There's a moment in the second episode of Arctic, Bruce Parry's latest series for the BBC, when he finds himself complimenting an Inuit on his outfit. "I'm very jealous of what you're wearing," he says, gesturing towards the man's trousers. "What is it?" "Polar bear," comes the answer. (He shot it himself, apparently.) And the boots? "Sealskin." What about the jacket? There's a brief pause. "Shopping," says the Inuit man, giggling – and Parry himself explodes with laughter.
In a way, the encounter sums up the programmes Parry makes: this is the real world, not some imagined idyll. "I think from the beginning, we've tried to tell the truth," he says. "It's so much easier to reinforce a stereotype when you're making a programme and just highlight all the exotic stuff. For a long time it would always be about the feathers and the ritual, and I think it's brave to try to come away from the pristine. To do that is telling the whole story."
I meet Parry in a West London hotel, the banquette-lined foyer of which is strung with sleek-looking people barking into their Blackberries. Absolutely no one is wearing polar-bear trousers. It seems an incongruous place to meet a man who has in his time breakfasted with cannibals, ridden reindeer and journeyed the length of the Amazon. But perhaps, for Parry, these media luvvies are just another tribe. His only anxiety appears to be a book-signing he has to attend later in the day. Given the obvious empathy he has with the people he meets – be they indigenous to Greenland or to W12 – it should be a doddle.
The extraordinary immersion Parry underwent with isolated ethnic groups – from India, to Borneo, to Ethiopia – for Tribe, which was broadcast from 2005-7, speaks volumes for his desire to forge meaningful relationships with the people he meets while filming.
"I try to make friends, and it's the way to earn respect – by genuinely helping, not just when the cameras are on," he says. "It's just common sense that if you want to get to know people and to learn from them you do that. It's also polite, and quite English. And it works; they like it. When I made Tribe they used to say to me, 'We can smell the food [the TV crew is] cooking – wouldn't you rather be with them?' And I'm fibbing, saying, 'No I'd much rather be here with you.' But in actual fact I would, even though I found it really hard sleeping in those environments and eating the same very mundane food every day."
He says he was drawn to exploration at a young age: "I was a little red-blooded English guy. I wanted to go out and conquer and be a colonialist and terrible stuff – I was totally in that mindset."
Did his later experience in the armed forces – he was commissioned at 18 and spent six years as a Royal Marines officer – prepare him for life as an explorer? "I joined the Marines for my rite of passage. I needed to prove to myself, physically at least, that I could do the toughest thing that was out there.
"I was a little scrapper when I was a kid – but then you get your Green Beret and you don't want to fight any more because you've proven to yourself that you're a man physically. They play on your youthful pride and male angst. You'd rather die than leave because your pride is so strong, and you're with another group of people who are doing it together. It's a tried-and-tested methodology. I was in Ethiopia in areas where the leaders – the elders, the chiefs – rile up the young guys, tell them they're crap and off they go to shoot and kill and bring in the new land. It's the same the world over."
If Tribe gave us Bruce Parry the explorer, then Amazon, broadcast in 2008, gave us Bruce Parry the witness, as he focused on the social and environmental struggles facing the people of the Amazon basin. And then last summer, while the rest of us were groaning at the failure of the England football team in South Africa, Parry's attention was fixed considerably further north, on the Arctic.
"Of course there's no way you're ever going to do the last words on anywhere as big and as iconic as the Arctic, but we certainly wanted to give it a shot and look at as many interesting things that were going on today as possible," he says. "Most people think of it as this mass of ice. I'd been to the Arctic a few times before, so I had a bit more of an inkling, but I had no clue just how diverse the region is. Siberia is quite hard to get your head around until you start flying over it. We were in a state [the Sakha Republic] which is the size of India – and I'd never even heard of it."
If Siberia made a lasting impression on Parry, then he has also made a lasting impression on Siberia. During filming he was challenged to a race up a nearby mountain by a local reindeer herder called Yegor. Parry has, he says, an excuse for coming second ("I was carrying a really bad Achilles tendon injury which just never gets better because I say yes to stupid challenges like that") but was rewarded for his efforts when his conqueror named the hill after him. "That's probably the greatest honour anyone's ever bestowed on me in my life. Imagine: the indigenous population – not the colonialists, but the people who have a connection with the land – call it Bruce!"
