“I Hope You’re Not Following Me”

Ian Jones on Around the World in 80 Days

First published November 2005

The phone rings in Michael Palin’s office. “Hello?” he answers. “Yes, yes BBC, I know.” A pause. “You want me to what? You want me to go around the world? Yes, but I don’t see why, you can go around the world in 36 hours …” Silence. “Ah, 80. 80 days. Yes, I see, I’d be Phileas Fogg. And no aircraft.”

The opening sequence of Around the World in 80 Days is a peerless demonstration of how to lay bare the premise of an entire documentary series in under 30 seconds. One man sits in a chair, not even looking at the camera, and finds out what he – and, because he’s being filmed, us as well – are going to be doing for the next few months. The look on his face and the tone of his voice sum it up: a simple conceit, an enormous task. There’s no flannel, no fuss. And we get it, the premise, instantly. By way of invitation, an offer to stay tuned, it’s a guaranteed sale. By way of exposition, a hook upon which to hang seven 50-minute episodes of TV, it’s a stroke of genius. All that’s left is for Michael to set off. Who cares if there was really nobody on the other end of the phone?

Well, TV critic Mark Lawson did, famously penning a pointed review of the series that traced all its supposed faults back to the “pretence” of its opening scene. In retrospect it seems ludicrous that anybody could have missed the point of Around the World in 80 Days. But Lawson did. Perhaps he was looking for something that wasn’t there. An additional motivation, maybe, other than to – well – go around the world in 80 days. For some, simplicity is never enough. For others, it has all the virtue of a life-changing epiphany. All in less than half a minute.

“Alan Whicker needed a new project”

Michael Palin received the call that would indeed change his entire life in the spring of 1988. Will Wyatt, then head of BBC documentary features, was the man on the other end of the phone. He later explained how one of his producers, Clem Vallance, a man who’d mostly worked on the natural history showcase The World About Us, came up with the idea of doing Fogg’s fictional odyssey for real. “We immediately began discussing how best to make it,” Wyatt wrote. “An early thought would be to do it live with the traveller linking by satellite, daily, but this would be expensive and difficult to schedule effectively.” Not to say unwieldy, insubstantial and smacking of shameless, for-the-sake-of-it television – all qualities that, perhaps unsurprisingly, were well to the fore when Simon Bates did precisely that in his own, live “as-it-happens” 80-day pilgrimage a year later.

Wyatt and Vallance plumped for the more sensible, workable alternative: a sequence of dovetailed documentaries, on film, packaged as a series and fronted by … well, who? “Alan Whicker needed a new project,” observed Wyatt. The sartorial swaggerer was duly consulted but, on hearing the scope and – crucially – the somewhat lowly style of transport being proposed, turned it down. As did Noel Edmonds. Likewise Miles Kington. Fourth on Clem Vallance’s list was a man whose most recent screen work had been playing a curly-haired stutterer caught up in trans-Atlantic criminal capers. But while the public may have most readily identified him as Ken from A Fish Called Wanda, both Vallance and Wyatt were thinking of the Michael Palin that had turned in an edition of that perennial schedule staple, Great Railway Journeys of the World. Wyatt rang him up, their conversation supposedly running:

“Michael, can I come to see you?”
“What’s it about?
“I’m not going to tell you until I see you.”
“Why not?”
“Because I may not get to the end of what I want to tell you about before you decide that it is all too much trouble and say no. I have a much better chance if I see you face to face. Can I come?”

Not so neatly expositional as the on-screen version, and not as nearly as entertaining (except for, who knows, Mark Lawson). The pair duly had tea at Michael’s house and the deal was done, apparently just like that. Vallance would direct, along with another of Wyatt’s team, Roger Mills. Mills had been the founding editor of Forty Minutes. Neither he, nor Vallance, nor their star host for that matter, had ever done a major BBC1 documentary in their life. Now they had to come up with something to form the centrepiece of what would be the network’s 1989 autumn schedule. The potential for failure was immense. And not just in terms of getting round the world in 80 days.

“One. One! One way!”

