Kate Simon: Cliff, Judith and the cushy role of the travel reporter

Travel view

Did you catch The Way We Travelled on BBC4 last week? This programme looked at the rise of the TV travel show, focusing on the two great prime-time rivals of the past 40 years, ITV's Wish You Were Here ...? and BBC's Holiday.

I remember watching these programmes as a child with almost as much anticipation and delight as Top of the Pops. The images of exotic destinations that crossed our Rediffusion set uncovered an exciting world of travel far removed from the experience of our family's annual trip to the Cornish coast – father had been sent "abroad" during the Second World War and saw no need to go back there.

Last Monday's repeat of The Way We Travelled not only compared two of our main broadcasters' most influential shows, it also delved into a little-discussed yet intriguing area of post-war social history, the democratisation of travel with the rise of the holiday package. And it sharply revealed that within just 40 years, the British public has progressed in its travel ambitions from considering the price of a Full English in Benidorm to white-water rafting on the Zambezi River.

The programme was a real blast from the past, peppered with names reminiscent of those ground-breaking times – Intasun, Freddie Laker, Horizon. It sent me scooting to the bookshelf to pull out my copy of Flight to the Sun, by Roger Bray (one of the contributors to The Way We Travelled) and Vladimir Raitz. Anyone interested in this slice of British social history should snap up a copy of this fascinating "story of the holiday revolution", which is published by Continuum.

But what the programme also showed was just how bad travel shows can be. Ever since the days of deskbound Cliff Michelmore and Judith Chalmers topping up her suntan, these programmes have made for uncomfortable watching despite the best efforts of their presenters.

While the nation enjoyed a spot of tea-time daydreaming over beans on toast, the experience was tempered by rising ire at the cushy number these presenters seemed to be on (and I should know) – which would, from time to time, explode as a rant from Angry of Tunbridge Wells on Points of View about the improper use of the licence fee.

In truth, travel shows can't help but appear as smug and remote or become mired in tedious, if helpful, reports about consumer rights. One honourable exception was Rough Guide to the World, which aired in the Eighties and Nineties and featured our own lead travel writer, Sankha Guha, as a presenter.

What it did differently was to offer a refreshing take on travel, exploring rather than reviewing the experience. It hunted out the new as well as the typical, and by giving us a slice of life in a place, it conversely gave a better overall picture of a destination than its predecessors' mini-guides for everyman.

Rough Guide to the World is due to feature in tomorrow's edition of The Way We Travelled. Any TV producers thinking of grappling with this subject afresh should take note.

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