Interview by Jenny Itzcovitz
Well loved adventurer and best selling author, Simon Reeve is shortly embarking on a 45 date UK theatre tour. We caught up with him to find out more about his travels, his new TV programme about Burma and what audiences can look forward to when they see ‘An Audience With Simon Reeve’.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from? I understand you had some interesting jobs when you first left school?
“I grew up in tropical Acton in West London. I didn’t get on with school. I spiralled down in a bad way and came quite close to deciding whether or not I would end it all. I was at a very low point. I flunked an exam, walked out and never went back. I left school with basically no qualifications.
“I was on the dole for a long while. Then I got a few jobs. I ran some charity shops, but organising people of a certain age into a roster was a very tricky art. I worked in a jewellery shop for a day and at the Ministry of Defence for half a day. After I walked out, Special Branch came looking for me because I had worked in a secret department. I got turned down for a job as a white van driver, even though no one else applied for it. I was lost.”
How did you first start making travel documentaries? Who gave you your first break? And what inspired your interest?
“I got a job as a post boy on the Sunday Times, and my world began to open up. I owe my career to Andrew Neil – I’m sure you’ve rarely heard that sentence before! I was very lucky. His idea was to give the post boys an opportunity to have a crack at working on the paper. Everyone else on the paper was Oxbridge, and I was very London. I was pretty unusual, but I was keen and eager and they gave me a chance.”
How did your career progress from there?
“I was this pathetic kid suddenly thrown into an environment where people were doing very exciting things and working on serious investigations. I carved out my own niche – and that was the making of me. First I became an expert in fixing these vital big photocopying machines they had, so they couldn’t sack me.
“Then I fell into investigating terrorism, as you do. I started researching the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and eventually wrote the first book on Al Qaeda, which came out in 1998. Nobody read it. Then I wrote some other books and worked on hard-core investigations where I spent time undercover.”
What changed things for you?
“9/11 happened and suddenly I was chucked into the world of TV. I’d written the only book in the world about the biggest story of the time. I also knew people who died as the Towers came down – I’d met them when I was researching my first book.”
What did that lead to?
“The BBC wanted me to make a series for them. The first ideas were a bit daft. They included wanting me to infiltrate Al Qaeda. I didn’t think that was a very good idea. In the end we settled on the idea of going on adventures in parts of the world that weren’t often on the TV, and into which we would try and work light and shade, both adventure and issues.
“The first BBC series I did in 2003 was called Holidays in the Danger Zone: Meet the Stans, and it was all about my journeys in the Stan countries to the north of Afghanistan, including Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. I loved it from the first day of filming. It was very well received, which was a surprise to me as the presenter. So the BBC had me back, and since then I’ve made more than 100 programmes around the world.”
Some of your adventures have been very dangerous – with you being hounded by the KGB, dodging rockets on frontlines and travelling on risky terrain. What has been your scariest skirmish? And also your most amusing? Can you share a few stories?
“In the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras – the deadliest place in the world outside an active war zone – two colleagues and I went into a prison controlled by the inmates. It had thousands of men crammed into a very tiny space.
“It housed some of the most dangerous people on earth, people who have skinned other gang members alive. It was a cross between Diagon Alley in Harry Potter and an 18th-century sweatshop. It had all sorts of shops like a barber’s and a café, and people were making candles, clothes and wigs in their little cell factories.”
You caught malaria when you travelled around the Equator and later became an ambassador for the Malaria Awareness Campaign. Can you tell us more about it, and how readers should prepare if visiting remote places as part of their holidays?
“It was horrific. My temperature rocketed and I was vomiting blood. I thought my number was up. Luckily I was able to get swift treatment. I was seriously ill for days and had to take weeks off to recover.
“I’ve never felt the same since. I had forgotten to take my anti-malaria tablets and it’s something I still kick myself about. Other people shouldn’t make the same mistake. Check where you’re going and if you need to take medication make sure you take it. Mozzies don’t have to be a nightmare.”
On a lighter note, you appeared in a charity edition of The Great British Bake Off in January 2013. Can you tell us about it? And do you still enjoy baking?
“Bake Off was pretty tricky for me because I’m a hopeless cook and I was the only person in the country who had never watched the show. My wife said just go on there and fail amusingly and give everyone a laugh. But I thought the idea was that you were trained-up during the programme.
“I agreed to do it and then I got a series of endless emails from the producers saying I had to bake a tiered showstopper. If it hadn’t been for charity I’d have probably pulled out. Anyway I baked a cake before the show just to see if I could remember how to mix flour, and that was a bit of a disaster.
“I didn’t do too badly on the show. Mary liked my Bakewell tart. I tried to give her a few nips of whisky to get her on my side. I burnt my cake and tried to use a cheese grater to hide the damage. Mary wasn’t impressed.
“Then someone stole my sieve at a crucial moment and it all went to pot. I know who it was, and I will have my revenge!”
You have recently finished working on a new two-part TV programme about Burma, which is shortly to be screened. Can you tell us a bit about the places you visited and the people and cultures you saw?
“It’s a huge, beautiful place that’s been experiencing enormous changes in recent years, and for a long time I’d wanted to go on a journey around the country. We started planning to go there before the latest Rohingya crisis began developing.
“That catastrophe made it even more important that we should try and get into Burma and capture a sense of what’s happening, but we knew it would be hard to visit some areas of the country where there’s ongoing conflict, so we also went to meet the Rohingya in Bangladesh, and went through Thailand into a remote region of eastern Burma that’s endured decades of fighting.”
You will be embarking on your first ever 45 date theatre tour in the autumn with ‘An Audience With Simon Reeve’. What can audiences look forward to as part of the show? And how are you preparing for it?