For starters, would it actually be any good? How far would the series end up (deliberately or otherwise) a largely procedural enterprise – a dry, earnest inventory of Michael getting on and off different boats – or could it amount to a great deal more besides? At least the team had one thing in their favour from the off: a self-evident narrative. Anybody would be able to tune in at any point and know in a flash how far Michael had got, thanks to a simple on-screen caption. “Day 58″ – that was all it needed; no endless exposition of the kind so intrinsic to the Whicker-style travelogue. But would that be enough?

In retrospect you can see how the programme-makers endeavoured to load the project with incident, as if to guarantee an eventful journey regardless of whether or not the trains ran on time. A lot of this survives into the actual films themselves, in the shape of the various demented tasks Michael gets saddled with as he embarks on his circumnavigation. These unashamed loony missions – joining a gang of rubbish-collectors on a Venice gondola, working in the kitchens on ferry to Alexandria, sampling a giant pipe in a Cairo café (“I’ll have a packet of 200!”), landing a walk-on in an Egyptian film (“Once again for me, I think!”) – are all good fun and carried off with aplomb, despite having no real purpose and all bearing the fingerprints of cooked-up set-pieces. Crucially, though, they diminish in number as the journey continues and the unforeseen is allowed to take precedence over the predetermined.

Although an 80-day timetable was undoubtedly mapped out, everybody involved surely knew it would come off the rails at some point. It was just a matter of being ready for such a moment, and then being flexible enough to not worry about letting scenarios arise out of events rather than the other way round. And to the production team’s credit, this is precisely what happens. As the weeks go by, the bizarre exploits derive less from Michael’s initiation and more by way of a response to the increasing madness around him.

The extent that their host would flourish in these kinds of contexts was something of which the programme-makers could not have been sure. They could set things up; they could engineer conversations and trigger confrontations in the hope of playing to the man’s obvious strengths, but the exact manner in which he would behave was undoubtedly – besides whether they’d all make it around the world in 80 days – the project’s great unknown. Thankfully, it’s also its greatest triumph.

Michael’s attitude towards everyone he meets and everything he sees as he struggles to emulate Phileas Fogg is the main thing that elevates Around the World in 80 Days from a mere globe-trotting documentary to a true piece of television history. With hindsight you can see how it established a style of TV travel presentation that had really never been seen before, but which was nonetheless immediately recognisable; in essence, an ordinary man trying to make sense of an extraordinary task in an equally extraordinary world.

The process involves marshalling all the elements in the stereotypical Englishman’s armoury: wit, self-deprecation, reserve, irony, and the desperately stoical belief that somehow everything will work out all right. But Michael manages to go further than simply trotting out a bundle of clichés, doing all this but also rendering himself a sort of travelling purveyor of imperially funny yet deeply plausible bits of comic business.

A good example comes at Alexandria train station, when Michael is trying and failing to buy a ticket. “Cairo? Cairo?” he repeats to the various ranks of people around him. “One. One! One way!” he shouts through the din at the ticket booth. “Yes, just one. One way!” It’s to no avail. “Nobody seems to have heard of Cairo,” he mopes as he wanders off to join yet another queue. It’s a scene of such confusion, yet such a remarkable demonstration of good humour confounding human foibles, it’s simply irresistible.

Plenty of just such bits of business, part-contrived part-improvised, arrive during the series and they’re never unwelcome. Michael limbers up in the first episode when he tries to buy an inflatable globe in a London travel shop (“I don’t think I’ll be able to get this down every night – as the actress said to the cartographer”). He really hits his stride, however, once he’s outside Europe and at the mercy of unfamiliar landscapes and wildly differing attitudes to time-keeping. He purports to get lost on the ferry to Alexandria, ending up opening the wrong cabin door (cue the requisite horrified scream from its unseen inhabitant). He gets genuinely lost in Tokyo station (confessing to camera: “I hope you’re not following me”). He’s discovered lounging in a suspiciously-English looking country garden in Shanghai muttering, “Yes, you’re right. The Bay of Bengal, Bombay, Cairo – all back projection. The whole thing was shot on location in Sunningdale.”

