Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys review: a grumbly host meets a tired format
Fronting a travel programme should be the ultimate TV job. Chris Tarrant may no longer be at the helm of primetime quiz shows, but Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys (Channel 5) seems like a nice, cosy place for him to land.
Travel the world, talk to camera a bit, put feet up. But what should be a nice excuse for a working holiday is looking more and more like a tricky prospect in the modern age. Travel shows are in a state of flux with cheap flights meaning it’s often possible to get from the UK to a European city for less than a train fare. You don’t even have to leave your living room, really: simply type “Hadrian’s Wall”, for example, into Google Maps and get an immediate, first-person 360-degree perspective. Then there’s the fact that, as tourism has boomed, so too has the anti-tourist backlash, with cities creaking under the weight of their Airbnb guests.
Where does the travel series sit in these times? Should it show off increasingly familiar places through new eyes, or should it explore new, relatively undiscovered areas and risk ruining them by exposure? Sue Perkins’ recent trip down the Ganges was a semi-confessional travelogue that offered surprising intimacy. Levison Wood walks everywhere – which is more impressive since it’s the Himalayas or the length of South America rather than, say, a stroll to the local Tesco. Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man finds wry intrigue in cities’ tourist traps by exposing standup comedians to local customs, such as zorbing. All are a way of breathing new life into the format, turning travel into relatable experience, rather than a distant spectacle, when it’s not really so distant any more.
Then there’s Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys. I don’t mean to pick on Tarrant, or kick a Channel 5 show when it’s down, but he is one of a number of presenters who plough a similar furrow. Tarrant reminds me most of Rick Stein, whose Long Weekends are often an exercise in how to be as patronising to locals as possible.
With his railway gimmick, Tarrant is a kind of Stein-lite, bumbling through environments, desperately trying not to imitate the accents of the people he’s talking to (and he doesn’t always manage it). In this opening episode of the series, he’s in north Africa. “The aim is to travel the entire length of Morocco’s state-owned railway system at the hottest time of the year in the middle of the period where nobody eats or drinks,” he explains, declining to add a much-needed answer to the question of why. Without such caveats it would be Chris Tarrant: Railway Journeys, which, I suppose, isn’t quite so showy.
Still, what Tarrant learns in Morocco is bafflingly specific. He’s obsessed with his early discovery that the railway stations and trains in this country are clean, and brings it up with insistent regularity. He’s also quick to note when trains are late. “You may be wondering, where is this freight train? Well, so am I,” he grumbles. I was wondering why he’s filming with a coat on in 40C (104F) weather, particularly since one of his other observations is that it’s hot. He’s seemingly thrown by Arabic names, and says things like, “Chris. Nice and easy,” when he introduces himself. When a woman named Leila tells him what she’s called, he gets carried away: “Nice name!” he beams, then starts to sing Eric Clapton’s Layla, and briefly strums an air guitar.
It’s Alan Partridge-like in other ways, too – Tarrant limps because the hot tarmac has melted the sole of just a single shoe – but it’s not the doddery-ness of it all that jars. It’s the fact that, as a travel presenter, attempting to show viewers parts of the world that may be new to them, he’s so resolutely uncurious, so unwilling to see beyond what he already knows. When he gets to Taza, he jokes, twice, about it being a town named after him – some of his friends call him Tazza – but he also casually decides that “there’s not a lot to see or do around here”. It’s like a restaurant critic complaining that there’s only food in front of them, so what are they supposed to write about?
It’s not Tarrant that’s the problem, exactly. He’s only one of a certain breed. But it’s odd that this old-hand TV presenter made me wonder whether it was time for travel programmes to grow up a little bit.