Great British Journeys: Series 1 Review
In September this year, Andy Strangeway proved there were still adventures to be had in travelling across Britain. In 2002, Strangeways read how no one had visited all 162 Scottish islands that were over 40 hectares and, not one to pass on a challenge, did just that, naming his quest after himself and ruling that anyone following in his lead must do what he did, visit all 162 and spend a night on each one, starting at Barra, ending at Soay and including a night on Gruinard, the island off the west coast of Scotland used for an anthrax experiment in 1942 and which was out of bounds until 1990. If you look carefully enough and think hard, there's no end to the adventures that one can have within the one country.
For his television show from earlier this year, Great British Journeys, presenter Nicholas Crane did just that, scouring the history books in search of eccentric characters who plotted their way across Britain, not so much in search of anything as for the country itself. The first of these is Thomas Pennant, from Wales and 45 when he left his home country in 1772 for the west coast of Scotland, then something of a blank on the map of Britain. Pennant hiked his way across Jura, Islay, Staffa and Skye before arriving at Inchmaree, a mysterious island steeped in folklore and which sits St Maree’s Well, water from which is reputed to be a cure for lunacy. Nicholas Crane doesn't shy away from Pennant's raid-sodden trek across Scotland. Perhaps better shod and, wearing an ample amount of Gore-Tex, avoiding the absorbent wool of Pennant's time, Crane stomps his way over hill, mountain and bog, all the while in a thick mist that never seems to lift, which would dampen the spirit of any lesser traveller. Happily, the hardy and enthusiastic Crane is unlikely to fade under a spot of fog. Revealing a work ethic that could see him justly describing the Duracell bunny as being somewhat lethargic. Crane doesn't stop, not for a second. Even when standing still at the top of a mountain, Crane hops around as though desperately needing the toilet and delivers his narration breathlessly, as much with excitement as needing to supply his exhausted muscles with much-needed oxygen as they strain to carry Crane up yet another mountain or across another bog.
On the contrary, the Reverend William Gilpin's journey down the river Wye in 1770 was an altogether more relaxed affair. Gilpin took to the river with the fervour of a man of God, hoping to see something of the creator in the bends and turns of the river and in a distant echo of Crane's making of this series, wanting the British people to see the beauty of the places all around them. That point of view was shared by Celia Fiennes, who believed that seeing Britain, "cure the evil itch of over-valuing foreign parts." On horseback, with her servants and dodging highwaymen and floods, Fiennes visited every county in England between 1697 and 1698 for no more reason that to simply see it all. In the next episode, William Cobbett toured the southern counties of England in the 1820s in search of the changes afoot in the country during the years following the Napoleonic wars. Crane follows Cobbett's footsteps through Leith Hill, Portsdown Hill and Avon Valley to his destination in Salisbury.
The final four episodes begins way back in March 1188 with Giraldus Cambrensis - Gerald the Welshman - travelling throughout Wales in search of men to draft for the Third Crusade. Instead, journeying from mid-Wales, over the Black Mountains to the south then turning north to Snowdonia, he became the country's first dedicated travel writer. Much later, Daniel Defoe left London to travel through Essex to Norfolk. Crane tries to find out why, with so many more interesting places to visit, Defoe started there. Journey seven takes Crane in the footsteps of John Leland who, following the break from Rome, toured the whole of the country cataloguing and saving the libraries of ruined monasteries for King Henry VIII and drawing a detailed map of the nation. In the end, it drove him mad but his maps have endured. Finally, it's to a vintage car and back to Scotland, following in the footsteps, or tyre rubber of HV Morton - Henry Canova Vollam Morton - a journalist who led a Bullnose Morris off the production line and into the countryside of the north, where his roaring through the mountains and valleys promised adventure and romance.
No matter where his trip takes him, Nicholas Crane is the one constant presence in Great British Journeys. You do feel for him at times. Although usually alone, he has the gait of an enthusiastic teacher dragging a reluctant geography class down country lanes, rather optimistically pointing out rivers, fords and ruined castles. Like said teacher, much of what he reports to the camera takes the form of Crane looking over his shoulder, not only to offer his audience some eye contact but also, one feels, to check that we're keeping up and now falling too far behind, stuck in barbed wire or being frightened by an unpleasant-looking goat. And it's quite the job keeping up with Crane, not least with the all-too-frequent sight of our man's boots tramping through mud or at the back of his head. Sometimes Crane is rather too enthusiastic at pointing out something on the horizon but does so without informing his cameraman, who struggles to find what it is that has so caught Crane's eyes. Cue much shaking of the picture without ever actually finding anything of interest.
However, when the stars align in favour of Great British Journeys, there is some wonderful scenery to look at. My own favourites were the journeys of Gerald of Wales and John Leland, one from medieval times and the other amongst ruined monasteries and talk of the legend of King Arthur. Somehow, Crane is given more purpose in his trek across the country with talk of myths at his back. Then again, it never really looks as though Crane is without purpose, even in his leaving London and travelling through the familiar landscapes of Essex and Norfolk. Nevertheless, what our man brings to Great British Journeys is a palpable amount of enthusiasm about his subject and a clear hunger for the history of Britain, not to mention a talent to bring that to an audience who might never get beyond the suburbs.
Although, it is worth noting this about Crane that for all his tramping through fields and across country, he has a quite awful habit of not closing gates behind him. Granted, he has a camera crew to follow him through but as any viewer of Withnail And I could tell you, not to mention those young minds were fed on a diet of Public Information Films (brought together on the Charley Says collections), one should never leave a gate open.
Presented on DVD as it was shown on television, Great British Journeys comes with an anamorphic 1.78:1 picture and fairly acceptable throughout. There is considerably more detail in the DVD picture than there was on television with the greater bandwidth showing up the distant hills and countryside a treat as well as in the tracks, roads and hedges on and over which Crane steps. The brightness and colour in the picture is also good but it's really the sharpness of the picture that impresses with every moment in the show looking much better on DVD than it ever did on its BBC broadcast and showing a fair eye for the British countryside.
There is a choice of two audio tracks, DD2.0 stereo and DD5.1 surround. Normally, I would contend that I'm quite happy with the stereo track from hearing Great British Journeys presented as such on television. However, the DD5.1 surround track is much more than just a simple remix into the rear channels. For a start, the dialogue and ambience are now properly separated with Crane's narration in the front speakers and the rear channels being a place for the gusts of wind and rain that lash at our man. But again, the worth of the piece comes in the detail, with each sound having its place on the soundtrack and sounding all the better for it, giving Crane space in the mix and never crowding him in amongst the howl of the weather. However, there are no subtitles on any of the content of these discs, which is disappointing given how I would expect this would have been enjoyed by an older audience keen on seeing so much of the British countryside.
All of the extras appear on the third disc in the set although, to be fair, there isn't a great deal there. The main bonus feature is an Interview With Nicholas Crane (9m56s) in which he talks about the reasons for making the show, his personal favourite, his means of transport about the country and the sometimes miserable weather that he plods through. Following this is a series of Lost Scenes (25m25s) in which Crane tracks down stories that didn't make it into the finished episodes as well as a set of Deleted Scenes (3m41s), which will suit those who enjoyed watching Crane fall over, off his bike and into rivers, something that he does many times more here.