There’s also a fantastic run of sketches cooked up to fill time spent on the long journey across the Pacific, including a routine about the Beaufort Scale delivered on deck in the middle of a rainstorm (“Remember, wind speed, discovered by Lord Beaufort, after dinner …”), and another in the ship’s laundry room where Michael, adopting a broad Australian accent, proudly demonstrates how to “iron creases a man’s way. Next week: flower arranging. And just you wait to see where I’ll be arranging them.”

Like the demented tasks, these bits of business don’t always have direct relevance to the matter in hand, or to any more noble cause such as helping us understand the diverse cultures of the planet. Unlike the demented tasks, however, they contribute enormously to our appreciation and understanding of Michael Palin as a human being – his frame of mind, his sense of humour, his forbearing – and therefore deepen both our interest in what he has to say and our concern for his plight.

“There’s some commentary coming in a minute. Ah, here it is.”

Without that bond between Palin and viewer, reared on such a uniquely avuncular approach to such a uniquely intimidating endeavour, no amount of preparation and contrivance on the part of the programme-makers would have resulted in such a deeply satisfying and involving documentary series. Equally, without getting to know and appreciate Michael’s countenance and personality to such an extent, those moments when the project does almost run aground wouldn’t have such impact. Not only do the pre-ordained tasks get junked when the trip goes awry; any suggestion of this being a comfortable, lofty parade around the globe vanishes as well.

Seeing Michael leave Victoria station in London on Sunday 25 September 1988 – 116 years after Fogg – in the decidedly upmarket surroundings of the Orient Express, the temptation is to expect a cosseted yarn of the kind made TV convention by Whicker. But you never saw Alan having to clamber onto a bus when met with an unexpected train strike; or driving from one side of Saudi Arabia to the other in one weekend, a distance of 1347 miles, in order to make his next connection. Indeed, it’s amazing how quickly things go wrong. In episode two Michael’s already confiding how problems at Suez could mean “the rest of the schedule would fall apart like a pack of cards.” He’s a week behind his timetable when he reaches Bombay on Day 25; he’s 10 days behind by the time he leaves. “I’ve never felt quite so strongly that the whole project is about to collapse,” he admits.

Again, none of this could have been anticipated by anybody, just like all those comedy skits and capricious banter. Without them, however, the series would have been a great deal less satisfying. And of course there are many very real moments when the whole trip could have fallen apart: bad weather, missed connections, illness, even bombs (from unexploded mines bobbing in the Persian Gulf to a suspect package at a London Underground station). It’s a wonder Michael feels the need to ever take his progress for granted – but he does, spending two days messing about in Hong Kong when he could be on the move, and wasting 24 hours in Aspen, Colorado having a swim, going up in a hot air balloon and riding on a sledge which almost makes him miss his last train connection. At least he’s the first to admit the error of his ways, ruing how the American rail network’s reassuring mantra “We hope it won’t inconvenience anyone” could “well prove to be the epitaph for my journey.”

This kind of approach was so different from any other travel series to date. The same goes for the structure and pace of the programmes, which is very much dictated by the course of events, and rightly so. There’s no arbitrary division of the 80 days into the seven episodes. Different stages of the journey are given the space they need to properly unfold. Hence the seven days on the dhow get an entire edition to themselves; as does the final two and half week dash across America and the Atlantic, neatly emphasising on one hand the frantic pace of life in the Western Hemisphere, on the other the heightened tension at nearing the finishing post.

Michael’s relationships with those around him is another factor that helps dictate the pace and flow of events, and is a further element nobody who worked on the series could have bargained for. The same warmth and attention he directs towards establishing a relationship with us he also extends towards the horde of characters he meets en route. This is no more obvious than when he’s stuck on the dhow, quizzing the crew on their English, discussing Indian cuisine, or making one of them listen to Bruce Springsteen on his Walkman (“It’s unbelievable what this man can take!”) Michael’s tribute to the bonds he builds with these men is one of the most affecting voiceovers in the whole series:

“I know I’ve felt rotten, but I’m sad to leave. Passepartout and I entrusted our lives to these people … I shall never again on this journey enjoy such simple and straightforward friendships. At this moment it is almost impossible to accept that I shall never see them again.”

