travellers

Travellers' Century

Travellers' Century is a 2008 BBC Television documentary series presented by Benedict Allen that profiles the lives of three influential 20th century British travel writers.

Production

BBC Four Controller Janice Hadlow comissioned the series from Icon Films for broadcast as part of the channel'sJourneys of Discovery season.

The series combines footage of travel writer Benedict Allen following in the footsteps of his subjects with interviews and archive footage to provide an insight into their lives.

Allen has written that the series was made to answer a question he had first asked himself when he lost his dog team in the Bering Strait pack ice and his prospects looked grim. Where does the troublesome urge of the British to wander off alone, often without even bothering to give a half-decent excuse, come from?

Reception

Sarah Dempster writing in The Guardian describes the, wonderful little series, as, part leisurely biography, part arduous travelogue, that, offers an unabashedly nostalgic peek into the life of the 20th-century adventurer.

Tim Teeman writing in The Times described episode one as, hopelessly muddled, slow and uninsightful, opining that Allen managed to extinguish all the lyricism, and spirit of adventure and discovery, from Newby’s work, but concluding that, it was lovely to see Newby in archive footage cycle in the roiling morning commute, head high and defiantly and perilously weaving through the middle lane as beeping echoed all about him. Joe Clay writing in the same publication called it, a mature, inspiring hour of quintessentially British spirit.

Episodes

Episode one: Eric Newby

Allen begins his film chatting with the attendees of Eric Newby's memorial service in Covent Garden. Newby’s wife Wanda discusses the curiously British drive for exploration and Newby’s split-personality of urbane and adventurous. Allen visits Newby’s childhood home in Hammersmith where at St. Paul's School he reads of Newby’s poor academic ability. Newby was unable to complete his studies and his friends Pat Allen, Katherine Whitehorn and Adrian House of the Travellers' Club ponder whether this drove him to prove himself by enlisting on the tea clipper Moshulu. Wanda relates how Newby’s captioning of his photographs for publication resulted in The Last Grain Race.

On the eve of World War II Newby enlisted in the Black Watch and after Sandhurst he was captured on an SBS mission in Italy. Fellow POW Pat Spooner recalls Newby’s positive attitude at this time when he first met his future wife. Wanda recalls after the war the couple joined the family costumier firm Lane and Newby where he indulged his passion for fashion but was ultimately unfulfilled. Allen meets Newby’s old travelling companion Hugh Carless at Snowdonia where the two novice climbers spent weekend practising for an impromptu trip to Afghanistan. Wanda gives Allen Newby’s bag as he sets off, with cameraman Peter Jouvenal, to follow in his footsteps.

Allen finds life in remote Nuristan little changed since Newby’s time and the Panchea Valley and its inhabitants match his descriptions. Allen locates Newby’s original guide who reminisces about Newby and Carliss and the impression that they made. Newby and Carliss never made it to the summit of Mir Samir but the author’s self deprecating style is best exemplified for Allen in his book of the trip A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Allen is also forced to turn back but pauses at the point where a historic meeting between Newby and the professional explorer Wilfred Thesiger symbolised the beginning of the age of the traveller.

Episode two: Laurie Lee

Episode three: Patrick Leigh Fermor

References

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