Interview: Brendan Cole on BBC Two's Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome.
After the critically acclaimed Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago, eight well known personalities are back on the road for BBC Two, but this time they’re heading to Rome!
All with differing beliefs and faiths, actors Les Dennis and Lesley Joseph, professional dancer Brendan Cole, comedians Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand, Olympic champion Greg Rutherford, Irish Eurovision Song contest winner Dana and television presenter Mehreen Baig will live as modern day pilgrims.
Donning backpacks and walking boots, they’ll stay in basic hostels, sleep in shared dorms, and follow a largely untrodden route as they set out on the ancient 2000km Via Francigena. It will take them over the Alps and through the vineyards of Tuscany with the end goal of reaching Rome, the home of the Roman Catholic Church.
But how will they react when they receive an extraordinary invitation from the Pope and will this journey of a lifetime change the way they think about themselves and their beliefs?
Brendan Cole tells us more…
Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage?
The pilgrimage seemed like an opportunity to be involved in a life enlightening experience. A journey into the unknown and an opportunity to do something very different. I love a challenge and it had the potential to be a big one.
Have you ever taken part in anything like this before?
Not really and I’m not sure I ever will again. It was such a unique opportunity. Religion meets fatigue meets cohabiting meets challenges. All unknown and all with a potential for disaster. What’s not to like?
Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage?
No, I didn’t. One of the draws of doing this was to be unprepared. To learn and grow throughout the experience. I didn’t even break in my walking boots!
Have you ever walked this far before?
No, I’m not much of a walker. I love sport and chasing a ball or competing at something but the thought of walking doesn’t (or didn’t) do it for me before the pilgrimage. With the right people and in the right place though… it was a fantastic thing to do.
Did you find it hard?
It wasn’t hard physically for me apart from the day Greg, Stephen and I decided to walk/run with a time goal and most of it was uphill, all after a massive Italian meal with wine at lunch and in ridiculous heat! That one hurt, the rest of the walk was physically demanding but not from a fitness point of view.
Tell me about your experience on the series?
I can’t. There is so much to say that I could write a book. Every day was a new experience. The people I embarked upon this journey with became good friends very quickly and every minute of each day something happened from laughter to tears and all in between. We had great times and tough times, beauty and drama. It was a once in a lifetime experience that changed all of us in one way or another.
What was your highlight?
Apart from the people, meeting the Pope was certainly a moment that will never be forgotten. There was also a game of Monopoly that had several of us in hysterics for hours and was one of my life highlights! The landscape and experiencing every day to its fullest was fantastic.
What was the hardest part?
I’m not sure there was a hardest part? There were many challenges along the way, both personal and as a job. Some of the walks were tough. Seeing others go through emotional challenges was difficult at times and at the same time that was rewarding as we all learned and grew as people during our time together.
Are you affiliated to any religion?
No, none whosoever. I'm an atheist and don’t have any belief that religion is anything other than man made. Having said that, I appreciate those who do and I respect all religions for the faith it gives people, especially in darker times. Personally, I don’t need this or believe in anything other than an energy in the earth and universe and in doing good by others where possible. It’s not religion but it’s me!
If you don’t have any faith, what helps you explain the world?
That’s an easy one… science. Most things have an answer if you go back far enough.
Has the experience changed or increased your faith?
It’s made me more understanding of religion, not that I wasn’t before but I certainly have a greater knowledge but no, I’m still 100 per cent convinced that religion is man made and that there isn’t a god. People like Jesus may have existed all of those years ago but I think that like most celebrities today, myth and a good PR team may have made people believe he and others were more than just mere mortals with a good story.
Has the experience changed you in any way?
It allowed me time to think which was fantastic and one of the reasons I wanted to go. I’m sure it has changed me in many ways but mostly it was an experience that enhanced my life, therefore changed it but not in a major way.
How did you get on with the other pilgrims? Was it a bonding experience for you all?
Amazingly well. I was worried (as I think we all were) before I went as we didn’t know who else would be going. As it turned out, it could not have been a better bunch of people to be with and although there were differences in faith, opinion, ability and general demeanour, we all came together and acted as one with respect and acceptance in each other’s differences. It was pretty special. Governments, countries, religions and people in general could have learnt a lot from us!
Have you stayed in touch with the other pilgrims?
I think it’s the only show I’ve done where everyone bonded as well and we have all stayed in touch. Not many days go by before a ping on the WhatsApp chat group happens.
Describe your experience meeting the Pope. What was that like?
Surreal and a once in a lifetime experience. Obviously as I am an atheist, I was not fazed by his status but as he is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful person in the entire world, it was a big moment and one that had a huge responsibility for all of us. It was not the time for challenge or confrontation but a time to listen and respect a man who had given his time in his own home. We did however respectfully discuss topics and engaged with him and that was pretty special.
Would you do it again?
In a heartbeat!