Parry feels strongly about the the wellbeing of the people he meets, wherever he meets them: "Throughout the series it's the thing that hit me the most, especially in Canada and Alaska. The indigenous peoples there, who are still so strong in their society today, have a very recent history of forced assimilation. And because it's so recent, it's really still evident; they feel it, these people. They were forced into residential schools where they weren't allowed to speak their own language. So that ripped them from the heart of the land, ripped them from the bosom of their parents and put them in a place where they held a completely different set of ethical codes. When you live with those societies for a little bit you realise how hard it must be."
Most of what Parry does isn't part of the average holiday itinerary: "I have no desire to do the box-ticking things that people do around the world. It leaves me cold. I've climbed Mont Blanc, and it's the least-exciting mountain I've ever climbed, but it's the one I probably talk about most because people know it. There's a little bit of that in why people want to climb Everest. I can see why people want to do it, because it's the one they've heard about. But the reality is they'd be much better off climbing the one down the road that's three-quarters the size but just as exciting."
Ask him what his favourite journey has been, and he chooses his first televised expedition, climbing a little-known mountain in New Guinea. "I was just going to go and climb this mountain; I wanted an adventure. I took my friend and a camera and off we went. The whole thing was creatively mine and it was really physical. It's also just the most amazing part of the world – we were really going through the jungle, nearly dying on many occasions."
Now aged 41, a broadcasting veteran, the stakes have become higher. "I feel as though I'm carrying a lot more responsibility to express things about what's going on in the world... People say to me, you've got the best job in the world, you're lucky to travel to all these places. And of course I am. But it's bloody hard work, and we're going to places where I've got to think about the issues that I'm talking about to a global audience."
Some of that seriousness concerns the future of the Arctic itself. According to Parry, the people of the region are discovering first-hand that climate change is a real issue. "They all say, without a doubt, that their lives are changing and their climate is changing. And it seems to them that it's changing a lot more rapidly now than they remember their ancestors telling them about.
"In the last episode we go to Svalbard in Norway, which is the centre for excellence for many of the world's climatologists. Maybe they're a little bit shy after all the vilification that scientists are getting in the press these days, but they were never willing to extrapolate beyond their own scientific investigation to the bigger picture. Then on my last day I spoke to a guy called Kim Holmén, who's in charge of all of these climate models [at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso] and I put that question to him, and he said: I'm looking you in the eye and telling you now – absolutely, humans are influencing it, without doubt."
Parry claims to have exhausted his wanderlust, preferring the quiet life in his adopted home of Ibiza: "I'd quite like to start a community and put into practice the things that I've learnt, to bring into play people that fit with the understandings that I've got, to question society and live it differently." But ask him what he plans to do next, and he lights up with excitement: "I'd like to say more, go deeper and explore bigger subjects."
He takes nothing for granted about his life: "This time more than any other time, I was much more aware of what was happening around me and I really soaked up the environment, thinking, 'Bruce, don't forget this. This could be the last time you're able to go away and do this. Just soak it up.' And when you take on that attitude then of course it becomes that much more exciting and you sense the privilege of your experience."
Why, I wonder, are we so drawn to his encounters with people we will never meet, who live in places we almost certainly will never visit?
"I think the main reason that people like watching is because they see a bit of themselves," says Parry. "Most people who have travelled like watching Tribe, Amazon and Arctic because it reminds them of their time away, and actually we're all a bit like that – we want to make friends, we want to be happy and enjoy the company of the people that we're with. I'm not that different from how most people would be. I don't see that there's anything special in my techniques or methodologies. I think it's just about being as friendly as you can."
The next episode of 'Arctic with Bruce Parry' is on BBC2 tomorrow at 9pm. The accompanying book 'Arctic' by Bruce Parry is published by Conway (priced £20) and is out now. To buy a copy for £15 including free UK p&p, call 0870 787 1724 and quote reference CH1236. The DVD of the series is released next month.Reuse content