Archive for October 13th, 2008

Merton In India / Fry in America

October 13, 2008

How To Make a Television Programme
#16485 – Drop a National Treasure in a foreign country

Michael Palin’s spine is not what it once was. Apparently he can barely take a 168 to Hampstead Heath without buckling.

Ustinov’s dead.

So who could the BBC and Five send off on a jet plane for their travelogue programming? Which safe pair of hands could deliver quality footage, fit for a series at only the cost of their fee, their expenses and a handful of first class plane tickets?

Time to get out the Handbook of National Treasures…

David Jason’s too grumpy, Robbie Coltrane won’t fit on the plane and Parkinson’s not very interesting. In the end, stuck for options, Five chose Paul Merton whilst the BBC, probably thinking itself slightly superior, plumped for Stephen Fry.

Paul Merton in China was a bit of a drab affair. It was Merton’s first outing in the travel format and he didn’t look altogether comfortable. His constant asides to camera occasionally came across as slightly patronising towards the Chinese and the imported comedy moments, set-pieces created purely for camera, didn’t do it any favours. It still had a lot of good moments and thankfully the second series is a further improvement.

Paul Merton In India is a different kettle of fish. Merton’s in his element here, as the atmosphere is markedly more chaotic. This gives him the scope to make his witticisms to camera without so much of a reaction. The general hubbub around him means he is ignored, to some extent. He’s part of a constant movement rather than the focus and the show benefits from this change.

In episode one, Merton visited a gentleman called Bubbles who saved a city from exploding using guile and breathtaking bravery. Rather than focus on why missiles were being driven nearby and how one of them caught fire, we followed the story from Bubbles’ point of view and discovered that he put it all down to his worship of a Goddess. A Goddess who protects rats. He led Merton and his charming guide to a nearby temple where they hung out with the rodents and it was all very sweet, if not a little odd.

Things took an even stranger turn when PM hung out at a religious festival in honour of Shiva which featured naked disciples twisting their penises in all directions. Five didn’t shirk from showing this footage. I’m glad I wasn’t eating my dinner when the sight of a block of cement suspended from a bell end flashed on screen, filmed from behind, from the vantage point of the disciple’s arse-crack. Merton was speechless. The viewer was speechless. When offered a chillum packed with weed, PM toked on it like a man possessed, presumably to soften the blow of the visual assault. By the end of this sequence, he was visibly stoned out of his face – like an aged, slightly flabby Bruce Parry, intoxicated in the near-wilderness. It was great stuff.

On top of all this, having sat through a bizarre, faux-accident in a weird, nightmare flight simulator, Merton accidentally jumped out of the emergency door the wrong way, bounced on his head and fell arse over tit. It was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. The programme was littered with these amusing little accidents and it triumphed as a result.

Over on BBC1 in a Sunday night slot made available since Martin Clunes stopped fannying about with his dogs on ITV, Stephen Fry pretended to drive around America in a black cab. In Stephen Fry in America, he started his journey in Maine, speaking to fishermen engaged in catching lobsters. We didn’t learn much from this exhange, except that lobster-catchers in Maine are apparently the best in the world. But then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

  • Later, Fry went hunting deer with some men who covered themselves in deer-poo. No deer made itself known, in the event, so Fry moved on.
  • He went to the Ben & Jerry’s factory and made some ice cream. Visitors to the factory enjoyed his mixture.
  • He went to Washington and talked to a satirist you’ll not have heard of.
  • He went to a Casino to act as croupier. He spoke to a Vietnamese lady who couldn’t understand his accent.
  • He went to speak with Sting, the self-styled Englishman in New York. Sting likes it in New York (when he’s not loitering in European brothels). This section was absolutely infuriating.
  • He spoke to an old man who pretends to be Abraham Lincoln for a living about the Gettysburg address.

And that was about it.

With Fry’s effort it didn’t seem items were linked by anything other than the location of the States – and several of these were completely glossed over with a fleeting apology. This was an episodic array of set pieces, all featuring Fry as he met with everyday, unremarkable Americans. There was something missing here. As with Dave Gorman’s recent America Unchained series, the central premise was flawed so momentum wasn’t allowed to build. Was Fry studying the history of America? The social relations between Americans? Was it an effort in cultural understanding? Or was it just a shallow toe in every one of those puddles, with too little exploration for it to be as engaging as it could have been?

If it was none of these things, then it should have dropped its game and opted to go for the same silly approach that Merton’s crew took. As it stands, Fry’s effort was a touch too earnest and less entertaining as a result.

His series may well improve as time goes on and Merton’s may well degenerate, but from episode one of either vehicle, Merton leads with a goal to nil.

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