OK, follow me everybody
Jools Holland is the latest celeb to attempt a `travel show with a difference'. His gimmick? Music.
Monday 23 November 1998
"Hybrid TV" is how the series' executive producer, Malcolm Gerrie, describes the series' approach. "Take Changing Rooms - it's neither DIY nor game show. We've grown out of programmes neatly in boxes now, and audiences feel the same."
Time was when travel programmes meant just one thing: Judith Chalmers on the latest discount flight to Majorca. Recent minor variations on this theme have included "real people" on "real holidays" - ranging from agoraphobics taking their first holiday to off-duty sitcom actors sharing their experiences in Malaga or the Maldives.
Then came The Rough Guide series, the off-the-beaten-track approach typified by Channel 4's Lonely Planet and Travelogue and, for armchair adventurers, Michael Palin. Palin's Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole series were an overnight ratings success. Small wonder, then, that broadcasters have been lining up to send celebrities to far-flung places with only a film crew to sustain them ever since.
With a world of opportunities to show off their intellectual wit, it's all great fun for the Clive Andersons and Angus Deaytons. But for the weary viewer trudging in their wake, the "clever me" approach to TV travel is becoming, well, a little tired. Take Planet Ustinov, a new Channel 4 series also starting this week in which Sir Peter circumnavigates the world travelling a route first taken 100 years ago by Mark Twain for his book, Following the Equator. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Time for a change, then. Which is where Gerrie and his production company, Initial Film & Television, come in. Both Initial and its sister company, Bazal, have become dab hands at refreshing tired TV formats in recent years. Bazal is the force behind lifestyle shows such as Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms, while another project for Initial includes overhauling Miss World.
Fronted by Jools Holland, Beat Route's focus is on music, architecture and culture. Shot in a highly filmic style, the series is accompanied by music composed by you know who. The first programmes feature six cities - Beirut, Budapest, Chicago, Dublin, Havana and Seville. "Each was chosen for its dynamism. Each in its own way had or was still going through a version of meltdown. Each had an edge," Gerrie explains.
"Ours is a very different approach to Clive Anderson or Michael Palin, for that matter," adds BBC commissioning executive Nicola Gooch. "I don't think many viewers would have followed in Palin's footsteps, whereas Beat Route takes a very much more civilised itinerary."
Jools is a bit of an everyman, she continues: "Absolutely English - far happier going down to his local pub in Greenwich with his dad than trekking around Beirut. But given the opportunity to visit these places, he finds things many other people just wouldn't have noticed."
While his presentational style may not be to everybody's taste, Holland's fascination with architecture, local culture and music provides the series' narrative structure and soundtrack. He features in each programme not only talking viewers around a city's cultural highlights, but also jamming with local musicians in a diverse range of styles.
"The focus is not on where to buy the best meal, but each city's lifeblood," says Gooch.
So, in Seville the emphasis is on local characters - craftsmen, musicians and dancers. Holland goes to a bullfight, visits a guitar-maker and accompanies gypsy flamenco dancers and still has time to point out a brightly painted horse-drawn trap: "A lovely carriage, more than suitable for Judith Chalmers."
In Budapest, he meets a male voice choir and joins them for a Transylvanian folk song in a bustling city centre square. Meanwhile, in Havana he visits a ballet school where students can only attend if they supply their own costumes - all of which they make by hand. It's subjective in the way of Alan Whicker, but without the emphasis on lifestyles of the rich and famous, Gerrie says. And without the smug egotism of an Anderson, Deaton or even Clive James.
Not that it was a foregone conclusion that Holland would do the show at all. "When I first put it to him his response was, "That sounds great, but I really hate travelling," Gerrie recalls. The chance to work again with Gerrie, his company, Initial Film & Television, and director Geoff Wonfor - all of whom worked with Holland on the Eighties music show, The Tube, proved irresistible. Gerrie quips, "We also told him we'd approach Andy Kershaw if he wasn't interested." It was more than enough to convince Holland to change his mind.
The idea was to produce a travel programme that looked unlike any other travel programme. "We looked for quirky characters and stories to feature and placed a lot of emphasis on the visual and audio style of the programmes," Wonfor says.
"The series was shot like a film to make all the locations look beautiful. Great care was taken over framing each shot. Which was a bit of a change from when we first all worked together," he adds.
"On The Tube, I didn't take the tripod out of the back of my truck for four years - everything was hand-held. This was more like making a film - in post-production we played up the yellow and oranges to give it a Technicolor feel."
Meanwhile, Holland was encouraged to cultivate a journalistic approach to the subject matter and its presentation. "In the early Eighties when he was on tour with Squeeze supporting The Police, he played something like 140 cities. He has a knack for slipping into a place like a hand in a glove - without being intrusive," Wonfor says.
"We didn't want to send out a presenter with a script written by the producer to read," adds Gooch. "There's a great difference between taking a presenter to the Nymph Garden in Beirut and telling them to describe it and sending someone who can have a view and express some real feeling about it.
"That's what we hope will set Beat Route apart from all the other travel shows."
`Beat Route' will be broadcast at 8pm on BBC 2 on Thursday. `Planet Ustinov' starts tonight on C4
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