Everything’s a clone of whatever’s been a success, says Griff Rhys Jones
- Credit: Emile Holba
Into Africa, out of India and across the arid wastes of the BBC canteen, comedian, actor and presenter Griff Rhys Jones shares stories, anecdotes, reminisces and outright lies from 40 years of travelling in new show Where Was I?
Q: Forty years of travelling... you must having packing down to a fine art.
No... gradually, like everything else in life, you go ‘better take that’. I’ve got through the stage of taking too many clothes... who knows the number of times I’ve been to the Mediterranean and packed a pullover, thinking it might get cold at night. It’s more these days that my kit list goes up... The one thing that’s changed and really makes a difference is electronic book reader. When I used to travel I’d be taking piles of research with me; I’d have one bag full of books and one bag loaded with gear.
If you travel with television you enter a new world. I’m used to being in drama, and in drama you have a lady to attend to your hair, somebody who’s going to bring you a costume and dress you up and somebody’s going to spend most of the next four weeks fussing. When you do travel, you can be halfway up a mountain with the wind blowing like crazy and nobody is there to help you; you’re supposed to do it yourself.
I’ve been just been working on a drama with Nigel Havers and various other people and I’ve almost got to the stage where I’m in a state of complete frustration with drama because of the number of people coming around and fussing over me. I’m saying ‘you don’t need to do this with that, my hair is absolutely fine. I’ve been all the way across the mountains of the world and let my hair blow without somebody coming along’ I’m neither fish nor fowl now.
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The sort of programmes I’m making, I also provide a spare pair of clothes in case I get those muddy or sweaty... you have to go ‘okay, we’re moving on now, I’ve got to throw this shirt away’. Then they say ‘great, I want to do you arriving in New York’. ‘When was that?’ ‘This morning’, so in sequence it was three hours ago. ‘Look at this. I’m covered in s**t because I’ve just climbed down the side of a skyscraper’. ‘Better change’. You find yourself like Clark Kent, looking for a back street. You have to pack everything you’re going to wear when you’re in front of the camera and everything you wear when you get back to the hotel, it’s a nightmare.
The camera crew arrive at the airport and has to go through the same system as everybody else and it’s a nightmare. We were at Delhi airport; the most crowded airport in the history of airports. I was going with a really experienced cameraman, a wonderful bloke called Chris. He’s a very quiet guy and said to me ‘we are going to fight our way to the front of the queue, otherwise we will not make this plane’. The queues for every single bit of the aeroplane process were so long. The man who got stuck behind us burst into tears. He said ‘You can’t do this, you can’t’. I said ‘I’m really sorry; I’ve only got another 105 cases to go through’.
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Q: You’ve got into some scrapes over the years...
They (TV producers) want to put you into jeopardy. It’s a word they like to use when they’re planning these things. They want you to involve yourselves in doing things which are a little bit scary, they want you to have an adventure of some kind. They want incident, adventure, immersion; it’s not a question of just getting and going. You’re not there just to peddle information. Only a professor or a doctor is allowed to stand in front of a bridge and just pontificate and then take lots of pictures.
I have to be engaged in window cleaning in New York or suddenly dipping cattle (laughs). We were making a programme about pilgrimages, trudging through the countryside, and the herbalist who’s with us, sweet girl, slipped and fell into the mud head first. The cameraman put down his camera, decent bloke, and went to help her. I started shouting ‘What are you doing? Film this! This is the first genuine incident we’ve had’.
Then of its BBC not only is there travel there’s also jeopardy, they want you to involve yourselves in doing things which are a little bit scary, they want you to have an adventure of some kind. I’ve done everything from facing down a rhino in the bush with a mad director throwing stones at it trying to wake it up and make it charge us to dangling myself off a 57 storey skyscraper in New York - all in the name of travel.
Q: Travel shows are competitive these days...
