“Disregard the universal. Pursue the trivial, preferably sideways. Truth is never on the main road. It is more likely to be found on a side street or in an alleyway around the back,” declares the academic Oliver (could be his first name, could be his last name – that’s part of his mystery). It’s the start of Oliver’s Travels – a World Wide International Television/BBC Wales co-production screened by BBC1 in 1995 – and he’s about to launch into an A-road odyssey of British landscape, myth and culture leading into a new life of which he can only promise “confusion and one or two very old jokes”. You’ve probably never heard of it. Not many people have. It’s generally ignored…
Oliver’s Travels is a love story about the first week or so following the meeting of a redundant lecturer in comparative religions called Oliver and his predestined partner in life WPC Diane Priest as they travel north-by-north east from the Rhondda Valley to the Orkneys in search of Aristotle – the world’s greatest crossword compiler. Their blossoming romance in their capacity as a “weird middle-aged couple” – complete with arrival of fully grown graduate son the morning after they consummate their vows – is presented in the form of a comedy thriller, crafted on the screen with captivating close-up zooms, epic widescreen vistas of British landscapes, and a blissful music score which runs the gamut from echoing Paul Desmond’s Take Five through Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, the Scottish folk song The Water is Wide, and the urgent, pounding strings of Bernard Hermann to the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.
The story starts at the New University of the Rhondda Valley, a modest educational establishment being rebranded as NURV complete with a computer-generated leek logo. Deemed surplus to the needs of tertiary education, Oliver seizes the opportunities offered by redundancy to fulfil a lifelong ambition – to finally meet one of his heroes, Aristotle, a genius with whom he has only previously corresponded. However, on arriving at Aristotle’s home off the road to Abergavenny, he finds a burnt-out derelict cottage; beside a charred crossword is a metal box containing a lone chess piece, a black king of eastern design which needs to be reunited with its missing fellows.
Like all law-abiding citizens, Oliver reports the missing person to the local constabulary and – since he doesn’t know anything about his missing person including their real name – the local constabulary palm him off onto WPC Priest. She solves the mystery very quickly by telephoning the newspaper whom Aristotle sets crosswords for and they tell her that the legendary compiler now lives in the Orkneys. When Oliver thanks WPC Priest for her help, she corrects him: “Diane, not Priest”. And because Oliver bases all his major life decisions on anagrams, he realizes that this phrase is an anagram of “predestination” meaning that they have been set on Earth to be together. “It makes as much sense as any of the world’s religions,” he informs her with professional authority.
In return for Diane solving his mystery and giving him a direction in his life, he offers to solve a mystery for her. Some browsing through golfing magazines in the local library reveals that a farmer called Griffiths who was found floating face down in a Brecon river the previous year was murdered by persons unknown hired by Superintendent Butler of the Mid-Glamorgan Crime Squad, a major shareholder in Nineteenth Hole Developments PLC which was trying to purchase the Griffiths farm to turn it into a golf course. This evidence is further backed up by the fact that the solution to most murder mysteries is that the butler did it and he passes this deduction on to Diane in the hope an early arrest.
Having confirmed Oliver’s sleuthing to be true, Diane presents her findings of corruption to her Chief Superintendent… only to earn herself indefinite suspension. Determined to expose the murderous nature of Nineteenth Hole, she accepts a lift from Oliver up to Shrewsbury which is en route for his own quest to the Orkneys… but soon Oliver’s elderly yellow Volkswagen 1600 estate is being trailed by a distinctly sinister crimson Citroën DS23.
In Shrewsbury, the couple are approached by Griffiths’ son who warns them against tangling with “heavy duty villains”, Diane’s former husband who tells them to “get out of town” and a Man With No Name who tells them “not to leave town”. Travelling north, they learn of the murder by means of 12-bore shotgun of the moneylender Adrian L Walsh (whose name happens to be an anagram of Hadrian’s Wall) and his connection with Universal Megamarkets PLC which, like Nineteenth Hole Developments PLC is part of the Farquhar Group of Companies… a link which is affirmed when the duo realise that Aristotle is leaving them clues in their daily crossword puzzles, nudging them further north towards the thirteenth Baron Kite, the chairman of the Farquhar Group.
Ultimately, Oliver and Diane complete their respective quests, society is cleansed by Farquhargate, an act of vengeance is completed, and the lost king is returned to its correct place on the board. At journey’s end, peace is found in a peedy property of corrugated iron.
