A world of their own
Writer Ashley Pharoah, director Steve Barron and executive producers Simon Crawford Collins and Lionel Uzan recall their journey together in making Around the World in 80 Days, starring David Tennant as Phileas Fogg.
In Jules Verne’s classic 1872 story Around the World in 80 Days, protagonist Phileas Fogg is set the challenge of circumnavigating the globe in less than three months – a feat only just made possible at that time with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the US and the opening of the Suez Canal.
One-hundred-and-fifty years later, the makers of an eight-part series based on Verne’s novel faced a new challenge: filming a historical, multi-country road trip during a global pandemic.
When the emergence of Covid-19 last spring forced most of the world into lockdown, just one episode of Around the World in 80 Days had been filmed in South Africa when coproducers Slim Film + Television and Federation Entertainment made the call to pause production before the country closed its borders, ensuring cast and crew had enough time to return home before other countries shut their doors too.
Once filming resumed several months later, they were able to pick up the story of Fogg, played by Doctor Who and Good Omens star David Tennant, who accepts a crazy wager from his Reform Club rivals to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Completely ill-prepared, he is supported along the way by his quick-witted French valet Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma) and journalist Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch), who came up with the idea in the first place.
“The novel was fascinating because it came at a point when advances in the world meant you could actually get around the world for the first time ever by buying a ticket rather than having to be an explorer,” says executive producer and Slim MD Simon Crawford Collins. “Jules Verne had this wonderful idea of a man who was really not designed for travelling to take on this challenge. The narrative of the story comes from the fact Phileas Fogg knows he’s the least appropriate person to do this task and that he hasn’t got a hope in hell, so you’re really willing this man to achieve the thing.”
Several years in the making, the project gained traction in 2019 when it was unveiled by France Télévisions, Italy’s Rai and Germany’s ZDF as one of a number of new dramas commissioned by the members of an alliance of European public broadcasters. Slim then partnered with Paris-based producer and distributor Federation, which has since secured further deals with Masterpiece PBS in the US and UK pubcaster the BBC, among other networks. The drama will have its world premiere at French television festival Canneseries on Sunday.
With the series being shot on location in South Africa and then Romania, Crawford Collins jokes that his eyes were bigger than his stomach when it first came to planning which parts of Verne’s story they might be able to film and which countries they could recreate on a budget that Federation co-founder and CEO Lionel Uzan places at “north or south” of €35m (US$40m).
“At one point, I was looking at travelling to six different countries and, gradually, as the complexity of it becomes clear, you’ve got to simplify things,” Crawford Collins says. Planning was further complicated by the fact Around the World is a rare show in that it has very few standing sets to which the characters can return, as they and the story are constantly on the move.
“This is a period road trip; there’s a new place every time. And because it’s a road trip, you have to use vehicles, whether it’s a boat or a train or a camel. You’ve got to be on the move,” he continues. “There was nothing about this that shouted, ‘It’s going to be cheap.’ But Lionel and I shared a vision that whatever we did, it had be really good. This could never feel cheap. So it was a question of making the right choices at the script stage.”
“There were many discussions on the tone of the show because the tone is very specific,” says Uzan. “You don’t see so many shows with the promise of a family adventure, so how do you keep it smart, family-friendly and fun at the same time? Those were heavy creative discussions because the broadcasters wanted to make sure the tone was right from beginning to end. The fact that it was Jules Verne didn’t make it easier – because it’s so iconic, they wanted to be true to the spirit of the novel.”
It was when the pandemic hit the production, however, that the collaboration between partners – and Slim and Federation in particular – ensured the project stayed on track.
“It’s had its challenges, but it was always a question of getting the right people on board,” Crawford Collins says. “We had a fantastic producer, Peter McAleese, who kept everything very happy on the set, and an incredible production designer, Sebastian Krawinkel, who seemed to achieve the most amazing sets on a relatively modest budget. There was an amazing New York street he created, and we only shot on it for about three hours. That was heartbreaking. But we wanted that level of detail. It was like, ‘Yes, we’re only going to see it for a couple of minutes, but it’s going to look great.’”
For head writer Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars) and lead director Steve Barron (The Durrells), the journey to bringing Around the World to the screen was equally taxing. Pharoah began work several years before the show was officially announced in 2019, picking up the book once again after first reading it as a kid, though he says it was a difficult project to script when factoring in what might be possible in terms of production, filming abroad and CGI.
“It was a hell of a journey,” the writer says. “It’s a fabulous book in many ways, but for our modern tastes, there are attitudes to colonialism where it’s like, ‘Yikes, what am I going to do here?’ Then when I started writing, it was right in the middle of the whole Brexit debate and it was very toxic on both sides. I just wanted it not to have anything to do with that.
