This week marks the return of Pilgrimage – the BBC Two show which sees a group of celebrities from various religious backgrounds embark on a long trek as they discuss their faith and beliefs.
This year the group donning backpacks and walking boots consists of Adrian Chiles, a converted Catholic, Edwina Currie, a lapsed Jew, Fatima Whitbread, a practicing Christian, Mim Shaikh and Amar Latif, both Muslims and Dom Joly and Pauline McLynn – two confirmed atheists.
Here’s everything you need to know about the pilgrims – including why they took part and what they each learnt from the experience…
Who is Adrian Chiles? Chiles is a journalist and broadcaster who is most well-known for his presenting work on shows such as The One Show – which he fronted from 2007-2010, and for serving as ITV’s lead sport presenter from 2010-2015. He also has a regular column in the Guardian.
Why did Adrian want to take part? “Well I’ve got a sort of horror of these kind of programmes – but with this one I just thought, well I do really like talking about faith.
“I think there’s a misconception that people who come on and talk about faith get hammered for it, but I did a little series called My Mediterranean which was about God and I never got any stick for it at all, so I was kind of relaxed talking about faith and I thought there’d be interesting things to learn about that and discussions to have.
What did he learn from the pilgrimage? “Well, I found it sort of spiritually dispiriting if I put it like that. Because the whole pilgrimage marks the route of where Suleiman went marching up to Vienna, got his a**e kicked and then limped back.
“And then every place we stopped along the way there was always evidence of where unspeakable things have been done to people in the name of religion, to which I would say that was absolutely bugger all to do with religion, it was done in the name of religion but it was only politics.
“I’ve been asked in the past could you have been a Muslim, could you have been a Jew, like you were a Catholic. But it’s a meaningless question…to me it’s not about which religion, it’s where you are on the spectrum – I’ve got more in common with a liberal Muslim than with even a conservative Roman Catholic.
“Jesus said the meek shall inherit the Earth, right, but the meek have got very poor PR, because normally when you get religious people on, you normally get the headbangers on, nobody is interested in the mild ones. And us seven were all sort of mild people, certainly in religious terms, or irreligious terms if you like. I think the beauty of it is the kind of meekness of it.”
Who is Edwina Currie? Currie is a former Conservative Member of Parliament who represented the South Derbyshire constituency from 1983-1997, including serving as a junior health minister for two years. In her post-politics career she has worked extensively as an author and broadcaster and has taken part in Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.
Why did Edwina want to take part? “First of all, it’s an area of the world I’ve never been to, I knew it was beautiful, but it’s also an area of borders between countries, shifting allegiances, shifting religions, so we were going to be exploring how people have treated each other over centuries.
“And I thought then I just trusted you lot (the production team) to choose some very interesting companions. We had a lot of fun, I hope that showed, but we really had a lot of bloody hard work too!”
What did she learn from the pilgrimage? “Well first I got to know six terrific people…when you spend two weeks in rather intimate circumstances with people you get to know them very well and that was an enormous positive.
“I learned that there’s a heck of a lot of change going on in that part of the world, that we’re not aware of. We saw villages that were virtually empty…we saw areas where a lot of effort is being made to raise standards where there’s money going in, improving the little town centres trying to create something better for people, giving them hope and so on, it’s working in some places but not yet.
“And we learned places that are still very cut off like Serbia, they’re still stuck in a mindset that perhaps we wouldn’t find very comfortable, perhaps there are still unresolved issues there from wars that only recently ended, little rumblings we heard from time to time.”
Who is Dom Joly? Comedian Dom Joly is most famous for his show Trigger Happy TV, a practical joke show making use of hidden cameras that ran for two seasons in the early 2000s. He has also toured extensively as a stand up, has written travel books and and hosts his own podcast, Earworm.
Why did Dom want to take part? “Well I like an argument… and I’m totally non-religious and I just wanted to spend two weeks arguing with religious people and telling them how ridiculous they were. But actually when I met them they were all quite reasonable and none of them were fundamentalists so that didn’t really happen!
“And I travel a lot, I write travel books and I like dark tourism. I’d just walked across Lebanon last year so I thought I needed another walk, and my big hero in life is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote two of my favourite books – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – where he walked in the 1930s from London to Istanbul.
“So the idea of being able to do the same-ish journey as he did was just unbeatable!”
What did he learn from the pilgrimage? “I grew up in Lebanon, in a civil war, where the whole country was split apart by various religious factions, so to me religion was always this not particularly positive thing that seemed to divide people. And yet the Lebanese are an incredibly hospitable, lovely, friendly people and so there was always this weird dichotomy.
“And going through the Balkans it was exactly the same, actually. You went to Serbia and the people individually were incredibly friendly and nice and a great sense of humour and yet there was this really overriding sense of nationalism and extreme patriotism which was linked to the church very much.
