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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Whicker's lost world

The cheapest route to Ireland is also the most arduous. A couple of days a week, the Isle of Man steam packet out of Liverpool does not terminate at Douglas but butts on to Belfast through the bitter night. Young families huddle on the deck, their plastic shopping bags straining at the handles under the weight of sandwiches, nappies and World Wrestling Federation figurines. It takes 11 hours (the plane takes 40 minutes).

With eight hours to go there was nothing left to spy (with my little eye) and so I took the kids down to the TV lounge. A harassed mother with two toddlers on her knee and another sprawled beside her on the PVC couch sat blank and exhausted in front of Alan Whicker's documentary about the world's most expensive holiday - a package costing £27 000 per person. The group of 100 travellers has its own plane which speeds it from one World Wonder to the next; from Venice to the Valley of the Kings; from Machu Pichu to the terracotta warriors. For a series celebrating such opulence it looked pretty cheap. It could have been shot in a studio.

The long shots of people arriving at airports and the tight shots of champagne corks popping could all have been snipped from a mini-series. The effect was oddly appropriate. The Wonders of the World probably do feel like old film sets (they've been in lots of old films). It must be hard to see the pyramids with a fresh eye and Whicker was not the man to try. He stood in front of the camera and moaned about the Egyptian authorities while in the background his companions stood in front of each other's video cameras and moaned about the Egyptian authorities.

The gimmick of the series is that Whicker - who has been around the world more times than I have been round the deck of the Manx Princess - has never been on a package holiday before. How will he cope? Easy. He shoulders his companions (and the Wonders of the World) into the back of shot and he talks about himself.

In Cairo he recalled his days as a journo covering Suez. In Venice he whinged about his lost youth. The glories of civilisation were mere locations in the chronicle of Whicker. As Napoleon might have put it doing the section on the Sphinx, 'ten thousand episodes of Whicker's World look down at you from those stones'. In India there was a flashback to an old episode - as though India needed padding out. I've never seen Whicker's World before and I felt much as his companions did in the crumbling glory of Venice - it must have been OK once but now it stinks.

Whicker was not the only over-ripe member of the tour. Most of his companions were travelling on cashed-in policies, pension pay-offs and other compensations of approaching age. Asked how they could justify spending so much on themselves, all of them said, 'You can't take it with you'. They said it wistfully, wishing you could. 'I've worked hard all my life, and now I'm spending hard', said the woman with the yellow camcorder and skin like an unsaleable turkey. A sense of irreparable loss lay over it all.

These people had indeed worked hard all their lives and now had come in sight of the End and realised that somehow they had missed the point. Life had passed them by and now they were whizzing around the globe trying to catch up with it. It was like a grotesque, existential version of Treasure Hunt: 'Hello, Annabel, I'm in the Parthenon now. I'm looking around but still no clue as to why I worked so hard all my life.'

Oddly their search seemed to centre on tombs. At Abu Simbel we learned that one member of the tour was in fact a funeral director. Taking a funeral director to Abu Simbel! Brilliant! Like taking a Mars bar maker to Mars or introducing Captain Mark Phillips to Caligula ('Yes, I'm keen on horses myself...'). He looked around then quipped, 'You can't take it with you'. Maybe so but the massive stone figures behind him testified to the fact that for thousands of years people have been having a damn good try. While the tourists snouted around among the sarcophagi and grave goods, Whicker added to the general atmosphere of degeneration by going on about how much younger he was when he was younger.

Tourism is the biggest employer in the world. It is also one of the worst. A hundred and fifty million people work in tourist-related industries, mostly getting paid in beads and shells. Once subject nations were forced to build monuments to their masters' magnificence. Now they are required to stand in front of those monuments and smile for their masters' cameras. What is this all about? Do these people watch the videos they make? Do they force other people to watch them?

The pleasure of a good holiday is as incommunicable as that of a happy dream or great sex, yet tourists spend most of their energy documenting themselves, compiling the evidence. It is partly, of course, ample acquisitiveness, 'capturing on film' the few ancient wonders that were not captured in crates and sent to the British Museum. Modern tourism - like the building of the pyramids - is essentially commemorative. The act of lifting the camera to the eyes is a ritual momento mori, a reminder that this must pass. But it is also an attempt to stop it passing, to 'capture the moment forever', to gain from Fast Foto what Cheops bought in stone. Look upon my snaps, ye mighty and despair.

The chain videoing of the Wonders of the World tourists is the ultimate expression of capitalism's fixation with the fear of death. They spend so much time capturing the moment that the moment itself does not take place. Like all death rituals, it pays little heed to the living. At the start of their journey the travellers were delayed because someone threw themselves under their train (the Orient Express, of course). They huffed and puffed about the delay and looked at their watches. I looked across at the young mother on the other bench. She was horrified.

But then she was not what Bord Fáilte would call a 'pure tourist'. She was, like me, 'VFR' (visiting friends and relatives), heading for a few weeks of manic gossip and wistful property speculation, of looking round at Man to see who else is 'home'. This is going 'home' even if you're a famine baby whose ancestors went 'beyond' to England in 1847. And while we're all 'home', we will talk as if we might never go away again or make plans to buy 'a little bit of land' for one day some day never. Because VFR is just as hopelessly hopeful as tourism, though it is cheaper and more relaxing.

At Douglas I had to go down to the hold and move my car out of the way of the returning holiday-makers. It was eerily deserted and then two men came carrying a coffin through to the baggage room. I suppose some of us do go home to that little bit of land in the end.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992



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