The Way We Travelled

Thursday, July 17, 2003 by

Alan Whicker is endeavouring to conduct an interview with a finely preened continental heiress, sitting almost in her lap while the pair roar across a lake in a luxury vessel. Seeking for some phrase to sum up this deeply fragrant experience, Whicker reaches for the immortal line, “There’s something about a speedboat that makes you want to laugh,” to which his companion can only reply, “Ha ha ha ha ha!”

Packaging itself as a none too sombre tribute to a small screen genre from yesteryear, The Way We Travelled turned out to be an intensely authoritative and fondly produced testimony that delivered far more than its narrow remit, the history of TV holiday shows, might have implied. As respectful of its subject matter as it was critical, this was an utterly absorbing hour of fantastic archive footage, illuminating recollection and engaging presentation.

Ostensibly an exercise in contrasting the careers of three key individuals – Richard Dimbleby, Alan Whicker and Cliff Michelmore – the programme did that and much more, taking itself off down various side roads of anecdote and whimsy, adding up to a surprisingly exhaustive and expansive lesson in how the combined impact of personality and of place influenced the way travelling was reported on the TV of the 1950s and ’60s.

First up was Dimbleby’s self-produced series Passport, born out of its creator’s dominance of the post-war BBC and in particular his mastering of the Corporation’s reputation for rather proscriptive television. “We’re off on a holiday journey,” began Passport‘s opening narration, typical of Dimbleby’s patented inclusive approach to broadcasting. Indeed, footage revealed that wherever he rambled throughout Europe the man endeavoured to place himself on a par with the viewer by playing up his own innocence and simultaneously revelling in his own authority. Upon flagging down a British family in France Dimbleby was shown requesting, with textbook politeness, “Now, to help me with my enquiries about holidays here, can I ask you just one or two questions?”

Passport revolved around the Dimbleby clan perusing corners of a Europe still recovering from recently ended conflict, blithely reciting facts and figures as they went. This was observation, not investigation; “Now darling,” Richard addressed his wife Dilys at one point, “you’re the expert on all forms of shopping, so will you go and find out what the prices are, and we’ll meet later – OK?” The programme painted a convincing image of Dimbleby as an avuncular godfather, not only shepherding television into the strange field of foreign travel, but also pushing his own family into the limelight. Both his sons David and Jonathan were given assignments on Passport and its British-based successor, sensibly titled No Passport. A present day Jonathan recalled through various droll anecdotes how he came to loathe the demands of this filming, especially one sequence where he had to pretend to fall off some water-skis which, to his eternal chagrin, was then repeated endlessly as a BBC interlude.

Richard Dimbleby’s benevolent paternalism was set alongside the differing personalities of Michelmore and, to a greater extent, Whicker. The careful attention the programme paid to profiling these respective individuals and their background in TV typified its willingness to ramble off topic, even if it meant junking all mentions of travel shows for a good 15 minutes. But this was all to the good when it meant some brilliant clips from early editions of Tonight, including one when Michelmore took a phone call from his producer mid-show (“I think we can go back to that hilarious football match in Rome – I hope”!) and another where we saw him meticulously check his watch after signing off to see if the transmission was ending on schedule.

Alan Whicker served his time on Tonight of course, delivering fantastically wry films about streets in Northumberland with abstract sequences of house numbers, or esteemed London charm schools. But The Way We Travelled was careful to highlight how, even back then, the man had his eye on the lucrative foreign assignment and that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable spin-off arrived.

Whickers World, in its first incarnation, had one of the best title sequences ever. Jazz-tinged perky theme music – so different from the later pompous earnest orchestral fanfare – went hand in hand with grand visuals: Whicker briskly striding along as Concorde passed almost nonchalantly over his shoulder, followed by that overhead shot of a plane taxiing along a runway to reveal the huge legend WHICKER’S WORLD on the tarmac. This was a display that instantly promised something ambitious and audacious was on the way, and that you needed to stay tuned.

Testimony and footage duly followed serving to highlight Whicker’s World‘s style, scope and in particular its distinct agenda: sending the walking epitome of Englishness into far off lands to encounter their people on his terms rather than their own (the essential difference between Whicker and, say, Michael Palin). But while there was the inevitable lazy pot shot at Whicker’s mannerisms, the viewer was also treated to the man’s masterful way with words.

