Who says British television lacks imagination? You might have thought, for example, that every possible combination of comedian and travel programme had been exhausted long ago. After all, it’s now 26 years since Michael Palin set the trend by following in Phileas Fogg’s footsteps (sort of). In more recent times, we’ve had Stephen Fry going round America in a London taxi, Billy Connolly going round Australia on a Harley-Davidson trike and — perhaps drawing the short straw — Ade Edmondson going round Britain in a caravan. There’s also been Paul Merton in India, Sue Perkins in China, Sean Lock and Jon Richardson in the Deep South and… well, you get the idea.
And yet after all this time, these programmes just keep on coming, with three on offer in the last, by no means untypical week. Of course, by now the conventions are so rigidly established that to depart even slightly from any of them — by, say, not wearing a Panama hat — feels like quite a bold statement. Reassuringly, though, most of the presenters do stick firmly to the old ways, especially when it comes to such staples as haggling in markets, tasting the funny foreign food and doing some local activities badly.
Of this week’s three, the most conventional was probably Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure (BBC2, Tuesday), in which Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne have been driving through Central America on the Pan-American Highway. With impressive attention to detail, they’ve even found some footsteps to follow in — if possibly from somewhere towards the bottom of the barrel. In the early 1940s, three Americans apparently drove along the same route when it was still a muddy cart-track, as part of their campaign for a proper road. Dara and Ed are therefore able to spend a fair amount of time carefully noting the differences in the region since then — mainly that there’s a proper road instead of a muddy cart-track.
In Tuesday’s final episode, the local activities they did badly (especially Dara) included being cowboys in Costa Rica and tugboat workers on the Panama Canal. There were also the mandatory Serious Bits, where they pondered the highway’s effect on wildlife and the indigenous people. ‘If they take everything, there will be nothing for us,’ one Wounaan fisherman told them, causing Ed to lament this as ‘the plight of indigenous people the world over’. Unfortunately, the fisherman then went on to explain that the highway also meant that ambulances could reach their children more quickly and that petrol was a lot cheaper.
The two men are genial enough company, but the format creates an inevitable sense of staleness — which is presumably where Travel Man (Channel 4) is supposed to come in as a hip new alternative. Here, the main presenter is Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd, who equips himself with a different comedian pal each week for a 48-hour city break, and on Monday was in Istanbul with Adam Hills. The show does have some obvious differences from its more middle-aged rivals: a half-hour running time, several money-saving tips and a much heavier reliance on travel apps. Ayoade also places some of the more familiar tropes in inverted commas — often by saying ‘open inverted commas’ before he mentions them.
But even this cunning device can’t disguise the fact that Travel Man is essentially a speeded-up version of the same old stuff. So it was that after limbering up with a glass of raki, he and Hills tasted some funny foreign food and went off to haggle in the market. Oddly — or maybe not — the most memorable moment came when Ayoade dropped the irony and constant stream of one-liners (many of them admittedly funny) and simply marvelled at how spectacular Aya Sofya is. ‘This,’ he declared, ‘calls for a brief pause in glibness.’
Nonetheless, and rather to my surprise, the best comedian’s travel programme this week was the unambiguously titled Slow Train through Africa with Griff Rhys Jones (ITV). True, Griff did start Friday’s opening episode, which took him from Morocco to Tunisia, with the bland, if indisputable line: ‘Africa — there’s nowhere else quite like it.’ True, he was first sighted in Marrakesh disliking a violently sweet mint tea, before heading to the market. He also did a couple of local activities badly — in this case, climbing a date palm and softening leather by treading on it in a large vat of pigeon droppings.
Yet, all this felt distinctly peripheral, as if Griff was gamely doing what TV required of him, but only so that he could then get down to his real business: giving us a proper guide to north African geography and history. Stranger still, he did this not just by means of whatever popped into his head, but also through a thoughtful, well-informed script that he’d written himself.