Return to the Nile: Interview with Sir Ranulph and Joseph Fiennes – Published in The i

Explorer Ranulph and actor Joseph barely knew each other before embarking on an Egyptian expedition. By Etan Smallman


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One is, in his own words, a “pampered” actor. The other is the “world’s greatest living explorer”, who hacked off every fingertip on his left hand after succumbing to frostbite in the North Pole.

They share little apart from some DNA and a surname, but Ran and Joe could quite possibly be TV’s next big double act. (Forgive the informality – that is how they refer to each other. And if your full names were Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and Joseph Alberic Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, you might favour brevity too.)

As civilians, we often assume that celebrity relatives must be in and out of each other’s mansions all the time. However, the third cousins – their grandfathers were brothers – had, across their lifetimes, spent no more than “minutes” in each other’s company.

Their most substantial meeting had been 20 years ago at a gathering of 200 Fienneses in Oxford, when Ranulph had asked Joseph, the Bafta- and Emmy-nominated star of Shakespeare in Love and The Handmaid’s Tale, if he might be interested in turning his novel, The Featherman, into a movie. “Ran went off and sold the idea to Robert de Niro,” Joseph deadpans.

Now, finally, they are to star together in Fiennes: Return to the Nile, a three-part National Geographic series undertaking Joseph’s “childhood dream” by retracing Ranulph’s second expedition, 50 years ago. Nestled into a plush sofa in a Soho hotel, as they gently tease each other while reminiscing about their adventure, it is clear they have fostered quite the friendship.

The film covers their 2,500km journey in up to 51C heat. They spend a night in the Great Pyramid of Giza, crawl through a network of never-before-filmed underground tombs in Al Minya and fish in the crocodile-infested Lake Nasser, all interspersed with unseen footage from Ranulph’s original adventure.

Viewers will get to see Ranulph, 74, tutoring his 48-year-old protégé on how to deal with scorpions and how to defuse anti-tank mine with a Swiss Army knife. Ranulph, dressed in baseball cap and sunglasses, takes the experience in his stride. Joseph, on the other hand, has the air of a puppyish teenager and, with a Bedouin scarf wrapped around his head, looks like he could be auditioning for a remake of Lawrence of Arabia.

Admittedly, Joseph is slightly less eager when he is seen back in the UK listening to Ranulph detailing how he removed his own fingertips – taking two days to saw through the thumb. He empties a small tin of the stubs. “You can see where the bone was in the middle. There’s four. I don’t know what happened to the other one…”

Joseph describes the filming experience as a daily exercise in being “reminded of your inadequacies”. Ranulph was the first man to cross both the polar ice-caps and climb Everest, and the first to circumnavigate the globe via both the North and South Poles. Joseph admits to me that he doesn’t even do his own stunts.

It is clear how awestruck he is by his gallivanting relative, who he calls a “scribe and a poet” and says is “more extraordinary than any role I could play”.

It raises the question: would he be up for the part? “Ran is like a combination of Bond and Indiana Jones,” Joseph gushes, “so if you could franchise that, I’m in.”

The younger Fiennes comes off worse in almost every race or duel they undertake during their odyssey. Their first drive, towards the Sahara, gets off to a shaky start, with Joseph announcing 18 miles in: “Slight confession – I had the bloody handbrake on.” “Naughty boy!” his elder cousin hollers back.

But Ranulph, who had a double heart bypass in 2003, insists he frequently felt the 26-year age gap. “There were at least two sessions when you were going like a scalded rat. I could see you were very, very fit.”

Joseph is taken aback at the revelation: “I was just very excited. These places you go into, they kind of vibrate with antiquity and mystery, and so you’re propelled and driven.”

The family records go back 48 generations to 715AD, with ancestors including several men who have led British armies. Both the French and the English at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt were headed up by Fienneses.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Ranulph admits he had a “preconceived notion of what an actor would be like”. It makes me wonder what he must have thought about his cousins (both Joseph and elder brother Ralph) becoming sissy thesps.

But he says he was quickly won over. “I was sufficiently impressed with Joe in one single day to not have my usual mental process of choosing people for an expedition, when you do almost an FBI check on their background, you take them up Snowdon. With Joe, I thought this is just almost DNA clanship, we’re the same person.”

A sense of family honour does not prevent Ranulph from admitting of his forebears: “One’s not proud of some of them.”

Joseph picks up the story: “I did a play by Christopher Marlowe called Edward II and the final demise, because he was gay and taunted the court with his boyfriend Gaveston, was that he was put to death, by a Fiennes. They had to kill him in a way that there were no bruises on his body, but also it would have been a nod to his sexuality – it was a really perverse way of putting somebody to death, with a red hot poker stuck up his anus.”

The most moving scene comes when Ranulph gives an insight into what still drives him, as he stands on the ground on which his father fought in the 1942 Battle of El Alamein. Lt Col Ranulph Fiennes survived, but died in action a year later, less than four months before his son was born.

“I grew up wanting to be like him,” says Ranulph in episode one. “In Antarctica, when you’re feeling really lousy and you’ve got gangrene and frostbite, and a weak voice comes into your head saying you want to stop, I just reckoned to myself that my dad and my grandad were watching me and I didn’t want to do anything that might make them ashamed, like being the first to give up.”

Beyond the breathtaking history, vistas and wildlife, Joseph says his overriding memory of the adventure was “connecting with someone, albeit from another generation, who has this extraordinary legacy”.

And he advocates everyone undertake what he calls a “DNA road trip”. “Yeah, I think that sums it up beautifully,” says Ranulph, before musing: “There’s only one thing that sounds better, which is a DNA river trip.”

Is that the next project? “Well, there you go,” answers Joseph. “He’s got something up his sleeve…”

– ‘Fiennes: Return to the Nile’ begins on 27 February, 9pm, on the National Geographic channel

River man: First Nile trip

In 1969, Ranulph Fiennes led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile, the longest river in the world at 4,000 miles. He travelled through Egypt and Sudan, to the river’s source at Lake Victoria in southern Uganda. The two Hoverhawk contraptions they used were nicknamed Baker and Burton, after the Victorian-era Nile explorers Samuel Baker and Richard Burton.

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