Ever since Bear Grylls risked life and limb in the brutal maw of a comfortable hotel, any TV programme promising wildness comes with a question mark. Insurance is a fact more inevitable even than death or taxes and so when Simon Reeve ventured into “the wilderness” last night for Wilderness with Simon Reeve (BBC Two), you couldn’t help but wonder how wild that wilderness really was.
Well, on the evidence of episode one Reeve has really, genuinely put himself through the wringer here. He is one of television’s most instantly cheery chappies, with a face in repose somewhere between a Playschool presenter and a missionary. And yet as he trudged through a swamp, deep in the Congo, in search of the bonobo monkey (just because he wanted to see one), I swear I saw that winning smile crack.
His cameraman had just had a malevolent flea (plus suppurating egg sac) excised from his ankle by a former Marine doctor who said, with some joy it seemed, that they were at least three and a half days away from proper medical care. The crew were under constant attack from relentless swarms of angry bees who seemed to really, really resent the licence fee. It looked bloody miserable.
Which meant that as television it was bloody great. Reeve has been doing this for 20 years, and he’s really good at it. He strikes the perfect balance between wonderment (at the natural world) and dismay (at what we’re doing to it) and yet despite having all of the necessary ingredients for a part-time hosting gig on Children in Need or his own interactive series on Netflix, Reeve instead just keeps plodding along his own path.
Luckily for us there are fewer better screen companions to plod with, and Wilderness – essentially four hours of “I may be some time” – provided him with a lot of plodding to be done. For part one Reeve took himself off to central Africa to find a nomadic tribe called the Baka. Happily, having made all that effort (keyword: “nomadic”) the Baka appeared to fall in love with him straight away. They danced together and built him a hut.
Then he ventured deep into the rainforest in search of that monkey. This was proving to be almost impossible, such were the inhospitable climes, until it wasn’t. Suddenly a mildly bemused bonobo appeared, looked at Simon for a while… and then rolled onto its back like it was waiting for a tummy tickle. It was a terrific moment in an hour that was full of them. Simon Reeve, you sense, really does put himself out there for our entertainment. It’s old-fashioned adventure television and it’s a privilege to go along for the ride.