Joe Simpson’s mountaineering exploits provided the foundation for hit feature doc Touching the Void, and his book The Beckoning Silence has also been committed to film. Still a mountaineer, as well as being a motivational speaker, Simpson’s latest project sees him team up with survivalist Ed Stafford to take on a 160-mile trek, recreating the path taken by his father as a World War II special forces soldier.
Simpson Snr. was in the Chindits, a covert unit operating in Burma in 1943 and 1944 that worked deep behind enemy lines attacking Japanese forces.
In BBC series Operation Burma, Simpson and Stafford follow a route used by the Chindits, covering terrain rarely tracked, and getting a first-hand feel for the gruelling missions undertaken by the soldiers.
The route is contained in a diary of his father’s that Simpson unearthed, having previously known few of the specifics of his military career.
“This is a personal story for Joe,” says Angela Neillis, director of non scripted, UK, EMEA and Asia Pacific, at distributor FremantleMedia International. “He had a good relationship with his father, but it was quite old fashioned in that they didn’t talk about these things, and then Joe discovered the diary.”
Stafford, the explorer who became the first human to cover the length of the Amazon on foot (as captured in Discovery series Walking The Amazon with Ed Stafford) provides his survival and outdoors skills, giving the show some of the elements of the popular survival genre. “Ed is very popular with men and women,” says Neillis. “He’s from a serious, trained background, and really is the embodiment of the survival genre.”
The two-parter is produced by Arrow Media, the UK indie created by the former principals of Touching the Void prodco Darlow Smithson, reuniting Simpson and John Smithson.
With survival, exploration, historical and personal-journey elements, Operation Burma should prove popular internationally. One issue, however, is its idiosyncratic two-part format, which could be difficult to place.
Neillis acknowledges the challenge, and says FMI will be looking to shop the series to pubcasters in the first instance. It won’t be reformatting it into a feature-doc or any other format. “It’s two great films,” she says. “We’ll target PSBs as they have more flexibility in their schedules, but with the survival element it could also pop up on a specialist or commercial channel if they can schedule it.”
FMI already shops Arrow’s Dogs: Their Secret Lives, which has sold into over 40 territories, and will be presenting Operation Burma alongside one-off Himalayan earthquake doc Nightmare on Everest.
The show: Operation Burma
The producer: Arrow Media
The distributor: FremantleMedia International
The broadcaster: BBC Two (UK)
The concept: Adventure/exploration series in which mountaineer Joe Simpson and survivalist Ed Stafford recreate a Chindits trek through Burma