“So yeah I think it was just the extraordinary contrast between the friendliness of the people but knowing that there was this just really deep-set division underneath it.”
Who is Mim Shaikh? Shaikh is a broadcaster and radio DJ who presented shows on BBC Radio 1Xtra and the BBC Asian Network from 2015-2019. More recently he has segued into documentary filmmaking, including creating and hosting a programme which saw him search for his biological father on BBC Three.
Why did Mim want to take part? “I remember when the request came in I was at a stage of my life where I’d been doing radio for about four or five years and I just decided to give it up because it wasn’t resonating the same way that I wanted it to.
“And this request came in and I thought I feel like I’d be able to learn something and I got this curiosity about me, wanting to know about other cultures and religions and people – primarily because I feel that is the way I’m able to learn in the best way.
“So that’s kind of the reason… and I hoped that I’d be able to feel something in regards to myself, where I’m pushing towards, what I want to do and just seeing if I grow in any way.”
What did he learn from the pilgrimage? “I think looking at the state of affairs right now in the world, just within the world that we live in post-Brexit, Islamophobia, all of these things that shows how divided we are… and religion can obviously add to that.
“I think, one of the reasons I got involved in the show is to show we’re not all fundamentalists, we’re not all extremists, we’re actually good human beings who just have faith that allows us to be good human beings – it’s our form of meditation or yoga or what everybody else is able to do.
“And I think that’s what I learnt. I’ve realised that all of us here, no matter what our religions are, no matter what our ethnicities are, no matter what our class is, no matter what gender we are, no matter what jobs we have, there’s more common in us then there is different.”
Who is Pauline McLynn? McLynn is an actress whose most famous role was playing Mrs Doyle on Father Ted, which saw her win a British comedy award in 1996. Her other roles include Libby Croker in Shameless, Tip Haddem in the BBC One comedy Jam & Jerusalem, and Yvonne Cotton in EastEnders.
Why did Pauline want to take part? “I can always be got for adventure in a place that I’ve never been before – and these were three places, three countries, that I’d never been to before!
“We all did a master interview before we went off on our travels – and I’m afraid I quite shallowly said that I like walking and a little bit of adventure, and that I was hoping to have a right laugh, and that is indeed what happened.”
What did she learn from the pilgrimage? “I suppose for me, seeing as the series is called Pilgrimage I may as well address the religious aspects of it. All it did for me was, I don’t mean all, but it cemented in my head the fact that I really have no time for organised religion of any sort.
“We visited an awful lot of places where the most extraordinary atrocities occurred… I mean truly shocking new levels of depravity…and it’s all in the name really of religion.
“And I was glad to be an atheist at the end of it, thinking not on my watch. So I think it’s very interesting to learn more about how awful all of the organised religions are – sorry, lads!”
Who is Amar Latif? Latif is an entrepreneur, TV presenter and world traveller who founded Traveleyes – an international air tour operator company that specialises in tours for blind travellers. His media career has seen him appear in a range of shows including BBC Two documentary Beyond Boundaries and travel programme Travelling Blind, which focused on travelling as a blind person.
Why did Amar want to take part? “I basically travel anyway, for the last 15 years since I’ve become blind I’ve travelled the world, so blindness has actually helped me see the world.
“But why I went on this adventure, was because in our day to day lives we work hard, religion is just pushed to one side – I didn’t even have time to contemplate what I thought and what I believed in.
“And when I was asked to take part in this I thought wow, two weeks of going away from work and contemplating exactly my thoughts, exactly where religion falls into it or it doesn’t – I thought it was an incredible opportunity.”
What did he learn from the pilgrimage? “I felt that I was experiencing such joy from most of the places that we went to. In Serbia, no matter what they’ve done in the past, their orthodox religion brought the community together.
“OK there was a hierarchy of who was being fed first, but once we ate there was music, they were having a drink, it was a piss-up, and everyone was really happy. And I thought, oh, religion is bringing this community together – and that was really nice to witness.
“It just made me realise that religion does bring people together and it provides so much peace to people and, you know I was getting a lot of that from this trip.”
Who is Fatima Whitbread? Whitbread is a javelin thrower whose impressive list of achievements include breaking the world record at the 1986 European Championships, winning the World Championships the next year, and twice winning Olympic medals – Bronze in 1984 and Silver in 1988. Her post athletics career has seen her take part in I’m a Celebrity, in which she placed third in 2011.
What did she learn from the pilgrimage? “It was a spiritual and eye-opening experience, both religiously and culturally. I thoroughly enjoyed the mountaineering, as well as walking through the villages and seeing local life in its simplicity.
“Experiencing a religious journey first-hand has deepened my faith. I feel that the experience hasn’t changed me as such, but it has increased my understanding of other people’s faith and increased my knowledge.”
Pilgrimage: The Road to Istanbul starts Friday 27th March at 9pm on BBC Two. If you’re looking for more to watch check out our TV guide.