Am re-watching Michael Palin’s adventure Round the World in 80 Days. It’s, ahem, research for a current writing project, which means seeing things I never before thought of about how these things get made.
Like Verne’s Phileas Fogg 116 years before him (though not actually in real life), Michael has to get round the globe in just 11.4 weeks or forfeit £20. He’s not allowed to travel by plane, and he’s got to make something watchable as telly in the process.
It’s a bit strange to realise he’s now been doing these travelogues 20 years. And it’s also odd to see him not yet the established traveller, taking tips from Alan Whicker on how the job is done.
(Whicker’s advice: only ever speak English, and make sure you’re always comfortable.)
The authoritative baton of BBC adventurer is passed on to the uncertain Palin. I’m not sure whether it’s his doing or just a fact of the times that what follows is a completely different style of documentary. Where telly travel used to be classy and exotic, now it’s a celebration of the primitive and “real”.
We see the hardships and misunderstandings and – famously – the diarrhoea. Crucially, it’s at its best as telly when things are most going up tits.
It’s part of the special character of the piece that Michael must also plot his own course, struggling to find transport that will keep him on schedule. Spurning air travel means how he gets there is as much of the story as what he sees along the way.
The world in 1988 seems a very alien place, at once unsophisticated and innocent. Communications are by chunky, squawky phones and its tapes of Bruce Springsteen on a fat old Walkman that show Michael to be the technophile Westerner. There’s a passing reference to war in Iraq, and they don’t even yet mean Gulf War One.
Palin offers an insightful and generous perspective on the world and we’re with him every step of the way. But the makers seem uncertain of him on this first venture. There’s some oddly judged gags worked into the editing. A sound effect added to the scenes in Venice suggest he’s fallen off the quayside just out of shot.
It’s not needed – there’s plenty of laughs from Palin’s onscreen antics, the unfolding story and all the odd things they really see. The Dr was delighted to see her precious Venetian lions being used by a tramp for a bed.
As I said, a current bit of work means I’m all eagle-eyed for detail about the mechanics of how it got filmed.
For example, at Bombay Michael leaves a dhow (though only old colonials call these little boats that). He’s taken off in a little launch, and we watch him from the dhow he’s just left.
What happened to the cameraman who shot that sequence? Presumably he got a later launch and had to catch up. Or did Michael’s launch come back for him, after they’d filmed that bit?
Often the camera is ahead of Michael. We’re watching from across a busy office as Michael first steps inside. Did they all negotiate to set up the camera, then get Michael to duck back outside the door, telling the workers to pretend they’ve not seen him before?
When buying train tickets in Bombay, we see Michael struggling to find the right queue, and then getting to the window to buy his single ticket. This is a conceit because we already know he’s travelling with his own "Passpartout" – a cameraman, a soundman and their director.
What’s more, we watch him buy his ticket from the other side of the ticket kiosk, looking over the shoulder of the seller and at Michael’s face peering in at the plexiglass.
Presumably the filmmakers have negotiated to get inside the ticket office, and so they must have explained what they were up to, where they were going and sorted out tickets for the four of them.
Because of that trickery, you start questioning other things. They say they’ve not got reservations on the train they want, but are merely on a waiting list. And Michael later tells us that someone’s claimed his seat.
But there’s no footage to corroborate any of that, and when we do get to see him, he’s rather comfy in first class.
It's all a tissue of lies!
Yes, of course I can see how it makes for a more engaging picture. But I’d kind of assumed that documentaries were about veracity. In fiction, you can’t get away with such cheats in your storytelling.