In our age of Bezosian space jaunts and private jets, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, travelling around the world was actually a very difficult thing to do.
But the new BBC adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel is an excellent reminder of just that. Around the World in 80 Days is alight with the marvels of transport – set in an age full of great, chugging steam trains, plans drawn up for rockets, and a hot air balloon apparently so unbelievable that a boy is chastised for his overactive imagination when pointing it out.
David Tennant is a natural fit for the role of Verne’s gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg, harnessing the inimitable wide-eyed wonder that made him such a favourite with Doctor Who fans. When he gazes at the hot air balloon, you might just believe he’s seeing it for the first time, and when he insists that it should fly, “like a bird, like an angel,” you’ll probably find yourself nodding along in keen agreement. There’s also a dash of humility (again a reminder of his stint as Doctor Who) that makes his protagonist a very likeable one, if slightly frustrating in those ‘too much talk, too little walk’ moments.
Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch, as Fogg’s fellow globetrotters Passepartout and Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue, do a grand job of urging the action along in these instances. The two characters differ from their literary origins, with valet Passepartout now a haunted French revolutionary and Fix a determined young journalist and daughter of Jason Watkins’s kindly, remarkably progressive Daily Telegraph editor (in the book, Fix is a male Scotland Yard detective who secretly believes Fogg to be a notorious bank robber - here the villain of the piece appears to be Fogg’s fellow Reform Club member Nyle Bellamy, with whom he embarks on the fateful wager that starts his journey and who is played in delightfully oily and entitled fashion by Peter Sullivan). Both Fix and Passepartout enjoy fleshed out backstories, giving the story a broader, fuller feel, and take to their respective roles with plenty of vigour and spark. The route around the world is also tweaked, with a first stop in France serving as opportunity to explore Passepartout’s past.
The writing does fall down a little in terms of wider story line - sometimes feeling disjointed and rushed - though perhaps this is part of the territory when dealing with a race around the world; there are only so many dashes through train stations a viewer can stand. Still, there are a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes that would have benefitted from a little less pace, and such zippy plot lines can leave a viewer feeling occasionally lost.
Overall, though, the series is a charming festive adventure ideal for family viewing. It’s chock-full of wonder, fun, and remarkable backdrops, so promises to be the perfect antidote to any dreary January lockdowns.
Around the World in 80 Days continues on BBC One on January 2 and is available on BBC iPlayer