To most people, Sir Ranulph Fiennes is the world’s greatest living explorer. But to actor Joseph Fiennes, he’s the third cousin known by the endearing nickname “Ran”
Fiennes Return To The Nile, Wednesday 13 March, 9pm, National Geographic/HD (CH 266/268). Also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > National Geographic
Joseph grew up hearing incredible stories about Ran through his father, but it wasn’t until 20 years ago he “shook his fingerless hand” (more on that later) and met him properly for the first time at a family reunion. Now, 50 years after Ran’s 1969 expedition along the Nile River, he retraces those steps with Joe in tow for Fiennes Return To The Nile.
In the series, Ran admits, “I’ve never really bothered to get to know family, so it’s very interesting meeting someone of your own blood.” If anyone can crack the steely exterior of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, it’s one of his own clan, someone who shares that same explorer DNA. Joseph says, “It’s been a journey to know myself, to know my family and to know this man that I thought was unreadable, untouchable, unknowable.”
They’re a very talented family, the Fienneses – whether actors, directors, writers, composers, painters, photographers or explorers, they’re living up to their motto, “Look for a brave spirit”. It’s exactly what Joseph did when he set off for Egypt with Ran across three weeks, three episodes and 1,500 miles.
Miraculously, he manages to maintain that brave spirit and his good humour (consisting mainly of wisecracks that fall on Ran’s deaf ears) throughout, even when the now 74-year-old Ran lays out the “black picture”. By which he means being aware of everything that can possibly go wrong, and preparing for it. As part of Joseph’s black picture training, Ran exposes him to venomous spiders, scorpions and snakes as he tries not to get hiss-terical…
“I think Ran had a concept of what an actor is and he thought I’d be complaining a lot and calling my agent, like ‘Get me out of here’ and ‘Where’s the cappuccino machine?’” But The Handmaid’s Tale actor was eager to impress. And who could blame him? Ran was the first person to travel by land to both the North and South Poles, as well as the first to cross Antarctica on foot. He circumnavigated the globe along its polar axis and has climbed the highest mountain on each continent.
Ran and Joseph’s journey involves navigating chaotic Egyptian traffic, driving through the Sahara and crawling through crevices to the newly-uncovered tombs in the town of El Minya. The tombs had been discovered just eight weeks before the Nat Geo crew arrived, and the footage shown in Fiennes Return To The Nile is the first time they’ve been filmed.
Joseph and Ran also spend a special night at the Pyramids of Giza, just one of the many wonderful moments and learning experiences along the way. Despite this eye-opening journey, Joseph has no ambitions to follow in Ran’s footsteps. “If there was any exploring, it was exploring the relationship with my cousin – it was a psychological exploration, as much as it was a physical one. It was really being a journalist, asking questions and trying to access who he is.”
For example, Ran famously cut off his own frostbitten fingers after a trip to the Arctic in 2000. He gives Joseph a demonstration of how he sawed them off, revealing it took two days to get through the thumb. He’s kept the fingertips, but only four of them – “I don’t know what happened to the other one,” he admits.
Yet while Joseph admires this as brave, he knows Ran sees it as a source of shame. “Although he can talk about his fingers and be quite humorous about it, he knows on the next expedition he will not be chosen, because he is not an asset to the team. Missing fingers means he might miss out on an expedition, which means he misses out on what he loves.”
Joseph’s key takeaway from the journey is this: “Grab a member of your family and go on a trip – pub or Nile, it makes no difference. Get their story, because you in turn will pass that story to someone else.” We think the pub is a good place to start.
“Maybe in 50 years we might do another Nat Geo show and Isabel [Joseph’s daughter] might take me back on this journey,” he says. It’s a nice thought, but before then, Ran already has plans for their next trip. “He’s got a wicked smile on his face as he talks to me about very cold water and ice.”
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Image credit: Return To The Nile © National Geographic