Globe Trekker host Ian Wright is the funniest and perhaps best loved travel presenter on British TV. The veteran traveler’s latest show Invite Mr Wright is being broadcast by the Discovery Channel and TLC throughout much of the world. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ian and I asked him about his new show and his love of travel.
When did you first get the travel bug?
“I think most people get the bug as a kid but it is just a matter of whether you do anything about it when you become an adult. I used to look at pictures of places like Easter Island and the pyramids that would get the juices flowing and it was sort of like in Lord of the Rings or something as I was just drawn to these places. I still had that fascination with travel when I was older so some of my mates and I went hitching around Europe and then the first time I went outside Western Europe was when I went to Egypt for three months. I then went to Nepal and India for seven months, then worked and got so money before going to the jungle in Guyana for three months.
I had the bug and for about 10 years I just worked, got money and traveled but I wanted to find a way to just make money while I was traveling but I didn’t think there was anyway that I could do that until I saw an ad in the paper for a travel reporter. I’d never been on telly before but I had done some video work while working with teenage community groups so I knew how to make a showreel. I put together a complete piss-take video with me talking about rich foods, buying money on the black market and getting beaten up. I sent it in to Globe Trekker and now they can’t get rid of me!”
Tell me about your new show Invite Mr Wright?
“People in different countries invite me into their houses and they show me their world and their culture. In Malaysia, I stayed with a woman who is a Chinese Malaysian who works as a stand up comedienne in a Kuala Lumpur drag club which is quite unusual. She was a city girl so I saw how she lives but then I took her out into the jungle so she got to experience something new and I of course got to do a drag act involving the Union Jack and “God save the Queen.”
I also went to Sikkim which is between Nepal and Tibet and stayed in Rumtek monastery for a week and learned how to be a monk. To be honest, beforehand I thought it would be incredibly boring hanging out with a bunch of chanting lentil munchers but it was extraordinary. The monks were so chilled out and nothing was out of bounds. In the end I got into trouble for bullying some of the monks because I had them in arm locks! But it was really an amazing experience.
In another episode I went to Bollywood and hung out with Arshad Warsi who is a huge movie star in India. I can’t imagine any other country where you would get that kind of access to a film set. There is something about the Indian culture that people are just laid back and anything goes. I was chatting with Karina Kapoor who is sort of the Jennifer Aniston of Bollywood and everyone is just hanging out. They let me do whatever I wanted on set. I was beating up a stuntman at one point and then Arshad Warsi tried to train me up as an actor. I went back to Bombay to prepare myself and when I came back on set it was like a reunion and everyone was cheering and they chucked me up in the air. It was nuts! Oh yeah and I got to do my sexy Bollywood dance which was good.
All of the episodes are quite diverse. We stayed with a football team in Okinawa, Japan and I also went to the Northern territories in Australia and spent time with some petrol head mud racers who drive these huge trucks. Each episode is different so it makes it quite an interesting show.”
What is the scariest place that you have been?
“Well, it all depends on the circumstances. Sometimes London can be a scary place. War zones are obviously the scariest places that you can go but I have never been to a place like that because I make light hearted travel shows so you don’t go to those kind of places. With that being said, I have been involved in some incidents. We were in Iran one time and were having a bit of a laugh with the female director and the crowd just sort of turned and started closing in and she got grabbed and it all got out of hand. The cops came wading in and within about three seconds the whole crowd had dispersed.
When were in Haiti we were driving around at 2.00am looking for a Voodoo festival which is nuts in itself but every time we came to a town there were hundreds of people just dancing around on the roads. We were white and we were in a government vehicle which wasn’t a winning combination in that area and for whatever reason our engine caught fire and we had to get out of the car. There was a bit of jostling and everything and it all got a bit scary.
There are other incidents which are much more fun but almost cause you to die and you don’t really want to be killed when you are just trying to make a light hearted travel show. In Mexico I was doing a rodeo thing and the people told me they would catch me if I fell but the horse took off and they were back there just yelling “oh hang on Ian!” My back is still shattered from that almost 10 years later but it was a fun experience.
In Vanuatu we were at the most accessible active volcano in the world and were almost hit by a block of lava. We were standing on the lip of the volcano and this great hunk of molten lava came and landed about two yards from us and were were all like “argggghhhh” and running around like frightened rabbits. The director thought it was great because it was such a powerful scene and it is amazing to watch but we were almost killed.”
Is there anywhere you’ve considered going but you think it would be too dangerous?
“I’d love to go to Papua New Guinea and I was going to go there but in the end I felt that we wouldn’t have enough back up if something went wrong. So that was a personal decision not to go there. Another place I didn’t go was Afghanistan. My production company, Roast Beef Productions filmed a documentary there called Afghan Star about the Afghan version of X-factor. Can you imagine X-factor in a country where a few years ago it was illegal to dance, listen to music or watch telly? People from all of the tribes end up voting against people from their tribes while girls who dance without veils on the show are getting death threats.
That documentary won a Sundance award while another documentary we did last year called Hell and Back is on the shortlist for the Oscars. It is about an American soldier who came back from the war there and we thought we might as well film an episode of Out of Bounds there since we had the crew there but I just couldn’t do it to my wife. It is an amazing country and I would love to go there but I didn’t think it was fair on my wife to go there just to film a light hearted romp so I refused to go.”
Now that you are involved with Roast Beef productions are you likely to assume more of a behind the scenes role?
“No. I am a presenter and that is what I will always be. When we started Roast Beef productions I made that clear to everyone. The good thing about Roast Beef productions though is that we can tackle more controversial issues. Globe Trekker was always non-political. I remember filming a bit in Tahiti about the French doing their nuclear tests but it was left on the cutting room floor and you’ll never see it because they didn’t want anything political and I think that is a shame really. You can’t go to places and ignore this kind of stuff.
With Roast Beef productions we did the Out of Bounds series where we went to places that the American’s though were “out of bounds” like Syria and Cuba. We showed that you can go to these places and there is nothing to worry about. It is nice to be able to give an opinion. Generally, these are light hearted travel shows but it is nice to have that freedom.
That being said, it is really sad about Syria. I went there about 15 years ago and everyone was afraid to talk to you because they had this oppressive government. I went there again three years ago and the new president was younger, a bit more worldly and chilled out and the country seemed to be heading in the right direction. Damascus is an amazing city with a mixture of Christians and Muslims but now there is a disaster unfolding there because the president doesn’t have any balls.”
When you’re not traveling for work where do you go for family vacations?
“When I am spending time with my wife the last thing I feel like doing is getting on a bleeding airplane! I adore England and for me it is the best country in the world. I can’t live anywhere that doesn’t have four seasons although it would be nice if it was hot in summer. I love to see the seasons change, the summer dresses coming out, the tulips coming out. It is just a little pea of an island but if you travel 50 miles in any direction the people change and the accents change. We have amazing arts and music. London is the best city in the world and I just love it. We just bought a house in the country and I just love being here when I am not traveling. I also love British telly although I think American TV is catching up to it. I loved Deadwood with Ian McShane it it. He is a brilliant actor. We will always think of him as Lovejoy but he is amazing in Deadwood.”