Whicker’s World

Saturday, July 23, 2005 by

Nobody seems to want to know how the other half live anymore. TV programmes whose sole motivation was to loiter longingly alongside private pools or prop up gigantic exclusive bars purely for the sake of it have vanished. The deferential documentary, poking its nose so politely into the pantries of the rich and famous can’t show its face on screens today. Ordinary people, be they mundane, objectionable or ludicrously off-the-wall, are the masters. They hold the camera’s eye, and we watch them – continuously and eagerly. If you’re rich and insane you might get a look in; otherwise, forget it.

Perhaps the good folk of the upper-set got bored of yet another lensman lingering over the number of baubles round their neck. Maybe those beating a path to their double doors got bored of them. Possibly everyone just got too old for playing these kinds of games. Nowadays, the thinking goes, you don’t command dignity by appearing on television; you do so by avoiding it, and by being seen to avoid it.

Not that any of this seems to have bothered anyone. The parting of the wealthy socialite and their microphone-wielding suitor appears to have been viewed as an amiable separation. Perhaps they miss each other, but the public don’t seem to miss them. No-one’s screaming for the return of ponderous guided tours around Xanadu-esque palaces at 8pm on a weeknight evening. But no-one’s screaming for the return of the consummate tour guide either. Can it be that the great Alan’s well-thumbed passport hasn’t merely expired, but been revoked?

Well, on the evidence of this vintage episode of Whicker’s World, shown on Sky Travel, it wouldn’t be hard to see why. Hailing from 1982, when Alan was nearing the end of his patchy tenure at Yorkshire TV and about to return to the more rarefied climes of BBC Television Centre, it summed up almost everything objectionable about the man and his patented manner of broadcasting, while offering precious few morsels of whiskery Whicker magic.

The subject was the inaugural journey of the relaunched, refurbished Orient Express. Naturally, Alan had a ticket. But no ordinary ticket, mind; this was one that “buys a fairy tale – the chance to live out a fantasy.” Instantly we were plunged into a world impossibly removed from the everyday, but also a style of documentary-making equally remote from the accessible. The programme was only 45 minutes long, but a full 10 minutes elapsed before the train even left the station. Instead we dawdled on Victoria platform watching endless shots of anonymous luminaries alternately swaggering and tiptoeing past the carriages, while Alan unleashed a magnum of mithering by way of an archetypal alarmingly alliterative voiceover: “Flaunting its own aura of serenity and splendour … most of us relish a bit of razzamatazz … we can all hear the echo of that once-upon-a-time tin whistle …”

On it went. As yet another celebrity tottered through the ticket barrier, all notion of this being a travel programme evaporated as effortlessly as another of Alan’s similes. Liza Minelli’s arrival was the cue for our host to begin constructing an allegory, the architecture of which was dazzling to behold. “The waiting cast of our thriller,” he began, “are dressed of the 1920s.” He was briefly interrupted by a red carpet being unrolled. “To board the train is to become one of the actors …” You wished someone bloody well would board the train so the journey, and the show, could get going. Sadly no. Music had to be played, speeches made, toasts raised. A bit of genuinely useful information threatened to emerge – there were 180 passengers present – before Alan hastily added another storey to his towering parable. “Today a new cast assembles,” he purred, “for this fantasy island on wheels, each prepared for the first night!”

There is such a thing as too much post-production. Here it sounded like Alan had spent his time in the edit suite not just taping a voiceover but also holding a small wine and cheese party for a handful of bibliophiles. A further layer of metaphor to go with the pate? Why not! Oh, and slap on a bit more of that luxurious old school dance band music while you’re at it.

Eventually the Express left the station. We were treated to a long, panoramic shot of it snaking through the English countryside. Very pleasant. Then a few glimpses of the train’s numerous ornate furnishings and décor. Fair enough. Back to the aerial shots. More countryside. The sea arrived. Alan giggled with some rich old American ladies on the deck of one of Sealink’s finest, which he meaninglessly dubbed “an admirably well-balanced ferry.” Then it was back onto the train at Boulogne. More interior decoration. More aerial shots.

This was becoming infuriating. Where was the Express actually going? How long was the journey? What countries would the train be travelling through? What was that city we just passed? None of this was important, it transpired, because there were some princesses, a duchess, several tycoons, an arms dealer (very 1980s) and Liza Minelli on board. Nigel Dempster was there too, “recording our every peccadillo.” And Alan too, of course, who was the most important person of all. “I was recapturing the golden age of the train,” he intoned selflessly.

In a way he was the victim of his own circumstance. One sequence of a woman in pearls and a man in a dinner suit quaffing champagne is very like another. But surely now the moment was ripe for a bit of detached exposition, a break from the chatter with all the nabobs. Oh no. “The main act of the pantomime …” Alan pressed on regardless, “… top of the bill tonight …” By the time we got on to fevered speculation as to how many travellers “were half expecting a murder” the only thing being done to death was Alan’s metaphor.

A man was spied asleep in a corner. “Some of us have nnnnnnodded off,” Alan stuttered, before raising his game and lapsing into the royal vernacular: “We thought for one tentative moment we’d spotted the victim!” However he hadn’t quite reached his pièce de résistance. When one woman confided how some of the carriages had been used as brothels after the First World War, Alan essayed the stunning new trick of managing to guffaw not before, or after, but during a word. “Real-ha-ha-ho-ho-ly?” he replied. Astonishing.

Suddenly the train had arrived in Venice and it was all over. Yet there was still time for more tittle-tattling between Alan and his erstwhile travellers, who were now to be found bobbing in expensive gondola reminiscing about the amount of booze they’d consumed. “I’m very much afraid I have champagne poisoning,” one of them confessed. Nigel disclosed he’d filed a few scoops. “Whatever it’s usually like today,” Alan sighed, “travelling is certainly not murder on the Orient Express.”

The whole escapade was enjoyable after a fashion, but more as a curio rather than anything particularly informative or even that entertaining. Whicker always carried this kind of assignment off with bluster, and his badinage remained forever as beguiling as it was tortuous. Yet as a travelogue it was spectacularly useless, leaving you less clued up about its subject than you were before. In Around the World in 80 Days, Michael Palin devoted about as many on-screen minutes to the Express as Whicker spent idling on Victoria platform, yet managed to convey 10 times as much insight, wit and colour.

Truly a different age, perhaps, and one whose passing is all to the good. However, even if his quarry aren’t wanted on TV anymore, there’s a nagging suspicion Whicker’s penchant for the upbeat, shameless, articulate side of life could still make for the occasional treat. After all, most of us do indeed relish a bit of razzamatazz – but only, like nostalgia, the right kind.


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