On yer bike
TRAVELLER'S TALES:Adventurer Charley Boorman drove, rode and sailed across three continents, from Ireland to Sydney, for his latest TV series, 'By Any Means', writes Eoin Butler
TO BE PERFECTLY honest, before I meet Charley Boorman, I don't expect to like him much. The privileged son of a famous film director (John Boorman), he chanced his way into a TV career on the coat tails of a far more famous acting buddy (Ewan McGregor). Onscreen, there doesn't seem very much to the guy - beyond an ability to mouth the words "amazing", "fantastic" and "incredible" to a camera in any godforsaken location. So when the exuberant Englishman bounds into the room for our interview, it's a surprise to find myself warming to him.
He clasps my hand and greets me with more enthusiasm than you'd expect from a complete stranger. "Thank you so much," he beams. "It's great to see you!" This degree of warmth would be less surprising if, say, he were Ingrid Betancourt, and I was the Colombian Special Forces captain who had just masterminded his release. That not being the case, I'm caught off guard.
Although he travels on a British passport, and speaks with an English accent, 42-year-old Charley Boorman grew up in Wicklow, where his father still lives. He was educated in Bray, and vividly recalls travelling to rugby matches in Blackrock College. "I remember those bloody gates," he says. "I remember being overcome with fear the moment our bus passed through them. Because those Blackrock guys were always bigger than us and we got mullered every time."
After appearing in a few of his father's films as a child, Boorman first came to wider attention in 2004, when he and Ewan McGregor rode 19,000 miles from London to New York on motorcycles for their Long Way Round series. Since then, he has forged a remarkably successful career, shooting a follow-up series with McGregor (Long Way Down) and another on his own (Race to Dakar).
Today he's in Dublin promoting the DVD for another solo series, By Any Means, for which he drove, rode and sailed across three continents, from Ireland to Sydney.
Like all of Boorman's previous efforts, By Any Means is moderately entertaining fare. But the point of his mammoth trek is never entirely clear. It couldn't possibly have been undertaken without the financial and logistical support afforded by an extensive production team, for starters. Numerous vehicles (Royal Enfield motorcycles, dinghies, solar panel cars) materialise and are discarded along the way, without any explanation for where they came from, or where they went. There are also translators and fixers at every turn. So it's certainly not a travel guide.
Neither is the series particularly informative about any of the countries he passes through. Beyond the vaguest superficialities, Boorman seems utterly incurious on issues cultural or political. In the first episode, he appears baffled to learn that security considerations rule out riding across Afghanistan and Pakistan. At Stalin's birthplace in Georgia, he remarks that the former Soviet leader was "not a very nice guy apparently". In Vietnam he mentions in passing that a government official has to accompany them everywhere they film, but never seems curious as to why this might be the case.
In-depth analysis, then, is not his forte. So what exactly is By Any Means about? And why did millions of people tune in to it each week it appeared on the BBC? "I think it has got a little bit of all those things you mentioned," laughs Boorman. "It's part travel guide, part documentary, part lad's adventure. The basic challenge that we set ourselves was to get from one place to another using as many modes of transport as possible. But it was also about finding out how all this stuff works." Meaning what? Lifting the bonnet on tuk tuks? "Yeah, or, you know . . . Have you ever been on a long-distance train journey and wondered where the train driver sleeps at night? Those sort of questions fascinate me." In short then, it's about men and motors.
Ask him about the most awkward predicament he has found himself in on his adventures, and even the least gung-ho among us feel a twinge of envy or admiration. "Probably the Dakar Rally," he shrugs. "By day five, I'd broken both my hands, but stupidly got back on my bike and rode another 450km." He didn't even realise anything was wrong, he says, until he tried to take a drink of water. "I looked down and suddenly noticed that my thumbs were facing in the wrong direction."
To his credit, Boorman also has no problem acknowledging who he has to thank for his recent success. "Ewan and I met on a film set 12 years ago and became friends," he recalls. "Over the time I knew him, if I'm being honest, my [acting] career was heading slowly southwards, while his was on the up-and-up." Their first round-the-world trip together, he explains, was originally intended as a holiday. But with a wife and two young children to support, Boorman couldn't afford it. It was then that a friend first suggested the idea for the book (and later the TV series).
"Television stations would meet us and say 'We love the idea, but who gets voted off?' Or they'd want the public to phone in and vote for where we headed next. And we were like 'No, no, no . . . That's not what it's about.' " It was purely because of McGregor's clout as a Hollywood actor, Boorman reckons, that they didn't have to compromise the original vision. "Ewan has an ability to see the bigger picture. He's very wise. Whereas I just tend to barrel into things. So, between the two of us, it was a great relationship." Asked if they plan to go back on the road again together, he says he hopes so.
For his restless sense of adventure, he credits his father's influence. "I've been riding bikes since I was seven, so the passion for riding was always there. But I've probably got my father to thank for instilling the travelling bug in me. He spent a lot of time travelling and making movies when I was younger. I made The Emerald Forest with him when I was 17, and that was six months in the jungle. When I started making movies of my own, I was always looking for that film that took me to Africa, or took me to an odd place."
So does he believe there's more mileage in his present format of television series? "Lots," he replies, listing them out. "Ewan and I would love to do a Long Way Up series through South America. Then there's the Pacific Rim, the east and west coasts of the US, the east and west coasts of Africa - there are hundreds of journeys left for us to take."
• The By Any Meansbook (published by Sphere, €26.20) and DVD (€24.99) are on sale now.