If you're at all familiar with the Australian cricket team, or soaps like Neighbours – which, come to think of it, are the two main ways in which the Antipodes has been presented to the English imagination in recent times – you'd be forgiven for thinking Stephen Tompkinson was himself Australian (especially if you'd made a point of avoiding Ballykissangel).
Australia is reputably a vast, classless expanse in which every man is an Everyman and being common is a universal ambition, not a note of derision. In Stephen Tompkinson's Australian Balloon Adventure, our protagonist fitted right in. Tall, debonair, affable, and above all deeply inoffensive, his every feature seemed feasibly plucked from suburban Sydney or mid-town Melbourne, so hard was it to distinguish between him and his hosts.
Celebrity travelogues on television usually depend on a certain distance, a foreignness among natives, that makes them hover between anthropology and journalism. But Tompkinson was so at ease among the rituals and traditions of his acquaintances that he seemed not so much going native as going home. There was none of the awkwardness produced by a language barrier; no manners or mannerisms were lost in translation. That subtracted from the customary charm of this genre, which is humility in uncertain terrain. Tompkinson was perfectly humble. But the terrain was very familiar.
The adventure was facilitated by a hot-air balloon – red-and-white Daisy, designed by and named after his daughter – which took him over the remote, arid landscape of south-east Australia. Barely 10 minutes in, there was sudden drama from an appalling crash, in which Tompkinson, his co-pilot, cameraman, and sound guy barely escaped with their lives, hitting the earth at 35 knots (40mph) and being dragged along the dust for nearly half a mile. Having recovered, they continued their journey by other means, especially car, until the balloon was mobile again.
Along the way, they sought to discover the essence of Down Under. It was like catching up with a cousin after several years apart. Much of what they did was essentially English, from drinking claret to playing cricket on a spectacular village green that hosted a perfect wicket within a bowl of blossoming conifers. Except for when we saw a bit of yabby racing – freshwater crayfish racing, that is – it was hard to detect a sense of adventure, because this looked as much like Sussex as New South Wales. Last night's was the first of a series and, while avoiding crashes, it's to be hoped there's more drama in what more is to come.
Where Tompkinson's crew succeeded was in reaffirming the essential bond between England and Australia, and the sense that Australia is a middle-class paradise. There was no poverty in sight, no personal turmoil, no clouds: the overwhelming feeling was that to be born an Australian would be the most terrific piece of luck. Yet that very similarity that makes Australia such an attraction to Englishmen also meant that, inevitably, the show descended into an exact match of its protagonist – perfectly likeable, but a little dull as a result.
For much of his career, that was the inverse of Jeremy Beadle's reputation. He spent decades branded as serviceably absurd, but entertaining nevertheless. He was the original prankster, the master of the practical joke that brought 15 minutes of fame to nobodies. With his eternal quiff, stupid beard, rubber features and instinctive jocularity, his place in the national consciousness, harnessed over four decades, was owed to his being a peerless figure of fun. Angela Carter said comedy is tragedy that happens to other people, and by making himself the centre of attention – by inviting people to laugh at him and not simply with him – Beadle took the jokes, and the tragedy, upon himself.
What was marvellous about The Unforgettable... Jeremy Beadle was that it sensitively conveyed the rather sad point that this man was, of his own volition, completely misunderstood. There is a form of television comedy, whose vanguard he was in, where the comic plays the buffoon and invites his audience to come down to a level where all is absurd and frivolous. Beadle, especially the Beadle of You've Been Framed in later years, seemed just this, a kind of merry mountebank with limited intelligence. In fact, he was just the opposite.
Did you know that he raised over £100m for charity – more, as his friend Chris Tarrant put it, than probably every other television entertainer of his generation? Or that he was born in the post-war East End to a single mother, his father having abandoned her upon mention of pregnancy? Or that he was born with Poland Syndrome, which caused webbing on his right hand, and that he dropped out of school despite being ferociously intelligent? Or even that in his long-haired twenties he was better looking than most rock stars?
He was part of the brilliant brigade that ran Time Out in its early days and, when launching its edition in Manchester, organised rock concerts on the hoof, whereupon he'd ring up friends and nonchalantly declare that the Grateful Dead were headlining. Stints on LBC radio followed before his television breakthrough. By the time he peaked with Beadle's About, he owed his career chiefly to his extraordinary ability to play dumb – which, in retrospect, required a hell of a brain. And yet, as this show proved, it was convincing, so that the last laugh was his, and the real joke on us.
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