■ The adventurer, 45, on going from post boy to TV presenter, learning to dodge landmines and red tape in Russia
You’re going on a theatre tour. What can people expect?
Chatting about my travels and the adventures I’ve had around the world and the inspiring people I’ve met on the way. I’ve been to 120 countries and been to some of the most dangerous and beautiful parts of the planet. I’ve had bizarre experiences — I’ve walked through landmines, been taught to fish by the president of Moldova, ludicrous things have happened. I’ll be talking about my background. I’m not from a wealthy public school background — I left school, went on the dole and my ambition was to be van driver and I didn’t achieve that. I got a job as a post boy at a newspaper instead. The tour is for people who love to travel or who want to travel.
Where was the minefield?
Russia — we were going to see a site being de-mined. We were walking towards it, saw a dead cow with its back legs blown off and someone screamed: ‘Don’t move, we’re in a minefield!’ I froze like a statue. An army guy pulled up in a jeep and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just tank mines,’ so our weight wouldn’t set them off. So we started carefully retracing our steps.
How did you go from working in a post room to doing this?
I’d sort the post then volunteer to do things like photocopying cuttings — and I made myself indispensable, as I was the only person who could fix the photocopiers. From there I started helping out on investigations. It evolved to the point where I was doing surveillance on arm dealers. I started investigating the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, left the paper and spent five years researching a book about it. It was hard work. It came out and no one read it until 9/11 happened — then people wanted to talk to me about it. That started my route into TV. The first series involved me going to Kazakhstan and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Is it difficult to get the work you do if you don’t have public school or university contacts?
Yes — if you look at people in the media there’s a massive over-representation of public-school types. That’s still an issue in TV in front of and behind the camera. There seems to be a route into TV where you go to public school, join the army, go on expeditions and a TV producer finds you and puts you on camera. That’s perfectly legitimate but there must be routes for ordinary folk as well. I don’t have a conventional background for a TV presenter but I’m fortunate the BBC has had faith in me and we’ve now done 110 programmes.
What’s the most difficult shoot you’ve done?
We were filming around Vladivostok, Russia, and got endless hassle from the authorities. I don’t like going to places and reinforcing stereotypes — I want to show a different side of life to what we’ve been led to believe — but they were closing roads, discouraging people from talking to us, taking us to police stations, saying there were terrorists on the loose and it might be us. We realised it would have to become the subject of the programme.
What’s been the biggest anticlimax?
The beauty of travelling the way I do it is that everything becomes interesting one way or another. If you travel with your eyes open you can find places that are beautiful but are full of hidden darkness and vice versa. It’s very rare we’ve been somewhere boring. I did a series about how our ancestors went on the move and we had the idea of filming me walking from Calais across France — but I forgot how dull the landscape around Calais is. It was beating down with rain, it was grey, there was no one to meet, so we had to skip that.
What has travelling taught you?
The cliché that we’re all very alike is true but there are also extremes out there worth celebrating. There’s a lot of difference between how we live even today. It’s worth reminding people who feel they are stuck on the hamster wheel of life that there is still difference and excitement out there. And a great realisation is that the world is pretty safe. There’s terror out there but there’s never been a safer time to explore as long as you’re sensible. People should take themselves out of their comfort zone because life is short and the chances of racking up an incredible memory are high. And all humans seek meaning in life — everyone needs purpose and those who don’t have it are often the saddest people I meet. Finding that purpose is utterly critical — it doesn’t have to be a job, it can just be something you enjoy doing, it can be anything. Just discover what it is and make it your own.
■ Simon’s UK theatre tour starts on September 17. ticketline.co.uk