Sunday 11 December 2016

The new explorers

As Charlie Bird sets out to retrace the footsteps of legendary Kerry man Tom Crean, Paul Whitington looks at the evolution of the travel show and the latest presenters to push the boundaries

Paul Whitington

Published 09/04/2011 | 05:00

Charlie Bird, who retraces the Tom Crean's footsteps
Charlie Bird, who retraces the Tom Crean's footsteps

In recent years, Charlie Bird has branched out from hard journalism into expansive TV travelogues. He may be forever etched in Irish minds as the man in a mac with a microphone standing intrepidly in the rain outside the Dáil, but Charlie has taken to travel television like a duck to water, and his 'Charlie Bird Explores' shows, beginning in 2006, have seen him traverse the Ganges, the Amazon and the Arctic.

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He's back on the road this week, in a new two-part show that traces the footsteps of legendary Kerry explorer Tom Crean.

Born in Annascaul in 1877, Crean left home at 15 to join the British Navy, and went on to become a legendary explorer. Crean took part in no fewer than four major British expeditions to Antarctica, including those of Scott and Shackleton, and won the Albert Medal for walking 56km across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans.

In 'On the Trail of Tom Crean', Bird follows Crean's footsteps from Kerry to Antarctica and, ultimately, to the South Pole. Trudging across the never-ending ice, Bird discovers the true reality of sledging in Antarctica and contemplates the mystery of why Scott turned Crean back when they were so close to the South Pole and success.

There have always been television holiday shows such as the BBC's 'Holiday' and RTE's recently scrapped 'No Frontiers', but Bird's show belongs to a tradition of TV travelogues that stretches back to the late 1950s, and Alan Whicker.

The best TV travelogues have tended to be aspirational rather than practical, taking viewers to the kind of places and environments they'll never be likely to visit. But the TV travelogue has always depended on the performance and personality of its host, and over the years, the genre has developed some bad habits.

Alan Whicker was the godfather of the travelogue. Born in 1925 (and still going strong, by the way), Whicker first realised the possibilities of travel television while filming with an army unit during the Allied liberation of Italy in 1943. After working as an international reporter for the BBC's current affairs programme 'Tonight', in the 1950s, he was given his own documentary series, 'Whicker's World', in 1959.

'Whicker's World' ran for an incredible 31 years, and became a cultural institution. The show's themes varied wildly, involving foreign reports on everything from the English in Hollywood, the Vietnamese boat refugees of the mid-1970s, the opening of Disneyworld, interviews with tyrants such as Papa Doc Duvalier and the rise of cosmetic surgery. In fact, the show was so all-encompassing that the only unifying ingredient was Whicker himself. With his raffish moustache and natty loafers and regulation navy blazer, Whicker looked like a golf-club bore and might have been specially designed to reassure his rather insular British viewers.

However exotic the backdrop became, Whicker was always there with his reassuring platitudes, but also with the odd witheringly satirical insight into how Johnny Foreigner comported himself. This winning combination was the reason for the show's enduring success.

By the 1980s, though, Whicker's routine had begun to seem a little dated, and towards the end of that decade, a rival appeared in the unlikely shape of comedian Michael Palin.

In fact, Palin's big break into TV travelogues was in a series that Whicker had turned down. Michael Palin was better known for 'Monty Python' and hit comedies such as 'A Fish Called Wanda' when he agreed to host a 1989 travel series called 'Around the World in 80 Days'. Whicker had been the BBC's first choice and Palin its fourth, but his very English brand of self-deprecating humour proved a perfect fit for the show.

Inspired by Jules Verne's famous novel, the show set Palin the challenge of following Phileas Fogg's footsteps around the planet within 80 days. He was not allowed to fly, and was accompanied by a five-man film crew he referred to collectively as 'Passepartout'.

Less patronising than Whicker, Palin would prove the perfect travelogue frontman; always curious and great with people, he was never afraid to make himself the butt of the show's jokes. He was game for anything, too -- in 'Around the World in 80 Days' he endured a bout of diarrhoea on a slow boat to Bombay, was attacked by a cockatoo in Hong Kong, sang badly in a Tokyo karaoke bar and was shaved by a blind man in India.

Palin was the kind of man you'd happily endure a long voyage with, and 'Around the World in 80 Days' was followed by a string of acclaimed travel series that saw Palin travel from pole to pole, around the Pacific Rim, across the Sahara and, most recently, through Europe's former Eastern Bloc countries.

Palin is the master, but he has inspired a host of imitators in the era of the celebrity travelogue. A lot of the new TV travellers have been comedians: Billy Connolly has undertaken leisurely tours of Australia, Canada, the Arctic and his native Scotland on motorbikes and push bikes; Paul Merton has made satirical tours of India, China and Europe for the British channel Five; Griff Rhys Jones has done a series on the great cities of the world for ITV, and Rhys Jones, Rory McGrath and Dara O Briain have toured Scotland, Ireland and southern England in a small boat.

There are also the food travelogues, the most entertaining being those by Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver. And then there are the extreme travelogues, the king of which is ex-royal marine Bruce Parry, who endures body piercings and strange initiations and eats things that should never be eaten for the greater good on the travel series 'Tribe'.

The man who's emerged as the most likely successor to the peerless Palin, though, is Stephen Fry. In 2008, he embarked on an exhaustive journey across America in his customised London taxi. Fry, as we know, is extremely erudite, but he can also be very funny, and 'Stephen Fry in America' was one of the most entertaining and informative travel shows I've seen in a long time.

Like Palin, Fry has the knack of seeming at ease in every social environment and situation, and looked as happy talking to an eccentric couple who live in an abandoned nuclear missile silo in the wilds of Dakota as hobnobbing with celebrities such as Sting and Morgan Freeman.

He's a perfect TV travelogue host, and I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him.

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