Ayoade and his self-adoring comedy face
Barcelona is a city I love and have visited frequently, my passion for the place surviving even my witnessing of a 4-0 massacre suffered by my beloved Leeds United. This explains the enthusiasm I felt for this Travel Man series opener – and also my deep sense of frustration and annoyance, having endured an hour of irritating ego-tripping and hopefully-funny silliness masquerading as an informative travel programme. Never have I started to watch a TV offering with a greater sense of anticipatory relish – only to end up feeling I’d have been better employed and more fulfilled eating a plateful of dried locusts.
The two presenters – Richard Ayoade and Kathy Burke – promised much initially, but fell woefully short of their supposed brief. This was, ostensibly, to sum up the attractions of a vibrant and wonderful city and maybe have a few laughs along the way. Ayoade, best-known (though not by me) as a presenter of a gadget show called The IT Crowd, was culprit in chief for what I count as this show’s failure. The premise in Travel Man is that “Richard hates travel and holidays – so what will he make of 48 hours away from home?” Sadly, all else was subordinate to this contrived central message, which Adoyade proceeded relentlessly to hammer home in the most unsubtle way imaginable. It was my first taste of his – for want of a better word – style; I shall not be putting myself out to repeat the experience.
From early in the piece, it was clear that Travel Man was to be the vehicle whereby Ayoade might reach a wider audience and give them the benefit of what he fondly imagines is his laconic and laid-back presentational personality. The dreaded “comedy voice” was a frequent intruder into his narrative; that annoying way of introducing ironic quotation marks by vocal inflection, so that the listener will (hopefully) be inescapably aware that here is a windswept and interesting cynic with an edgy and alternative view on pretty much everything he sees. Some people can carry this off and even make some decent entertainment out of it; Ayoade, on this depressing evidence, patently can’t.
In contrast to my zero prior knowledge of Ayoade, Kathy Burke is a performer I’ve always liked and rated – but here, she was drawn into a teeth-curling attempt to create an unlikely comic double-act. Everything of substance was sacrificed in the effort to get as much ironic comedy as possible – frankly, not a lot – out of this incongruous pairing. Whatever the lure of Barcelona’s many and varied points of interest, it all had to be about Richard Ayoade and his reactions to whatever he saw; a self-indulgent and subjective take on each too-hurried item with the twitchily uncomfortable Ms Burke doing her best to play up to her colleague’s self-adoration.
Thus, in the interests of establishing the desired laugh-a-minute feel to the thing, there was an awkward “Ooh, we have to share a hotel suite” moment with Ms Burke seeming to fear some unlikely molestation from her clearly aloof partner in crime; then there was some cringe-worthy banter at the Nou Camp football stadium, magnificent home of CF Barcelona – where Ayoade was at some pains to demonstrate his effete apathy towards the Beautiful Game – and next some frankly repulsive emetic slapstick in a restaurant, to the bemusement of the admirably patient, polite and professional staff. Burke is a highly capable performer, but she was rather dragged down to the level of her colleague, who was clearly preoccupied with projecting his individual personality over the whole undertaking.
So, instead of being treated to Barcelona’s panoply of vivid beauty and unique art, we got a series of laboriously ponderous set-ups culminating in yet another of Ayoade’s hopefully-cutting one-liners – drawled and mannered punchlines that invariably failed to be even a fraction as devastating as they were clearly intended to be. It was bitterly disappointing fare, and Burke did well to hide the embarrassment she must surely have felt. Perhaps she will reflect that, as an accomplished comedienne, she should not be wasting her time playing stooge to a partner who should have stayed at home surrounded by his gadgets – rather than stepping so far out of that comfort zone into the pitiless and unforgiving arena of comedy.
The victim in all of this squalid waste of time and opportunity – apart from the hapless viewer, sat seething with all hopes dashed – is of course the city of Barcelona itself. A feature-length programme could hardly do justice to its many attractions: the beauty and individuality of its Gaudi-dominated architecture; the culture that shines dazzlingly out of every sunlit surface; the cuisine, the sport, the history. It’s all there in one precious jewel of a city, just waiting to be described and marvelled over. But, disgracefully, we got none of that – in fact it is sadly fair to say that by far the most informative aspects of the whole production were the occasional graphics which flashed up, telling us the price of this or that and highlighting one or other sight worth seeing. Meanwhile, Ayoade and Burke were tenaciously flogging away at the dead horse of their joint comedic potential; it was grisly, unrewarding viewing.
What we did learn is that Richard Ayoade loves Richard Ayoade, and is keen to share that passion with a broader interest group than his usual audience of geeks – but that he is guilty of the cardinal sin of any wannabe comedian: that of forgetting to be funny. And we also learned that Kathy Burke, when handed lemons, will do her solid best to make lemonade, bless her. On this occasion, though, she should have thrown those lemons at her partner’s smug countenance – and hopped straight back on the train home. If she had – then maybe I and doubtless thousands of others might have been spared the empty disappointment felt after a production, that could have achieved so much, ended up delivering nothing but resentment. The knowledge that there went an hour of my life I’m never going to get back left me wondering what the effortlessly authoritative Michael Portillo might have done with such a nugget of a travel show idea. He could not, let’s face it, have been worse – and you just know that he’d have been far, far better – by an order of several hundred magnitudes.
This series will tragically continue with what we might dolefully expect to be a similar treatment of Istanbul, but it won’t have me for company. My advice is to stay at home instead of being tempted to go along for the ride and, with all due deference to Richard Ayoade’s forcefully-professed and overtly squeamish dislike of muddied oafs – see if there’s any football on.