‘In many ways, Phileas Fogg represents everything that’s alarming and peculiar about that old sense of British Empire. Potentially, it’s a story about an England that should elicit very little sympathy,’ says David Tennant, explaining, better than any review ever could, exactly why every fraction of a second’s time spent watching him in Around the World In 80 Days (BBC1) is life spent utterly squandered.
Truly if David Tennant had been offered the role of a giant, steaming dog turd, he could hardly have approached it with less enthusiasm than he gives to his sour, bloodless, joyless impersonation of Jules Verne’s upper class English adventurer. So unbearably lame is his pallid, put-upon, charisma-free Fogg that you really wouldn’t want to spend even one day in his company, let alone 80 of them. It’s as if the whole endeavour has been arranged, not for the purposes of entertainment, but just so a chippy lefty can stand on his soapbox and lecture us on what a terrible sexist, racist and classist enterprise the British Empire was.
The tone is set in the early scenes in a typical stuffy Victorian members’ club (The Reform), where, would you believe it, stuffy Victorian gentlemen sit stuffily in their stuffy leather chairs with nary a woman anywhere in sight to point out to them how stuffy and Victorian they are being.
Happily, help is at hand in the form of a gratuitous, feisty and progressive red headed woman determined not to take no for an answer. You might think she’d been parachuted in from the BBC’s rubbish adaptation of War Of The Worlds from a couple of years ago where she worked to similar effect to kill the feel of the period. But no, that was a different gratuitous, feisty and progressive redhead. This one is played (very well as it happens) by the German actress Leonie Benesch, the nanny from Babylon Berlin.
Benesch plays an invented (by the screenwriters) character called Abigail ‘Fix’, her surname being a nod to the detective character who has been written out of Verne’s original in order to demonstrate how important strong, feisty, etc women are. As a reporter for the Daily Telegraph (so sexist in Victorian times it won’t even give her a byline, even though her Dad is the editor), she will accompany Fogg on his round-the-world trip, ostensibly to cover the story, but really to correct any foolish, antediluvian notions the viewer might have that actually the original story worked pretty well as a kind of odd-couple, male buddy adventure without the need for an additional female.
Passepartout is now black (Ibrahim Koma) just like Inspector Javert in the BBC’s Les Mis adaptation was black. As if embarrassed by the anachronism issues this might raise in the historically attuned viewer, the script team has doubled down by giving Passepartout a lavish backstory in which it turns out he, his brother and his father were all heroes of the 1871 Paris Commune uprising. So about two thirds of the way through the first episode we have to cringe our way through a moving scene in which Passepartout’s brother attempts to assassinate the French Prime Minister, misses (he hits – don’t ask – Fogg’s drinking flask instead), and then dies heroically with arms outstretched a bit like Sergeant Elias in Platoon or maybe like where the horrendous Marius stops one and nearly dies at the barricades in Les Mis. Presumably we’re supposed to weep at this point. But actually we go: ‘Look a) we only met this guy five minutes ago so why do we care? b) why should we be invested in a bunch of French proto-commies anyway and c) what happened to the light hearted comedy adventure involving a Frenchman’s idea of stereotypical English toff and his Jeeves-like sidekick?’
It’s all ok though because as Tennant explains elsewhere in an interview: ‘This is an unusual cast of characters travelling the world, but we use it to look at the racial and sexual politics of the time.I think that is the right way to tell that story in the 21st century – not to pretend that the world was some sort of wonderful melting pot back in the 1870s.’ Yes. Heaven forfend that we should ever look at the past except through the patronising, reductive lens of woke 21st century political activism.
Around the World In Eighty Days really is the worst thing you will see on TV this Christmas, apart from all the other terrible BBC adaptations. Or so you might think. But that can only mean you haven’t seen Emily In Paris (Netflix), which is literally the worst TV series that has ever been filmed in Paris or indeed any other major capital city.
The premise is Phil Collin’s daughter Lily has been cast in the role of an American girl from Chicago who has come to work in Paris though she speaks barely a word of French. The French, she discovers, while wearing lots of outfits, are so ‘Oh la la’ and so very French. She has sex with some of them, with consequences which might be hilarious if the script was not so plodding, leaden, tone-deaf and wit-free. Occasionally, to remind you how glamorous Paris is, you get treated to aerial shots which cunningly give the false impression that the city is not a foetid dump. Et voila – a hit series which lots of stupid people unaccountably love. Fin.
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