Around the World in 80 Days doesn’t quite take to the skies

TV review: The BBC’s bumpy new adaptation of Jules Verne’s book may yet soar

The eight-part series stars David Tennant as Phileas Fogg, Ibrahim Koma as t Passepartout and Leonie Benesch as young journalist Abigail Fortescue. Photograph: BBC

The eight-part series stars David Tennant as Phileas Fogg, Ibrahim Koma as t Passepartout and Leonie Benesch as young journalist Abigail Fortescue. Photograph: BBC

 

There’s that inevitable moment during a bumpy, if occasionally entertaining, first episode of the BBC’s sumptuous new adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days (BBC One, 5.50pm) when Phileas Fogg (David Tennant, plus moustache) soars above the clouds in a balloon.

This is less a dramatic flourish than the fulfilment of an unspoken contract between the viewer and writer Ashley Pharoah (Life On Mars). Without Fogg in a steampunky dirigible would a series have any right to even call itself Around the World in 80s Days? It would be like Sherlock Holmes boycotting his violin or Christmas Day EastEnders minus the misery.

We await the gritty modern reboot in which he schleps across the Continent by Ryanair, his sanity eroding whenever the “landed on time” victory march blasts out of the tinny speakers overhead

Yet if predictable and welcome the sequence also happens to be unfaithful to Verne’s 1872 novel, in which Fogg circumnavigates the globe by train, boat and, at one point, elephant – but where he avoids the temptation to travel by hot air.

The image of Fogg as buccaneering balloonist actually goes back to the 1956 David Niven film, in which the intrepid gadabout discovers the best way to cross the globe in 2.6 months and thus win his wager with the gentlemen of the Reform Club is by breaking free of gravity. We await the gritty modern reboot in which he schleps across the Continent by Ryanair, his sanity eroding whenever the “landed on time” victory march blasts out of the tinny speakers overhead.

But if the BBC’s new Around the World leans into the cliches we have in our head about the novel, in other ways it tries to tries to leave Verne in the 19th century. As in the book, Fogg is accompanied on his voyage by French sidekick Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma). But the third intrepid trekker is feisty Daily Telegraph lady reporter Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), who is determined to shatter the glass ceiling as she and her companion whiz over the Pyrenees (in the novel Fogg is stalked by a Detective Fix).

Which is where the first two episodes, broadcast back to back on St Stephen’s Day, tick off a great big cliche, with the curious trio in the air and wafting towards the horizon. But the journey to this point has been slightly meandering and not even a score by Hollywood’s favourite composer, Hans Zimmer, can put it back on course.

The pace starts to lag in earnest as Fogg and the gang get bogged down in baffling detour in revolutionary Paris. As rifles pop and protesters chant they are swept up in the Paris Commune riots and a plot to assassinate the Prime Minster

Neither the rioting nor the shooting were in the novel. Nor does it help that the series was shot in South Africa, so that the Paris scenes feel about as authentically French as service station croissant. And while the script seems to be trying to make a contemporary point about political upheaval it is not clear how exactly the unrest is supposed to intended with viewers. Is it a reminder that people making a nuisance of themselves in public predates anti-mask loonies?

Despite the presence of that iconic balloon, does Around the World in 80 Days take to the skies quite like it is supposed to.

Whatever the goal, all the slogging about on the Seine has the effect of sucking some of the fun out of what should be a full-throttled romp. There are parallels with the BBC’s 2019 War of the Worlds adaptation, which tinkered too extravagantly with HG Wells (adding a second time-line after the Martian apocalypse, for instance), so that the story turned to dust in its hands.

That hasn’t yet happened with Around the World in 80 Days and Tennant cleverly channels some of the eccentricities he picked up playing Doctor Who into Fogg. But nor, despite the presence of that iconic balloon, does Around the World in 80 Days take to the skies quite like it is supposed to. With six weeks left, it may yet rise to dizzying heights. For now it remains disappointingly earthbound.

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