His relationship with the film crew – dubbed Passepartout in honour of Fogg’s own travelling companion – is in its own way quite heartfelt. There’s no attempt to disguise their presence. Indeed, they often appear on camera, and on many occasions it’s clear Michael is confiding (often appealing) to them as much as to the viewer. It’s obvious he takes comfort from their presence, and isn’t ashamed to show it. This makes for yet another potent ingredient added to the mix, as well as plenty more moments of humour: “There’s some commentary coming in a minute. Ah, here it is.”

“Just the thought of it makes me – makes me want to go home.”

Not all his on-screen relationships are so reciprocal. Despite lavishing respect upon everyone he meets, there are some that notably fail to show such an attribute in return. He’s mobbed by some over-zealous fans in Athens. “I love you,” screams a woman. “Do the stuttering, please. You’re wonderful!” The same thing happens at Chicago station, when he’s racing for a connection. Then there’s a strangely mute taxi driver in New York who fails to rise to even the most outrageous bait. “It’s a very strange life I’ve been leading these last 70 days,” Michael teases. Nothing. Intriguingly it’s only Westerners who harangue or snub; the rest of the world is always affable and ebullient.

Michael’s take on the people he meets and events he encounters hands the series a couple more unforeseen and important plus points. First, our host’s articulacy. Every episode is decorated with witty observations and epithets. We learn that while Europeans treat life as “a series of problems to be solved,” Egyptians see it as “a series of limitations to be observed.” Thoughts on travel include the fact that “it’s only when there’s land around that sea travel really becomes interesting,” and “there’s unequalled excitement about being on a boat at the moment of departure.” Then there’s the wonderfully Orwell-esque claim: “there is no better way of getting reacquainted with Britain than over afternoon tea and the view from a train.”

Nobody sells the practice of travelling like Michael Palin. Nobody exhibits the battered realities to such a degree either. If there’s one image above all that sticks in the memory from Around the World in 80 Days, it’s Michael repeatedly collapsing, exhausted and dirty, onto hotel beds. This ties in with the other, second, plus: his ability to speak his thoughts and feelings without sounding cloying or sentimental. While you could never be sure his TV travelogue peers meant what they said about their well being, you can with Michael, because you get to see and hear him suffer.

In Hong Kong he puts himself into the minds of the staff of his hotel: “Do they know I’ve come off a container ship? I feel like a floating piece of wreckage.” He enjoys the isolation of one and a half weeks aboard a container ship crossing the Pacific – for a while, that is, until everything he sees evokes unhappiness, with even the containers “emitting groans of melancholy”. Similarly he revels in life on the dhow – “I feel safe, unrushed and relaxed” – until he becomes ill, leading to one of the most famous sequences in the whole series where Michael groggily details to camera the extent of his malaise. His words are both very personal, and somehow universal:

“This is no place to be ill – there’s nowhere to hide. All I want now is for the journey to end and for me to be somewhere else … Realities aren’t always as quite as nice as the romance. Just the thought of [food] today makes me – makes me want to go home.”

We’ve all been there.

“I’ve run out of ad-libs”

The cumulative effect of this magical jumble of tomfoolery, eloquence and suffering overrides almost all negative observations you can throw at Around the World in 80 Days. Well, almost all. Paddy Kingsland‘s incidental music is one element you just can’t forgive, never mind forget. Its ubiquity is its greatest undoing. Maybe if it were more subtle and sparing it wouldn’t matter. Instead, the music demands you pay it some attention, and the trouble is it’s not even worth paying the time of day.

Kingsland’s greatest blunder is coming up with a brilliant theme, then flogging it to death by re-arranging it so many times to fit the “sound” of the country Michael is passing through, as to turn a pleasant tune into an overbearing earache. Oh look, Mike’s in Egypt – better do the theme like the Turkish Delight advert. Now he’s it’s India – quick, play it on a sitar. China? Use all the black notes on the piano. America? Somebody book a slide guitarist. So it goes on.

