Around the world in 80 days has one of the great openings of Victorian literature. It’s 1872 and men are sitting around the Reform Club in London, bored and stuffed with bad food. The air is charged with the scent of empire, but we are aware of the possibilities of the great expedition that will follow. In the new version of the BBC, Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) is a still and silent figure. Before deciding to take the Â£ 20,000 bet to run around the world, he spends most of his time staring at his club mates with a blank expression, as if his mind is very much elsewhere. At the end of the first episode, you wonder if this is just a character breaking Tennant and what he does in this rather inconsistent and cheap version of such a thrilling novel.
Yet during the first few minutes of the Victorian gloom, it appears to be a straightforward narrative, a rare event in today’s television world of almost “reinvention” and “re-imagining”. mandatory. The illusion does not last long: although it takes place in the 19th century, it tends towards contemporary relevance. Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, is a black man, played by a Franco-Malian actor, Ibrahim Koma. This Passepartout is not a gentleman’s gentleman, but a chancellor, a man who worked as a waiter in the club before being fired for fighting and hearing Fogg calling someone to help him. The third member of the traveling group, Fix, a detective in the book, is here transformed into a female Abigail “Fix” Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), and a hack to boot, a fiery Telegraph journalist responsible for covering Fogg’s mission.
Their cohort of the 21st century gathered, they set off on an adventure. In Verne’s novel, they head straight for Suez, but here they turn away across Europe, more like scattered interrails from a gap year than explorers of the world. Their first stop is Paris, where Passepartout turns out to have unfinished business with a brother and a little light revolution. The rest of the episode quickly descends into a sort of chaotic mishmash of Wretched and Jackal’s Day, all assassinations and uprisings. The idea is to introduce a subplot about racism and social justice, but the long action sequences come at the expense of any meaningful character development, especially among the protagonists. At eight episodes, this series depends on the relationship between them. The actors do what they can with limited time and dialogue, and Tennant is still good for his money, but he’s a bit of a steer.
The biggest problem is that the reach and budget of modern television has exceeded this type of production. If you take a property as famous as Around the world in 80 days and put it on BBC One at Christmas, you gotta give it some welly. The public is alerted to the tricks you may have gotten away with before. London and Paris look almost identical here, perhaps both shot on the same block in Romania. In each frame you can feel the cut corners. A scene of mass revolution is conveyed by a fixed shot of Paris and sound. The joy of the source text for readers was that it was truly exotic, spanning from Egypt to India, China, Japan, and across the United States. When you watch a series like ZeroZeroZero, shot outdoors in Italy, Mexico, Senegal, the United States and Morocco, the authenticity is obvious. Television is finally able to faithfully remake Around the world in 80 days, so why not give it the treatment it deserves?