The lyrical nature of the off-beat dialogue from Alan Plater – adapted from his own 1994 novel – is perfectly echoed by the incidental music from Carl Davis, complete with Herb Geller blowing a cool flute and sax. And the direction from Giles Foster presents the journey with amazing grace and beauty; high shots looking down on a Welsh town nestling in a valley, oblique angles of figures ascending and descending stairs, waterfalls cascading down beneath stone bridges, Celtic pubs transformed into Chandleresque bars with buzzing blue fly zapper and surly types of pool player, dusty police archives illuminated a sinister green, a traditional split-screen for a phone call between adjacent hotel rooms, a yellow blaze and blue emergency lights drenching Shrewsbury’s stonework, red and black two-tone from neon lights outside the hotel windows of The Recruiting Officer, Kirkleven castle and its own private loch picked out in the nightlight of blacks and moody blues, the grey misty morning of Hadrian’s Wall, the legend of St Magnus and Harken montaged in mime, the wide vistas of the Cheviots dwarfing a little yellow VW, the diffused light bleeding in solid rainbow shafts through the stained glass of the Cathedral of St Magnus the Martyr, a lone light flashing amidst the turquoise dusk from the buoy marking the loss of 833 lives aboard the HMS Royal Oak in 1939, the Ring of Brodgar’s monoliths rendered menacing in the low light of the solstice sun … and the warmth of the flickering firelight as Oliver and Diane consummate their new relationship.
Alan Bates took top billing as Oliver – the stand-up philosopher embodiment of Alan Plater’s own passions for jazz, football, cricket, left-wing politics, trivia, quizzes, crosswords and The Listener (1929-1991 – rest its soul). His gods include Ludwig van Beethoven (whom he always pings Middle C in homage to when near a keyboard), Lester Young, Stanley Matthews, Dizzy Gillespie, William Shakespeare, Jack Benny and Jimmy Jones (not forgetting Hutton Conyers and Bretton Woods). The Derbyshire-born son of a County Durham coal-miner who was placed in Town Planning Category D when the pits closed, he knows that he is a living stereotype in the chill of middle age. He collects jokes [i] and trivia, and bases major decisions on anagrams, and he knows that his wife was entirely right to leave him during the FA Cup Final of 1979. He aims high and is often the catalyst for other people to become the people they want to be – and you can see why his students adore him, even although his mental processes are no use in a straight line but utterly brilliant sideways. He mixes jazz and comedy into his lectures on religion – a subject in which he had no faith at all because it simply ends up in people killing each other. Nor does he believe in information, citing TS Eliot’s The Rock (1934) as evidence. Big questions frighten him, so he sticks to silly and trivial subjects – a talent which has led him twice to be a specialist question setter for Mastermind (1972-) on the life and work of Lester Young and the life and work of George Farquhar. He also adheres to correct grammar even in moments of endangerment. Flirtatious and a bit crumpled, he admits to be a bullshit merchant… albeit at the level of an enthusiastic amateur. He also knows something very funny about sex.
Diane is blessed with the soft Irish lilt of Sinéad Cusack and every bit as engaging. She too has her gods – such as Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith – and is very much a woman who knows her own mind. She was pregnant at the age of 20 and rejected the father’s offers of support in favour of independence. She also surprised her ex-husband by her decision to make him an ex-husband, getting rid of her “Mrs” and almost getting rid of her surname. After she and Oliver plight their troths in Lindisfarne Priory, she explains that part of this arrangement is that she can do without him if necessary – and he affirms that he knew this from the outset. Like Oliver, she understands the beauty of literature and music; unlike Oliver, she does not hide from the Big Questions and continues to ask them during the journey. She is massively practical – he is not. And, as a female with considerable skills which are not being tapped in the lazy and corrupt male environment of the local constabulary, she knows that a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do…
Oliver and Diane operate knowing that they are two characters in a thriller and making open allusions to the fact. They know that they are trailed in the manner of The French Connection (1971), they actively seek out hotel rooms with connecting doors because they have seen them in Cary Grant films, they know that Joseph Cotton found safety in a crowd during The Third Man (1949), they know that a helicopter attack on them on a lonely road in Scotland is an technological updating of North by Northwest (1959), they know that to solve a country house mystery they must assemble everyone in the drawing room, and they know that before the closing credits they should walk off into the sunset. Small screen references abound from Ready Steady Go! (1963-1966) to The Magic Roundabout (1965-1977) and embrace a chorus of the theme to Neighbours (1985-) to conclude a game of ‘Alone at Last’. Oliver is keen to be Cagney to Diane’s Lacey – or vice-versa – and a musical phone pad trills out the theme tune to Z Cars (1962-1978) when a sinister number is dialled.
The other major cast member is Bill Paterson who portrays the highly literate Cosmos Security PLC operative Mr Baxter – also known as the Man With No Name. Dogging Oliver and Diane with his controlled saunter, he is a shadow descending nocturnal steps linking the mean streets of downtown Shrewsbury, a lone figure gazing down from a rocky prominence, an umbrellaed spectre looming from an elevated rural graveyard, a lonely silhouette at an isolated phone box in the days when people still used phone cards, a brooding presence against the grey skies behind the spinning radar of a P&O ferry, or a dark outline leading a rousing chorus of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands from the elevated organ loft of a remote kirk.