If only the music would know when to shut up the same way as Michael’s tactful commentary. After all, an incidental score is supposed to be, well, incidental. Still, it’s a far more objectionable contrivance than anything propagated during the filming itself, bogus phone calls included. A shame the same level of power wielded by the BBC in arranging for an entire container ship to be kept waiting outside Singapore harbour expressly so Michael and his gang could board was not also directed towards sorting out some better background accompaniment.

By way of complaints, though, it’s small fry placed against the blistering adventure ride the team has subjected viewers to by the time Michael lands back in Britain on – look away now – day 79. And what a conclusion. Nobody gives a toss about Palin’s ordeal, from the stubbornly non-communicative lorry driver who picks him up at Felixstowe docks to the wonderfully pissed-off newspaper seller in Oxford Street who shouts and swears and won’t let the camera show his face. “I want to tell the world,” Michael’s voiceover pleads, “Just let me tell you – please!” But the evidence suggests otherwise, and in unsavoury colours. “This is my home,” he says meekly, “but I feel like a stranger in a foreign land. There isn’t a country in the world less easy to impress.”

His entire last day is such an ordeal the emotional impact is almost unbearable. How come nobody’s pleased to see him? And how come – the final insult – the Reform Club won’t even let him in to film so he can officially complete his trip? It’s outrageous, yet somehow just right. Looking back you’re quite actually glad there’s no self-indulgent, over-the-top welcome for this downtrodden dhow-hiking snake-munching refuse-collecting wanderer. It wouldn’t have worked at all. Having eschewed theatrics and, yes, pretence for the previous 78 days, to give in on the 79th would’ve been a genuine anti-climax. Instead, the feelings of rejection and loneliness that swim around him on that cold December afternoon are the show’s final masterstroke:

“Right now I don’t have any sense of the heroic. I just worry if my jacket will still fit in my bag. Now I’ve covered the world, I can’t quite grasp what I’ve done.”

Who cares if it’s all set up? What’s the problem if his friends and family were deliberately kept away from his triumphant landing at Felixstowe? The entire series involves setting-up of one kind or other, even – on the most mundane level – the setting up of the camera to prepare another shot. What is lost in insight is compensated for by our host’s refreshingly ego-free willingness to immerse himself in whatever situation he languishes, and go with the flow. To return right back to Mark Lawson’s quibbling, this isn’t pretence, it’s the most magnificent showmanship. As Michael confesses, exhausted, in the closing seconds of the last episode, “I’ve run out of ad-libs”

“I’m never going round the world again.”

After almost missing that crucial train out of Chicago, all the for the sake of 24 hours of indulgence in Aspen, Michael utters the immortal famous last words “I’m never going round the world again!” Which of course he promptly did. Yet each of his subsequent ventures, while boasting a similar suitcase of smart one-liners, schoolboy chicanery and vexed exchanges with nonplussed ticket clerks, lacked that very thing which so effortlessly advertised the potential of Around the World in 80 Days in its first 10 seconds: a hook. Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Sahara and Himalaya are all journeys for the sake of it, uninhibited by time, and far more sporadic. As enjoyable as they are, each episode fails to pick up where the previous one left off. Viewers are still continually reminded what day it is, but such distinctions become irrelevant. We’re supposed to think the fact it’s “Day 59″ carries weight. In truth it means nothing, and actually clutters rather than clarifies what’s going on. The journeys are always mildly interesting notions in and of themselves, but somehow not the real deal, and nowhere near as compulsive an idea for a TV programme as one so beautifully simple and complete that it can be summed up by, yes, a simulated one-sided phone call.

Will Wyatt, who has a vested interest as he commissioned the thing, writes in his typically selfless style of Around the World in 80 Days being “the best ever television travel series.” But he’s right. It has the killer hook. It has the perfect formula. It has endless bits of business. Most crucially of all, it doesn’t have Alan Whicker (who wouldn’t have touched a dhow with bejewelled barge pole), Miles Kington (hoofing around the Pacific with his double bass) or Noel Edmonds (“A helicopter ferried me the short distance from Yokohama to Tokyo, where another helicopter was waiting to take me to my hotel”). It has Michael Palin, and as the bookie in Ladbrokes in episode one declares so perfectly, “I don’t think that Michael Palin would go in for something and not succeed.”