TV explorer Simon Reeve fears documentaries make him a climate ‘hypocrite’

Explorer and television presenter Simon Reeve is troubled by the carbon footprint of the travel documentaries he makes and sometimes feels a hypocrite, he has confessed.

Talking candidly about his climate change guilt and also reflecting on his unhappy teenage years on Sunday’s Desert Island Discs, Reeve accepts that his journeys to Australia, Cuba and the Caribbean with the BBC have given him a damaging environmental record.

“Personally, I would like to think there is some tiny value in the programmes I make, and I hope that mitigates in some ways the enormous footprint that I have, and we have, making these journeys. I am not sure we always get it right,” the 49-year-old tells host Lauren Laverne during his appearance on the BBC Radio 4 programme.

“I obviously feel many a time like a hypocrite,” Reeve admits. “We’ve tried to incorporate from the beginning true, honest stories about what’s happening to our planet. And ultimately, the only way we’re going to know what’s happening out there is by going out there and faithfully capturing it and bringing it back for people to see and be shocked by.”

Although in recent years his travels have showcased Cornwall, the Lake District and Cumbria, Reeve said his television career had been built partly on his natural urge to try things which others consider dangerous, such as searching for bears in a forest in the middle of the night. Documentaries including Holidays in the Danger Zone: Places That Don’t Exist, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn have involved filming in hostile surroundings. Reeve cites a perilous moment when he and his team realised the place they had gone to for interviews about the source of an illicit new drug was actually the den of a criminal gang. “I do feel a sense of responsibility in that sense, but I work with people who I trust and I hope trust me, we’re alert to risk and danger probably more than most people,” he says.

Reeve also talks to Laverne about his upbringing, which did not follow the conventional lines of the gentlemen explorers of Britain’s past. In fact he reveals he did not fly on a plane until he was an adult: “I think that’s partly why I’m so grateful for the journeys I’ve been on since; I don’t take them for granted as a result.”

He discusses being “trouble” as a teenager and clashing with his late father. He hung around with friends who stole cars and committed acts of vandalism. “I was carrying a knife by the time I was 12 or 13 … I’m not proud of what I did or saw or people I knew were up to … I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Reeve says.

Despite counselling, Reeve says his confidence disappeared. “I lost my way and by the time it got to exams and schooling I was in a terrible state.”

When he left school the TV presenter had only one GCSE and faced an uncertain future. He had no job prospects and had suffered from mental illness since the age of 15. He confides that he once found himself “on the edge of a bridge” considering ending his life, but “stepped back in every possible sense”.

An encounter with a kind employee at a benefits office helped reassure him that things might change, he says. Reeve responded by setting off to climb in Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, inspired by the location of the film Highlander. Reeve then went on to work at the Sunday Times, starting in the post room at 17. He was eventually trusted with his own news stories, carrying out investigations into organised crime and nuclear smuggling.

In the late 90s Reeve wrote one of the first books about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. After 9/11 the book attracted media attention and he became a commentator on American media networks, leading to his broadcasting career.

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