“I will be talking about my career and sharing some fantastic background stories and clips that have not been seen before. I am really excited about appearing in front of a live audience as it’s wonderful to get feedback and in a strange way I really like being put on the spot and I love probing questions.
“On stage, I hope I can get across my enthusiasm for the idea of pushing yourself in life.”
What are you most looking forward to when you do the tour?
“I’m hoping to inspire people to climb a hill they thought was too challenging. Live the life you want to live because time is short.
“If your goal is to break out of a rubbish job, I’ve done that. It is possible. Have faith and just do it!”
Have you collected any interesting souvenirs as part of your work or research?
“I’ve got shelves of souvenirs and millions of photos. I’ve come home with knives, carpets, bows and arrows, jewellery and you name it. Usually people have kindly given me something deeply meaningful and I’ve given them my torch. It’s a bit practical but a lifesaver for some people. I take a few spare as a result.
“The weirdest souvenir I’ve been given was probably some dried fish in Dagestan. We were going through security at this tiny airport and our guide thrust them into our hands. There was no way out. We had to wrap them in newspapers but they still stunk out the plane. He just kept smiling happily at us.”
If you were marooned on a desert island and had five famous people or friends to take with you. Who would they be?
“I’d choose friends. I don’t get to see them enough.”
What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any travels, books or adventures planned?
“I am currently filming a series on the Mediterranean which is an extraordinary part of the planet. Nowadays we can go anywhere in the world, but sometimes we overlook what’s closest to home.
“I’m just blown away by how extreme life around the Mediterranean can be. We forget there are magical and horrific places close to our own doorstep.”
Do you have a special message for readers of Sixtyplusurfers?
“I’m very keen that people push themselves into unfamiliar territory. The world can seem a scary place, but it really isn’t.
“This is the golden age for travel. These days, ordinary people can have adventures that in the past only Kings and Queens could have dreamt of. You can go anywhere now.
“Travel teaches us that we should embrace life and not live it on our knees. It’s a wonderful and immediate way of pushing our buttons and exciting our senses.
“We have an enormous planet of seven billion stories and magnificent sights to see and incredible food to eat.”
An Audience With Simon Reeve will be at theatres around the UK from 17th September – for ticket information visit www.simonreeve.co.uk
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Visit the Theatre
DUSTY The Musical
Katherine Kingsley plays Dusty,
photograph by Dominic Nicholls
Casting has been announced for DUSTY, the landmark new musical about her life which will has its world premiere at Theatre Royal Bath in June 2018 before dates at The Lyceum in Sheffield, Newcastle Theatre Royal, and The Lowry in Salford.
Joining the previously announced Katherine Kingsley (Piaf, Singin’ in the Rain) in the title role will be actor, comedian and presenter Rufus Hound (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Wind in the Willows) as Dusty’s manager Billings and Roberta Taylor (The Bill, EastEnders) as Dusty’s mother Kay.
The full cast will include Ishmail Aaron, Jenny Bolt, Alex Bowen, Esther Coles, Joelle Dyson, Joanna Francis, Paul Grunert, Ella Kenion, Adam Lyons, Lisa Mathieson, Katharine Pearson, Micha Richardson, Sadie-Jean Shirley, Hampus Lee Strand and Chad Wilder.
DUSTY features many of the singer’s legendary pop hits, including I Only Want to Be with You, Son of a Preacher Man and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.
London born Dusty Springfield’s career started in the late 1950’s. She soon became known across the world for her soulful voice and iconic look with hits spanning four decades. Dusty was recently voted one of the most influential women of the last 100 years in a poll by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Her 1969 masterpiece ‘Dusty In Memphis’ is one of the greatest albums of all time and Dusty has been inducted into the US Rock and Roll and UK Music Halls of Fame.
DUSTY draws on the memories of her close friend, manager and authorised biographer Vicki Wickham, her lifelong personal assistant Pat Rhodes, and friend and record company executive Tris Penna.
For more information about the show click on www.dustyspringfieldmusical.com
Visit the Theatre
The King and I
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Wantabe,
photograph by Paul Kolnik
The multi Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I will transfer from Broadway to London next summer following a critically acclaimed 16 month run at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater and an unprecedented continuing record-breaking sold out USA tour.
Opening at the world famous London Palladium in June 2018, the show will star the two original Lincoln Center Theater lead actors: Broadway Musical Royalty Kelli O’Hara, who will reprise her Tony Award-winning role of Anna Leonowens, together with film star, Oscar and Tony nominee (for his role on The King and I) Ken Watanabe, who will star in the title role of The King of Siam. Both will be making their West End debuts, following their acclaimed performances on Broadway.
Acclaimed Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher will once again direct the production, hot on the heels of his work on The Lincoln Center Theater’s World Premiere of J.T. Rogers’ smash hit play Oslo, which opened on Broadway and then transferred via the National Theatre to London’s Harold Pinter Theatre in October this year to rave reviews. He, along with the celebrated creative team behind the award winning production of South Pacific, will reunite to bring this majestic production to life at the Palladium.
With music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, THE KING AND I – which won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical – will open its European Premiere at the London Palladium. The production will open 21 June 2018 (Press Night on 3 July 2018) for a limited engagement, booking until 29th September 2018.
One of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest works, this masterpiece boasts a score featuring such beloved classics as Getting To Know You, Hello Young Lovers, Shall We Dance, I Have Dreamed, and Something Wonderful.
Set in 1860s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the imperious King brings to Siam to tutor his many wives and children.
To book London Palladium tickets click on kingandimusical.co.uk
Or call the Box Office: 020 7087 7755