Monty Halls' Great Irish Escape: 'People only tune in to see the bloody dog'
Ex-Army man Monty Halls tells about his new Irish Escape and why he has no interest in making extreme survival shows.
‘You find me today in an unusually preoccupied mood,” says Monty Halls, tucking thoughtfully into a pile of pancakes in a London café. For anyone who follows the 6ft 3in Royal Marine turned relentlessly upbeat TV presenter, this may come as a shock. Halls’s “nauseating enthusiasm” (his description) is one of the things that makes his series so enjoyable. The day before, however, the seller bailed on the “dream cottage” that he and his girlfriend had been hoping to buy on the south Devon coast. It has left him feeling uncharacteristically glum.
“We were just talking about how the article would read: ‘The ebullient character you see on screen is not the real Monty Halls – he’s a miserable git!’” he smiles.
Coastal living means a lot to Halls. His first Great Escape in 2009 saw him fleeing the rat race to spend six months in a Highland beachside bothy. Last year’s follow-up took him to the Outer Hebrides. Thursday sees the start of a new adventure, Monty Halls’ Great Irish Escape. He’s off to westerly Connemara to live in a remote cottage, share the local craic, and do some conservation work: tagging basking sharks, assessing dolphin numbers.
“So many people have no idea what’s kicking around our coasts,” says the 44 year-old (who gained a first class degree in marine biology after leaving the Army in 1996). “What we forget is that all the stuff coming off the Atlantic hits us first. We have 24 species of whale and dolphin, 21 species of shark, and more basking sharks off the coast of the UK and Ireland than pretty much anywhere else. So I thought it would be lovely to tell that story.”
Unlike most ex-Army TV types, Halls doesn’t go in for gung-ho survivalism – although diving with 35ft basking sharks made him twitchy. “When you’re treading deep, inky water off Malin Head and this ‘submarine’ comes towards you with a gaping mouth, it is pretty primal,” he says.
Halls’s shows are, instead, unashamedly “gentle” and “feelgood”, with an emphasis on the chumminess of their host, and his sidekick Reuben, a hyperactive rescue dog. (“I’m essentially the co-presenter,” he jokes. “Everyone tunes in to see the bloody dog.”) Recently, a TV company asked him to front an “extreme survival show”. He said no. “I told them, ‘Look... it’s not really my thing. There are other people doing it much better: Ray Mears, Bruce Parry.’” About a month later they sent him another proposal. “It was called Live or Die. The word ‘survival’ was used about six times in the first paragraph...”
Funnily enough, Halls knows Parry from his Army days. They became friends during officer training. Parry was “the same as he is now, a frighteningly feral little goat of a man who can pretty much put up with anything” – which may explain Parry’s capacity for stripping off and eating seal eyeballs on his Tribe series. “He always had that slight hint of madness about him,” says Halls.
It was a coincidence that both men ended up on TV. Both were working, separately, as expedition guides when they were talent-spotted by producers in the early 2000s. Parry’s big break on Tribe (2005) made Halls a little jealous. “There’s a great expression, ‘When a friend does well, a little part of you dies,’” he laughs. “I watched it with massive envy!” But then his own career took off.
Halls is still infectiously enthusiastic about his Army experience. So what does he make of recent proposals to put former soldiers into wayward classrooms? In February, the Government announced a drive to recruit former military personnel to work in tough, inner-city schools.
“I think it’s great,” he says. While he doesn’t think discipline is out of control, he likes the basic philosophy. “I don’t want to sound like Colonel Bufton Tufton, but I think the qualities imparted to you by life in the services are eminently transferable. You can’t frogmarch some bellowing Sgt Major into a comprehensive and expect everything to work. But if it’s done sensitively, it would be a great step in the right direction.”
He’s more circumspect on the idea of resurrecting National Service. “If you held a gun to my head, and said you’ve got to decide, I would say yeah, OK, it’s a good thing… Whether it would work for everyone, I have no idea. You speak to the guys who did National Service and it’s really interesting. Most of them say it was the making of them. But you do get the odd one who had a nightmare. What they don’t tell you about is all the people who topped themselves, all the people who had massive mental issues after they left and during their time, the bullying that went on. So it’s a very complex question.”
Back on TV, Halls’s next project is a BBC natural history show on the Great Barrier Reef, followed by a new escape: “I’m off to Cadgwith Cove in Cornwall to explore artisanal fishing.” Until yesterday, he had also been mooting the idea of a series with his girlfriend Pam, who works in TV, at their coastal hideaway.
“That was one of the things we were talking to the BBC about,” he says. “A year in a little cove in south Devon; watching the change of seasons, the animals passing through, the deer on the cliff…” His face drops. “It would have been lovely,” he says, “but there we go. It’s one for the future.”
- Monty Halls’ Great Irish Escape is on tonight on BBC Two at 8.00pm
- All three of Monty Halls’s ‘Great Escape’ series are out on DVD on 26 September