult time in his youth
Main image: Reeve in The Russian Republic of Dagestan filming his Russia TV series