Very competitive. I’m watching other programmes going ‘David Dimbleby gets a tattoo; is he is mad’. They’ll all be asking to get tattoos next because they (those who decide what’s made) don’t have a lot of imagination, is the honest truth. You’re spending a lot of time saying ‘We’re going down The Nile’ and they go ‘Oh, where Joanna Lumley went’ and I go ‘No, it’s alright, we won’t go anywhere near Joanna Lumley’. You get ‘Why not? It worked for Joanna Lumley.’ I remember I arrived in Big Ben and I’m going to do a piece to camera and the guy said ‘Do you want to stand where Rory McGrath stood?’ I go ‘No, it’s alright, I’d like to stand somewhere else, to be original’. ‘Well, Alan Titchmarsh did his piece over there, Jeremy Paxman talked there...’ There’s nowhere you can go where other television presenters haven’t been before. It’s like (the Monty Python sketch) Whicker Island.
Q: It must be hard to get something original made...
It’s impossible. The truth is I’m semi-retired now... they keep talking about new travel ideas but when you present something original they look at you like frightened rabbits... They say ‘what’s it like?’ You go ‘Well, it’s not like anything; I’m going in a different way’. I should probably end the show with a list of great journeys I’ve never been allowed to make (laughs).
I wanted to do a show where I was dropped in Shanghai and had to work my way back to Britain and work on various forms of transport - everything from a submarine to a huge yacht, working as a steward on a train, and couldn’t do that. What about where I do walks from one side of London to the other and we take in all the history. ‘No, no. There’d be no interest in that’. Everything is a clone of whatever has been successful, and, unfortunately, what is successful gets blander and blander.
Q: These things are cyclical. It could swing back...
Maybe - maybe I’ll be too old to be thrown off a cliff.
Q: Why travel this time...
I was doing the Jones and Smith show and quite a lot of the audience who’s come to see me were of a certain age. There’s so much comedy for young people, I was listening to the Edinburgh show the other day and, God bless ‘em but all their jokes are geared towards 18-year-olds. I go ‘okay, I don’t really tell jokes anymore about when I was at school or relate to 18-year-olds’.
Because I’ve made so many journeys either with ITV or the BBC over the past 15 years a lot of ‘em wanted to hear about that. It’s a really interesting subject and I think it’s important when you do these shows that you have a little bit more than just telling anecdotes; it’s really about the idea comically, if you like, what we experience by travel and why we do it.
The harder it is the more we feel we’re supposed to have done something. Some travel is obviously about doing nothing, indulging and pampering ourselves. I’m finding it quite complicated because I don’t know what to do with myself if I lie on a beach. I’ve always wanted taken what you might call improving holidays with travel involved in it.
There’s a big difference going with a TV crew and travelling on your own. When you travel on your own you allow things to happen and that’s what you write about. When you’re travelling with a crew you can’t, you’ve just got to get on with your job and film what you’re doing.
I’ll be asking people where they’ve been and about holidays, I’m thinking I might end the show with a sort of forum, so I can give people advice on various bits and pieces of travel information... I always think it’s a good idea if you’re travelling in Africa for example to take a silk sleeping bag liner... are the things that live in this bed going to crawl out in the middle of the night? I think I probably need just some level of extra protection to get to bed and getting a good night’s sleep in Africa is one of the things you really want. So there’s lots of silly little things like that.
Q: I grew up watching Not The Nine O’Clock News, Smith and Jones, KYTV; I think there are not enough of those now and too many panel shows...
Those type of comedy shows are quite expensive to make these days, you have to build a lot of sets, employ people and pay writers. The great thing about a panel show is it’s a great way of putting quick-witted and rather brilliant comedians in front of an audience - and I speak as one hand of one of the companies that started doing that; They Think Its All Over, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, programmes like that. This was a response to the way of saying ‘how do you really reflect the incredible invention and brilliance of all the stand-up comedians?’
These sort of things go in waves so just at the point when they say ‘there’ll never be another great sitcom’ along comes The Office. At the point they say ‘there’ll never be another great sketch show’ you’ve got The Fast Show. As long as television companies keep trying that’s the main thing. I get the feeling that people will be seeing another great sketch show in time.
• See Griff at Ipswich Corn Exchange tonight; the Quay Theatre, Sudbury, October 27; Woodbridge’s Ufford Park Hotel, a fundraiser for EACH, October 29; and Norwich Playhouse, January 26.