We also encounter Miles Anderson as the thirteenth Baron Kite of Kirkleven, the chairman of the Farquhar Group of Companies, organizer of the 1983 Kirkleven Jazz Festival, a Red Baron revolutionary socialist and velvet-smocked New Age swing drummer who admits of his lineage that the odd-numbered barons are “evil bastards”. Morgan Jones joins the journey as the couple’s son, a geology graduate with a passion for deconstructed cyberpunk reduced to selling hotdogs in the Macclesfield of a broken Britain.
Add to this a kaleidoscope of cameos great and small. Richard Davies as a passing painter who knows the dates of Aristotle (“384-322 BC. Now deceased”). James Ellis as a tramp who dreams of Gay Meadows and the man in charge of the coracle vital in any football game there. Ruth Madoc as a warm, friendly, honest hotelier who persuades her guests to eat out rather than brave her own restaurant. Peter Vaughan as Mr Delaney the contented Irish monumental mason of Hutton Conyers working among cherubs’ heads and tombstones in a quarry hut and recalling the days of Vic Oliver. Mollie Sugden as Mrs Robson, the landlady of a haunted B&B in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall with a mischief for teasing overseas tourists as she serves breakfast composed of pure cholesterol and blames the ills of society on convenience foods. Charlotte Coleman as a perky tomboy hacker with a PhD living in a converted boathouse amidst green screen monitors and floppy disks which give her the power to fill a major corporation’s computer systems with ‘BOLLOX’. Jo Kendall as a mobile librarian transporting a group of fellow evangelists to the local kirk in an elderly Bedford VAS bus whose windows proclaim ‘I ♥ Jesus’. Iain Cuthbertson as Mr Davidson, an “incomer” hotelier who relocated to live near his father at Scapa Flow. John Woodvine as the sombre funeral director Mr A Gunn who is keen to help with the quest for Aristotle but insists that Oliver and Diane should travel in his car since following in their own may give the wrong impression…
With a pacing that changes rhythm and speed like the very best jazz, the tale unfolds in a Britain of the 1990s where universities were rebranding as businesses for the new twenty-first century age of information (50% of which was likely to be wrong), the world was becoming dominated by evil property and finance PLCs emblazoned with logos (occasionally concealed), use of a mobile phone complete with aerial was a general indication that the user was untrustworthy, fax machines relayed lethal information, the soundtrack of education was becoming filled with the buzz of printers, excavators were tearing down communities which one supported honest physical toil, and lying had the fastest growth rate of any commodity.
So, here we are almost 2400 words later and you’re at the bit where you’re waiting for me to give you the twist. The bit where I use the fact that Oliver is a lecturer to draw an academic irony. Or the fact that if you take all the words which correspond to the Fibonacci sequence they’ll tell you what would have happened in the final unmade episode of Coronet Blue (1967). But – sorry – that’s not what this is about. There’s no point at all to this blog…
… which is, actually, the point. When I started writing about television, this is the sort of thing what I wrote. I saw something, I liked it, and I wanted to share it. So I’d write about it. Just describing – no insight, no shooting dates, no viewing figures, no conclusions. And, periodically, I need to remind myself that this is how I started appreciating this amazing subject of television. And that maybe now and I again, I need to return to it.
Or maybe not.
Andrew Pixley is a retired data developer. For the last 30 years he’s written about almost anything to do with television if people will pay him – and occasionally when they won’t. He was also once a specialist question setter for Mastermind. While, like him, you’re waiting for the undertaker and the stone mason (in that order), you might fancy watching Oliver’s Travel on DVD. It’s never been released in the UK, but exotic international editions are available. You won’t find them in the high street shops, but maybe – as we did – in an Oxfam Bookshop down a side street or in an alleyway round the back.
[i] Oliver’s second favourite joke, alluded to in the series but only related in the novel, is The Horse That Liked To Sit On Eggs. If you’ve read this far than you’ve had the confusion, so you’d better have the old joke…
Once upon a time, there was a farmer who had a horse. His neighbour admired the horse and offered him £10 for it. The farmer thought that this was good value so he accepted the offer. However, before they shook hands on the deal, he said to the neighbour: “I should warn you, this is a fine horse, but he has one serious weakness. He likes to sit on eggs. So whatever you do, keep him away from eggs.” The neighbour said yes, he would keep the horse away from eggs. So the deal was struck. The neighbour paid the money and took the horse away.
A week later the farmer heard loud cries coming from the river. He went down to the river and there was his neighbour, on the horse, in the middle of the river. “He won’t move,” said the neighbour, “We’ve been here all morning.” “I’m very sorry,” said the farmer, “I should have warned you. I told you that he likes to sit on eggs, but I forgot to tell you that he also likes to sit on fish.”