“I wanted to write something that was about the opposite [of Brexit], that was about opening yourself to experience and other and different cultures. I stumbled on the idea of Fogg as a child, in a way – a brilliant, aristocratic Englishman who’s barely left the Reform Club in 20 years. It was a wonderful way for us to see the world again. And with Covid then stopping travel as we know it, it suddenly made the show work thematically. I called it our love letter to the world. I wanted it to be bright and colourful and for Fogg’s experiences to be difficult but also wondrous.”
Numerous drafts of every episode were penned by a writing team that includes Caleb Ranson, Claire Downes, Ian Jarvis, Stuart Lane, Debbie O’Malley, Jessica Ruston, Peter McKenna and Stephen Greenhorn. Set over 80 days, the original novel could have posed problems in terms of pacing as they determined where and when viewers would connect with Fogg along his journey. However, Pharoah says it was a case of simply deciding which countries they wanted to visit and then finding where the characters would be emotionally at that point in the story, with each episode opening up the opportunity to introduce guest characters and a ‘story of the day’ that sees Fogg, Passepartout and Fix confront a situation that connects with their own personalities and pasts.
“We have big time jumps between episodes, so episodes one and two are in France and Italy, but in episode three we were in Yemen,” the writer says. “They come down the Suez, so there’s a big time jump there, but that is quite useful as a writer. You want to hit a reset button [in each episode] to a certain extent.
“It was quite an unusual shoot for me in that I sat in on a lot of preproduction meetings with the producer, designers and effects guys, when a writer wouldn’t normally be there. But it was absolutely crucial because, rather than me writing something they couldn’t do, they could say, ‘We’ve got this…’
“I had an African episode I was really struggling with, and it was like, ‘You can’t shoot there, you can’t shoot lions…’ I was probably a bit grumpy that day. Then the producer said there are desert areas outside Cape Town, so I thought, ‘Let’s do a Yemen desert episode.’ Steve came up with the idea for a guest character, we threw that script out, which I’d done about eight drafts of. That was production and writing team working closely together.”
Barron’s experience on the show began two years ago, when he first met Crawford Collins and Pharoah and was drawn to a script that captured Fogg’s energy as he burst out of the Reform Club and set off to win his wager. “It was a great, exciting project to be able to spend episodes in different places,” he says. “It made it very hard and expensive but it was visually very rewarding.”
On screen, the show is characterised by a different colour palette assigned to each destination featured along the journey. “We gave each of them a colour for the art department and for costume and really made you experience a different flavour in each country,” Barron says. “We also went with a slightly wide-angle lens. I like a bend on the horizon in a few of the big wide shots so you really saw the shape of that globe. Things like that were very important for our identity.”
Much of the series also focuses on Fogg as he takes on the bet in the wake of receiving a mysterious postcard that labels him a coward. That description is backed up by his behaviour in the early episodes, and Pharoah says it was important that element of the character’s personality didn’t suddenly disappear. By giving Fogg perpetually shifting mood swings, the writing team were able to create a “zig zag emotional shape” for the character, who by the end doesn’t overcome his emotional failings but learns to live with them.
“He doesn’t defeat those aspects of his character. He learns to accept them,” Pharoah says. “When David came on, it just accentuated that because he brings tremendous energy to everything. As a writer, I did a ‘David pass’ just to accentuate that energy so Fogg’s not a blobby Englishman.”
Working with Tennant on set, “there was really no time for rehearsals, but it didn’t matter,” says Barron. “You just give him room and don’t put him into a straitjacket because he’ll come up with some lovely surprises, things that weren’t necessarily on the page, and give us something more extraordinary. He really liked the idea of not being the ‘conventional posh twat’ Fogg, who had lots of skeletons to work out. This opportunity is a big exorcism of a major demon in his life. That, for an actor, is something to really get your teeth into.”
Early episodes of the series see Fogg, Passepartout and Fix become embroiled in an assassination attempt on the French president, while an Italy-set scene follows the characters as they help a steam train cross a damaged bridge more than 200 feet in the air.
“Obviously, a lot of it is visual effects, but you do as much as you can for real,” Barron says of the show’s stunt work. “There’s a lovely shot with David hanging out of the train as he’s slowly working his way over the gap in the bridge. The angle makes it look like he’s hanging over it more than he is, but it’s for real. Finding the right steam train that would work was what proved impossible – we had to push it most of the place and add the smoke.”
Each generation will have its own version of Fogg, whether it’s David Niven in the 1956 version, Steve Coogan in the 2004 adaptation or the cartoon lion who starred in 1980s animated series Around the World with Willy Fog. Now a host of new viewers will know Tennant as the globe-trotting explorer in a series that Pharoah hopes will draw families together around the television.
“We’ve all been locked in our boxes for two years and, on the most basic level of entertainment, it is a thumping visual adventure story,” he says. “But I hope people will take away the fact that we live in this amazing world and we should look after and honour it. There’s also not much telly left where you can sit with your family, and I really think you can do with this. It is a real treat for the whole family.”