Charley Boorman's long and winding road
After nearly losing his leg in a biking accident, TV presenter Charley Boorman is back in the saddle with a new book
Charley Boorman almost lost one of his legs in a biking accident last year and, four operations and countless courses of painkillers later, there's still something of the walking wounded about him. On a flying visit to Dublin, the TV presenter and proceeds with a visible limp and, if no longer in round-the-clock discomfort, is still prone to the occasional agonised grimace.
"One of the biggest challenges was working out how to sit on the toilet," he recalls. "We have a little loo under our stairs and when I tried to swing onto the seat I managed to wedge my leg between the wall and the cistern. My daughter happened to pass and saw me lodged in the loo. She said, 'dad, what the f*** are you doing in there?"
He's been in trickier situations. Boorman grew up in the shadow his famous father, the Wicklow-based director John Boorman. It was his dad's suggestion that he get into acting; the old man even helped sort out some plum early roles (he appeared in many of Boorman's major movies, including Deliverance, Excalibur and The Emerald Forest). Over time, though, the association began to prove more curse than blessing.
"It wasn't until I got older that I actually got my s*** together," Boorman says. "I had a wife and children. I was mostly working in painting and decorating and then taking the occasional acting job as they came along. At that stage in your life you have to think about your priorities. It looked like I was going to have to take the building more seriously and give up acting."
He was, by the mid 2000s, scraping a living and beginning to consider himself a mild failure. With the acting gigs drying up he was reduced to refitting wealthier people's houses in order to earn a crust. Yet, just as all seemed lost, he blagged his way into an unlikely career presenting gung-ho adventure documentaries. Boorman was at the time down to his last £4,000.
He did, it was true, receive a leg up from his A-lister best pal Ewan McGregor. In the hit 2004 series Long Way Round, the duo zipped across Central Asia on hulking BMW bikes. It was a boys' own romp on rocket boosters and audiences adored it. "We were fortunate to come along at the right time," Boorman reflects. "Adventure travel was just taking off and we rode the crest of that wave."
Lucky breaks or not, Boorman has since made the most of the opportunity. He went on to present hit shows such as Race To Dakar and By Any Means, in which he travelled from Wicklow to Sydney by public transport (in 2007 he and McGregor reunited to bike across Africa for Long Way Down). It helps that he's naturally chummy, mixing affable patter with an endearing lack of smarm (always a novelty in a television host). "Ewan and I met shooting a film in Sixmilebridge in Co Clare," he recalls. "The film wasn't very good but we were both into bikes and hit it off. My career was going south and his was going north rapidly."
Boorman is in Dublin to publicise Long Way Back, a moving account of his February 2016 accident in the Algarve and his struggle to walk again (peppered with biographical nuggets from his earlier life). He's also planning to travel to Co Wicklow, where his family has maintained a residence since the 70s.
Boorman's plummy accent is more Twickenham than Tinahely - nonetheless he's a proud Garden County boy and looks back with immense fondness on his Irish childhood. "The house was an old vicarage dad bought in 1969 during an out-of-body experience while we were on holiday in Ireland," he writes of the family home in Long Way Back. "As he drove around Co Wicklow he came across an auction at an estate agent's office and stopped... as dad stood at the back of the crowd, watching the bidding, he seemed to escape his body and floated up to the ceiling from where he watched for a while longer before slipping back into his body again. Only then did he realise one of the bidders was him."
"I was six when we moved over," he tells me. "My father had just done Deliverance. We would live on and off in Ireland and then we'd go off with dad to make a movie somewhere. It was brilliant - you had the best of both worlds. There was this house, there were rivers, there were fields. And we were very much accepted by Ireland."
Still, the picture wasn't entirely rosy. In Long Way Back, he recounts being whacked with a ruler while attending an exclusive school in Bray ("make a mistake and you're slapped - it's hardly confidence inspiring and it wouldn't be tolerated today"). He also struggling with severe dyslexia - a condition that destroyed his confidence and, in adulthood, nearly derailed his show business ambitions.
"My performances in auditions were so inept that I hardly got any jobs in film or TV. I just could not learn the lines and the thought of doing theatre terrified me. What if I forgot my lines in the middle of a scene with an entire audience watching?"
A run of ill fortune was just starting. In 1997, his older sister Telsche was claimed by cancer at age 37. "I couldn't take it in," Boorman recounts. "My sister was gone and I felt as if all hope had disappeared with her… Dad never got over it and I suppose he never will. Children aren't meant to die before their parents."
Two things saved him, he believes. The first was the support of his then girlfriend, now wife Olivia (with whom he has two daughters, Doone and Kinvara). The second was his passion for motorcycles.
Biking had been a love of Boorman's since he hopped on a scrambler belonging to Sean Connery's son Jason, when the Scottish actor and his family were staying with the Boormans in Wicklow (Connery, who was shooting Zardoz at Admore at the time, insisted on paying rent).
"I thought I was fantastic showing off to my dad. Then, as I was passing he yanked me by the hair and off the bike. Little did I know that I was headed straight for a barbed-wire fence."
Pecuniary embarrassment through his twenties and thirties failed to dampen his ardour. He always managed to scrape together enough for a set of wheels and this was the glue that sealed his bromance with McGregor, with whom he would would enjoy lads' weekends at the test track or long road-trips in the countryside. "I couldn't afford to go on the Long Way Round," says Boorman.
"Then we got a book deal for it - which meant we had a little bit of money. I could just about stretch to doing it."
Career aside, he remains thoroughly addicted to biking. In the darkest days it was what kept him sane. "The escapism is a lovely feeling," he says. "Everyone needs a bit of adrenalin in their lives."
On that point, I venture, how many bikes does he own? "I'm not allowed to tell you," he says joking, but not really. "My wife might read this article."
Long Way Back (AA Publishing, €15.99) is out now