Si­mon Reeve

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

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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

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