See the sights, dodge the jokes
Peter Crawley on Ed Byrne and Dara Ó Briain’s road to Mandalay.
Those who concoct stories of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and, to a less fervent extent, world religions tend to inspire devotion among their followers. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a novel that has been categorised as all of the above, secured its acolytes by folding some durable ancient myths into more disposable elements of Americana. Gaiman’s opus imagines a war between the gods of Norse mythology, left to dwindle in the new world, and the fetishised idols of contemporary worship, where everything from technology to market forces finds corporeal shape.
Now comes a new testament, a TV series that opens with some sensationally bloody Viking sacrifices, as though slyly acknowledging the need to appease Gaiman’s fans. To judge from the first episode, it is a persuasive act of worship.
When Shadow Moon (a sculpted Ricky Whittle) is released from jail he encounters a stranger he seems fated to meet. “It’s all about getting people to believe in you,” the mysterious Mr Wednesday says. Played by Ian McShane, again enjoying the dry comedy of acting the scoundrel, he appears first as a doddery gent, swindling his way into first class. It’s a useful miracle to know.
Written by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, both experts in dark fantasy, Ameri
can Gods (Amazon Prime) is as unhurried as the book to confirm its intentions. Symbols and visions abound as Shadow reluctantly embarks as Mr Wednesday’s bodyguard, grasped at in his dreams by enchanted tree branches, or taunted by a bull with flaming eyes, who commands: “Believe!”
But the surreal twists that barely trouble a reader’s imagination can be perilous to depict on screen, as when a lustful goddess swallows a man whole during sex – and not in the traditional way. Elsewhere, though, the sly embellishments of design are balanced neatly between the septic and spectral: Shadow’s pristine shirt remains unblemished after grisly encounters; the bar where he brawls with a surprisingly tall leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), is conceived as the gaping mouth of a crocodile; and the blood that sloshes over the screen has the consistency of pinot noir.
The show takes the oddity of its idea seriously but not joylessly. Getting people to believe in you, as Mr Wednesday knows, is better achieved with a sly invitation than a blunt command. The gods, like the viewers, should be pleased with this offering.
The place: Virginia, in these not yet United States of America. The time: 1619. The weather: very pleasant indeed. And the women who have survived the treacherous crossing to Jamestown, the first British colony in this land of promise, look as though they have disembarked from nothing more arduous than a shampoo commercial. This is among the first signs that Jamestown Sky1, Friday), from the producers of Downton Abbey, may not be a model of historical realism.
At the harbour these “maids to make wives” are assigned to waiting men like prizes to raffle winners. For Alice (Sophie Rundle) it is love at the first sight of swarthy Silas (Stuart Martin), a paragon of colonial dishiness, but – alas – he is acting as courier for his brother, Henry, her betrothed, a paragon of greasiness. “You cost him 150 pounds of the finest tobacco,” Alice is told. She seems pleased.
Elsewhere the haughty blonde Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), who admitted to murdering a man in the show’s opening seconds, meets her husband to be, Samuel, a well-to-do clerk who deals mainly in exposition: “I know we talked about this in England, but . . . ”
Verity ( Niamh Walsh), a red-haired Irish woman and former convict, who is naturally obliged to be feisty, is left unclaimed and is advised to find safety, for Jamestown is “a hive of men starved
What this means in Bill Gallagher’s immensely unsubtle writing is that rape will be used as a plot device before we reach the first ad break. When Alice is attacked by Henry its consequence is conveyed with a dreamy shot of her awaking in the grass, leaking a single aesthetic teardrop, while enveloped by tender string music. Such is the show’s dispiriting command of gravity.
Everything that follows is absurd, generic or risible. Alice and Silas, who have barely exchanged words, breathlessly confess their hopeless love. Jocelyn, an intense social climber, turns her wiles towards a very specific altering of the colony’s legislation on the sale of tobacco farms. And Verity abandons her partner, the town drunk and scallywag, to take her chances in the wilderness. Her escape doesn’t last long, in circumstances that involve quicksand, wolves and the sudden intervention of the town’s smouldering blacksmith. But, frankly, she’s got the right idea. “I had a look at this place and decided it’s not for me,” she tells Alice. Amen, sister. Is it fun to go on holiday with a comedian? TV producers seem to think so. With Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden sharing meals, trading celebrity impressions and edging closer
In the immensely unsubtle writing of ‘Jamestown’, rape is used as a plot device before we reach the first ad break
to killing each other on The Trip to Spain, while Richard Ayoade takes reluctant city breaks with celebrities in Travel Man, comics make for popular travel guides, dispensing information as part of a set-up, landing their experiences along with a joke.
During Dara and Ed’s Road to Mandalay (RTÉ One, Thursday), a three-parter that conveys Dara Ó Briain and Ed Byrne through southeast Asia, the comedians briefly bolster their own credentials. “There’s a reason they get comedians to do these kinds of journeys, because we’re actually quite curious anyway,” Ó Briain says. “You don’t become a comedian without wanting to find quirky things in the cultures you visit.”
Nobody could resent two such personable fellows for scouring the world for new material, but another reason might be to present unfamiliar views through the lens of an unusual relationship. With a packed itinerary and a mild sense of awe, Ó Briain and Byrne make for sensitive presenters, and endearing tourists, but not riveting guides. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than telling Ed things,” Ó Briain says of his earnest guidebook regurgitations. “I hope me and Dara aren’t going to fall out,” Byrne ventures. So far there’s no chance of that.
What the pair are more likely to share is an insight into how comedians see the world. “A country doesn’t exist until you’ve told a joke in it,” Byrne says, like a comic solipsist. It’s revealing that they translate new experiences into stand-up terms, each performing five minutes in a comedy club in the multicultural capital, later messing around with lion-dance costumes, then turning their hands to shadow puppetry before an audience in Kota Bharu (and bombing).
Finally, they turn up for dinner in Penang in ceremonial garb that Tommy Cooper would have admired. Ó Briain regards Byrne, lost in his embroidered kurta, and affirms, “I would be proud to attend any international karate tournament that you hosted on your evil island.”
It’s the closest they allow themselves to come to a culturally inappropriate remark ( which is not very) – and also, perhaps, their funniest.
Ó Briain and Byrne are going to get on just fine with southeast Asia, and with each other. Where’s the fun in that?
Road to Mandalay: Ed Byrne and Dara Ó Briain.