I’m amazed when Charley Boorman walks to the door of his west London home. A year ago, the 50-year-old – who started out as a child actor in his father John’s films and gained a second bite at stardom on television as Ewan McGregor’s motorcycling partner in the Long Way adventure travel series – suffered a horrific bike crash.
A Mercedes clipped the Triumph he was riding in Portugal. Boorman hit a wall and then bounced along the pavement three times. When he came to rest, as he casually puts it, “my leg was all flippy-floppy, bending in the wrong places and in the wrong direction”.
He had shattered his left tibia and fibula and broken his right ankle and wrist. He underwent gruesome treatment in Portugal and then in London, and doctors feared he might lose the leg.
He did lose a lot of work: a planned TV show about a bike trip through the perilous Darien Gap in Central America that had taken a year to plan, and commercial tours with bike fans in Australia and Africa, a lucrative offshoot of his celebrity.
Sponsors, including Triumph, kept him afloat, but as well as pain and frustration, he faced crashing boredom. So, being a glass-half-full kind of person, he used the enforced year of recuperation to write a book.
Long Way Back is an account of Boorman’s recovery, and also the story of his life, touching on his dyslexia (he takes great pride in having a literary agent), the death of his older sister Telsche from ovarian cancer at the age of 38 in 1997, and his own loss of a testicle to cancer in 2010.
It’s also a handy guide to the world of motorcycling, where everyone knows everyone, and they all obsess about cylinders and paint jobs and regard broken bones as part of the ride. The book abounds with bikes trashed and accidents endured, including the time Boorman rode 400km in the Dakar Rally with broken hands.
Boorman at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show
Ewan McGregor rode home with an undiagnosed broken leg after a crash in London, while he and Boorman were planning their second odyssey, Long Way Down, and Boorman tells me horrific stories of the likes of comedian Ross Noble (another mate) tweeting pictures of injuries from wipeouts.
Boorman’s first thought when he was told he might lose his leg was: “Well, at least I can still ride…” – he knows an amputee stunt rider who uses a magnet to keep his artificial limb on his bike’s foot peg, you see.
“You have to drive a car, but you choose to ride a motorbike or a horse, or climb a mountain,” he explains. “It’s to do with the freedom you have.”
He grew up on an estate in the Wicklow mountains his dad had bought on a whim, and also on film sets, making his debut in his father’s brutal 1972 thriller Deliverance, aged six.
John Boorman often cast his children in his films – as well as Telsche, who became a writer, and Katrine, now an actor and producer, Charley has a twin sister, Daisy, and three stepsiblings from his father’s second marriage.
John thought acting might help his dyslexic son to express himself. Charley saw it as a means to hang out with interesting people and earn money to buy motorbikes, and doesn’t miss it at all.
He is still close to his father, who is 84 and walks with sticks: when Charley was on crutches, they looked like twins, he says. His German mother, Christel, died a few years ago. Boorman Jr is great fun and wonderfully unstarry, whether remembering Lee Marvin (“a fun, really talented guy, and quite mad”) or recalling the years he spent as a painter and decorator to make ends meet.
During this time, he got an acting job on The Serpent’s Kiss in 1997, where he met McGregor, and they talked about bikes, because that’s what bikers do, and cooked up the idea of a 19,000-mile, two-wheeled journey from London to New York that became 2004’s Long Way Round – a TV series, book and DVD.
“If Ewan hadn’t been involved, it wouldn’t have had a chance to be successful,” says Boorman, frankly. “I do owe quite a lot of thanks to him for that.”
He is also properly appreciative of Olivia, whom he’s been with for 30 years and married to for 25. Olivia matches lonely elderly people with tenants who provide company or help, and suddenly found herself also dealing with a husband who couldn’t manage the lavatory alone.
“She was cooking every meal, and bathing me, which would do my head in,” Boorman says, “but she is a saint, my wife, incredibly practical, and just gets on with it.”
Their daughters – Doone and Kinvara, 21 and 20 – are both at university, but Doone also had to be flown home last year after breaking her jaw on a skiing trip.
You might think the gods are trying to tell the Boormans something about hazardous pursuits, but when we meet, Charley’s leg is nearly healed (he invites me to feel a screw that has worked loose beneath the skin) and he’s planning to resume his bike safaris in Africa in August, go on a speaking tour to promote the book, then try to put the Darien Gap TV project back together.