■ The TV presenter, 53, on his Croatian background, Dom Joly’s medical insight and exploring faith on a pilgrimage
Why did you do this celebrity pilgrimage?
I like talking about faith and I love walking so it seemed like a good opportunity. I’m pro-religion and think it gets a bad rap — I think religion does more good than harm and I’m always interested in making that point.
A group of you walked from Belgrade in Serbia to Istanbul in Turkey. Had you been to those places before?
I’d been to Belgrade. My mum’s Croatian so I’ve spent time in that area — Serbia, Montenegroand Bosnia. But I’d never walked through the Serbian countryside or been to Bulgaria or Turkey outside of Istanbul. It was so beautiful and we were lucky with the weather as well because it could have been miserable.
Walking through villages picking fruit looks idyllic…
It was. And Edwina Currie stole an apple! An ex-Tory minister stealing from peasants — I’m glad we got that one on camera.
Was there anyone in your group you didn’t like?
I wouldn’t admit to that — but there wasn’t. I’d met Edwina before and she’s always value for money. I know comedian Dom Joly a bit. Part of me was thinking pop star Taylor Swift or ex-footballer David Beckham might be in it but I was very pleased with our magnificent seven. I became firm friends with Father Ted actress Pauline McLynn and Dom — they’re properly hilarious. They think a lot about the world. They’re both atheists and havebig intellectual hinterlands, although they’d scoff at me saying that. The others included former Olympic javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread, BBC Asian Network broadcaster Mim Shaikh and blind television presenter Amar Latif.
Didn’t Dom diagnose you with sleep apnoea?
Yeah, I had an inkling I might have it. Dom has it too and, after just one night with him listening to the wayI breathed and snored, he said, ‘You’ve definitely got sleep apnoea. Go and get it sorted.’ Before we went walking that day I got in touch with his specialist and went to see him when I got home. It’s helped matters although there’s no miracle cure. I would stopbreathing about 20 times an hourso it doesn’t do you any good and it’s related to things such as hypertension. I don’t want to overstate it because there are worse things to be wrong with you but it explains why I was having only half a night’s sleep and waking up knackered.
You admit you’re not so good in the mornings. Maybe that’s why…
I quite like the mornings but I just don’t like speaking to anyone in the mornings. That’s maybe why breakfast television didn’t work out for me! That might be the case. I hadn’t really thought about that.
Have you had a religious moment?
I come from an atheist family but I went with a mate to a Mass in London and was entranced by some of the liturgy and the standing up and sitting down and crossing yourself all at thesame time, which I couldn’t really do. But I felt like they were people a bit like me.
What moments stood out on the walk?
We went to a service at a big Orthodox church and it was great as a Catholic Croat to spend some time in a Serbian church. Also, at the top of one Bulgarian mountain Pauline made me a lovely crisp and cheese sandwich. It felt like the finest thing a man could eat after a hard day’s walk. In fact, she made two and I went up to the summit and by the time I got back she’d eaten the second one. But, as you know, the good Lord gives and the good
Lord takes away.
What attracts you to do a TV show these days?
If it looks interesting and satisfies some level of curiosity. I do Our Coast for the BBC and it’s great going to places you probably wouldn’t otherwise and meeting people you wouldn’t normally. That is, now you mention it, the main reason for me to do anything. I was asked to do Strictly and it was the only time my kids said, ‘Absolutely not in a million years, no way.’ Not that I wanted to but they made that decisive judgment. And I was asked to do Dancing On Ice but more or less everyone I know banned me from doing that. I think I could do MasterChef but I’ve never been asked. I was in a comedy film with Johnny Vegas and Mackenzie Crook called Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, playing the host of a sex party (I was clothed), but I couldn’t do more of that – there’s far too much faffing around in film-making.
You don’t seem to mind sharing personal stuff on TV…
No, but you have to be careful about oversharing. I’m glad I did a programme on alcohol [2018’s Drinkers Like Me, about excessive boozing]. We’ll seewhat comes up next. It’s so hard to get anything commissioned that it’s kind of broken my spirit a bit. I’m just up for anything a bit different.
■ Pilgrimage: The Road To Istanbul airs on Fridays at 9pm on BBC2