Around the World in 80 Days has one of the great openings in Victorian literature. The year is 1872 and men sit around London’s Reform Club, bored out of their minds and stuffed full of bad food. The air is heavy with the stale whiff of empire but we are alive to the possibilities of the great expedition that will follow. In the BBC’s new version, Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) is a still, silent figure. Before he decides to take up the £20,000 wager to race around the world, he spends most of his time staring at his fellow clubmen with a vacant expression, as though his mind were endlessly somewhere else. By the end of the first episode, you wonder if this is simply Tennant breaking character and wondering what he is doing in this rather incoherent, cheap-looking version of such a thrilling novel.
Still, for the first few minutes of Victorian gloom, it looks like it might be a straight retelling, a rare occurrence in today’s TV world of near-mandatory “reinvention” and “reimagining”. The illusion doesn’t last long: although it is set in the 19th century, it strains for contemporary relevance. Fogg’s valet, Passepartout, is a black man, played by a French-Malian actor, Ibrahim Koma. This Passepartout is not a gentleman’s gentleman, but a chancer, a man who was working as a waiter in the club before he was sacked for fighting and overheard Fogg summoning someone to help him. The third member of the travelling band, Fix, a detective in the book, is here turned into a woman Abigail “Fix” Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), and a hack to boot, a spirited Telegraph journalist assigned to cover Fogg’s mission.
Their 21st-century cohort assembled, they go adventuring. In Verne’s novel, they head straight to Suez, but here they divert through Europe, more like a straggly gap-year interrailers than world explorers. Their first stop is Paris, where it turns out Passepartout has some unfinished business with a brother and little light revolution. The rest of the episode descends quickly into a kind of chaotic mishmash of Les Misérables and Day of the Jackal, all assassination and uprising. The idea is to introduce a subplot about racism and social justice, but the long action sequences come at the expense of any meaningful character development, especially among the leads. At eight episodes, this series depends on the relationship between them. The actors do what they can with limited time and dialogue, and Tennant’s always good for his money, but it’s a bit of a bum steer.
The bigger problem is that the scope and budget of modern TV has outgrown this kind of production. If you’re taking on a property as famous as Around the World in 80 Days and putting it on BBC One at Christmas, you have to give it some welly. Audiences are wise to tricks you might once have got away with. London and Paris look nearly identical here, perhaps both shot on the same block in Romania. In every frame, you can sense corners being cut. A scene of mass revolution is conveyed with a still shot of Paris and some audio. The joy of the source text for readers was that it was truly exotic, hopping from Egypt to India, China, Japan and across the USA. When you look at a series like ZeroZeroZero, shot on location in Italy, Mexico, Senegal, the US and Morocco, the authenticity leaps off the screen. TV is finally in a position to faithfully remake Around the World in 80 Days, so why not give it the treatment it deserves?