For Whicker the verbal always seemed to remain just as important as the visual. Alliteration was to be used wherever possible (“A night of that old … Monte Carlo magic!”), and everything had to be personalised: “I saw so many islands I hardly knew to which to go first!” The programme also unearthed a dazzling one-take monologue delivered from William Randolph Hearst’s palace (“A man who started a war, and charted an aircraft to fetch shrimp for his dinner”) and shots of Whicker shamelessly acting with almost missionary like zeal when helping Singapore’s residents clamber onto a bus (“Here comes somebody else – in you go!”)

Listening to these and other patented Whicker perorations was a reminder of how what he said, and the way he said it, often bumped up against each other to create some occasionally grotesque but always knowingly pompous observations. This was best demonstrated by a splendid report from the west coast of America in the late ’60s. “No-one really knows what’s happening in San Francisco,” our hero boomed, though as ever that wasn’t quite true, for one person did, and it was Alan Whicker. “This is where it’s at. Traditional home of the way out, today, mecca of happy hippies,” he continued, affecting that curious habit of missing out key words to render his oratory in trademark half-finished sentences.

But then came some vintage Whicker verbalese: “Hippies are cracking the smooth silhouette of America’s materialism with that ultimate weapon – with love. The money helping flower children are, paradoxically, products of wealth. Self-indulgent hippies can only drop out because other people don’t.” This whole trip to San Francisco was essayed by the programme-makers as an example of Whicker being unable to move with the times, yet he didn’t seem that out of place applying his usual bombast to this particular hyperbolic scene. “Don’t the hippies who take LSD and pot think you’re pretty square?” we saw him ask a distracted girl swinging in a hammock. “No indeed,” she declared, “because the minute they look at me I convince them that I’m for real and I’m happy and they would love to be this way.” She then began some ritualistic chanting leaving Whicker to look on in sympathy.

The flipside of Whicker’s expansive jet setting was the Holiday programme, here examined in its amazing first incarnation of 1969 when it resembled a sort of black and white scratchy forerunner of Crimewatch with banks of telephone assistants fielding calls from viewers while Cliff Michelmore sat up front, looking pissed off and reciting prices of holiday insurance. When it began Holiday was very much a personality led affair – its title sequence boasted monochrome flashing legends of the words “Holiday” “Cliff” and “Michelmore” – but it was profiled here as signalling a major departure in the genre, being the first time consumerism had really been legitimised within mainstream BBC programming.

Mostly this appeared down to the work of journalist turned presenter John Carter, so we were told, who turned up to claim how he more or less invented the format. Much was made of the crusading style of Holiday ’69, but from what was shown here it looked a bizarre effort, neither one thing nor the other, with Michelmore sounding very uncomfortable commentating on dreary films of Alpine coach tours. The format undoubtedly settled down when it went colour the following year and Michelmore went on the beat to encounter, “The sun, the sea, the sand and … the satisfaction!” of mingling with half-dressed women on Spanish beaches.

By this point The Way We Travelled had already more than excelled itself by way of first rate footage and contentious claims, but there was still time for one last brilliant surprise: a sequence on Blue Peter. Including John Noakes, Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton’s collective summer expeditions alongside the personal odysseys of Whicker, Dimbleby et al was a useful and inspired illustration of the differences between watching one person funnel an entire country through their own monologues and the more rounded take afforded by a group perspective.

There was – and still is – a hugely endearing aspect to BP‘s globetrotting, with the gang bumbling and blustering their way around the world full of wide-eyed wonder. Here there were great shots of the team hamming it up when they broke down in the Moroccan desert, pursuing some mysterious traders through Marrakech marketplace (“There they go!”) and attempting to ride some camels. We also learned that Val never really enjoyed these foreign soirĂ©es, and how one year relations got so bad that Val and Pete didn’t speak to each other once during the entire trip.

The Way We Travelled was stacked with such notable episodes and remembrances of incidents that served to sum up through specifics a lot of the generalities not just about this genre of telly but the condition of broadcasting throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Even Nick Hancock’s commentary added to rather than distracted from the footage, as did the choice of contributors who all talked knowledgeably and articulately about their craft. John Carter summed up the stature of the personalities on display here: “There was a time when we did have icons – I don’t think you do have them now.” Future programmes continuing this excellent history through to the present day might very well prove him wrong.


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