On becoming travel TV's middle-aged man who points at things
Thomas Bywater gets to grips with the world view of comedian Griff Rhys Jones.
‘They change their sky, not their soul, who rush across the sea’ — Horace
“You may travel across the world,” says comedian Griff Rhys Jones. “But your world comes with you.”
Paraphrasing Horace from his home in Suffolk, Jones has become philosophical about his career in travel.
“In television, you may travel across the world but your soundman comes with you.”
Rhys Jones has just come back from a Greek expedition, sailing around the Ionian Islands.
He’s clearly still in a classical mood.
I ask him whether this trip was for work or pleasure but struggle to get a straight answer.
The man who writes a travel column for the UK’s Sunday Telegraph can’t always differentiate one from the other. He’s always looking for material. “It compromises what you do.”
This elusiveness is perhaps a reflex, developed during his time making television.
Whether he’s travelling to Glamorgan in his native land of Wales or off birdwatching in the Galapagos Islands, he’s come to refer to all of his travels euphemistically as “working abroad”. “If you get a phone call from the BBC and you tell them you’re on a yacht, it doesn’t make the right impression.”
Rhys Jones has been making travel shows for television for 15 years. Highlights from the reel include rowing up the Thames with fellow comedians Dara O’Briain and Rory McGrath — riffing off Jerome K Jerome’s novel Three Men in a Boat — and crossing a continent by rail in Slow Train Through Africa.
“Part of the skill is faking it,” he admits.
Pretending to be boating with a couple of friends or bravely travelling solo through remote destinations, all the time staring down the lens of a travelling television crew.
“A lot of my new show is talking about the indignities of television travel.”
Rhys Jones toured the world as one part of the comedy duo Alas Smith and Jones, then with his production company, which unleashed Ali G and Alan Partridge on unsuspecting audiences.
His latest reincarnation is as one of television’s “middle-aged men who point at things”.
For his latest live show Where Was I? he gets a chance to stop, and take stock of the places this 40-year journey has taken him to and the circumstances by which he got there.
The new show also marks the first time Jones has been in New Zealand since 1985, when he and Mel Smith were touring. Not that he got to look around much. He was stuck promoting the show in Christchurch while Mel and his wife went on a tour of the South Island.
“Trouble was, the only show that would have me was the weather forecast.”
His memories of Aotearoa involve standing in front of a green screen reading a teleprompter of bad news, while his comedy partner was taking in the sights of Milford Sound.
It’s something he aims to correct this time around.
Through his television work, Rhys Jones has had remarkable access to places all over the world.
“We’ve all been on a guided tour where it all goes a little too slowly. In TV, you get to ask your questions straight to the top man.”
From climbing the outside of a skyscraper in New York to visiting the last populations of wild black rhinos, television has given him licence to pursue all manner of subjects. “You get to do things you don’t as the general public.”
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In 2015, Jones travelled the length of Africa, from Morocco to South Africa, by rail, soaking up the cultures and scenery of nine countries and battling across miles of romantically remote train network. It’s the sort of journey that needs the sprawling vehicle of a television series.
Travelling as a train of film-makers comes with some complications, particularly where the transport is notoriously unpredictable and carriages few and far between.
“If you’re writing a book and you miss the train, that’s great. That’s what makes the book.
“If you’re making a television show and you miss the train, that’s a disaster.”
Being surrounded by the apparatus of television may take away some of the flexibility and romance of the open road, but it presents opportunities. Opportunities such as catching a slow train through the African continent’s most scenic vistas.
“That’s a journey I never would have done — or even been able to — had I tried to do it by myself,” he says.
But Jones hasn’t always been followed around by a film crew. His latest show promises the “truth about wanderlust and cruising”, but as far as I could tell there were no credits for television on ocean liners.
“Ah,” he says. “That’s because I used to work on one.”
He spent the summer before leaving for university on the SS Uganda. He remembers this time fondly, ferrying 600 female students around the Mediterranean as he discovered travel at a formative time and received an eye-opening education in holidaymaking. “I got to see the whole of the Mediterranean. We stopped off everywhere, but only for about six hours.” One thing he learnt to do was to explore a place in a hurry.
If he has any advice for travellers strapped for time it would be to “walk in the opposite direction to the one that the guided tour is taking you”.
But beyond the Canadian schoolgirls in his care there was only so much to hold his interests in the sunny ports of Naples and Gibraltar.
“If you’re a Brit, by instinct, you head south, for the sun. If you head to the Mediterranean you’re surrounded by people reading the Daily Telegraph.“
Jones longed for a real adventure, and 30 years later, free from the confines of a television crew or the duties of a cruise liner, he had his opportunity.
In the summer of 2002 he hatched a plot with a friend that would become the basis of his first book To The Baltic With Bob.
“Based on a journey I made by small boat from Kent, near London, sailing into Russia,” he says. “We were both fairly inexperienced sailors, so we needed something easy but we also wanted to head somewhere exotic.”
With this reasoning and the desire not to see another English-speaking tourist until they reached St Petersburg, the friends spent four months in a vessel “no bigger than a London taxi”. “There was a great deal of serendipity. Things can happen and you can pursue whatever comes along.”
Although Rhys Jones has long since traded this carefree serendipity for the glamour of travel television, his latest show might allow him to take stock of his 40 years on the screen and the places it has taken him.
He looks forward to seeing New Zealand properly, working out “where to next” and — of course — fitting in a whole lot more travel.
Griff Rhys Jones brings his show Where Was I? to New Zealand in November.