“Victoria Wood,” recalled David Baddiel, once said, “‘I’m a comedian, I’m over 50, I have to do a travel documentary.’ She’s right – that seems to be the case.”
Baddiel was talking to broadcaster Danny Baker about his four-part travelogue for Discovery Channel. David Baddiel on the Silk Road, which started on 21 February, takes the comedian and novelist on a journey from Xi’an in China to Istanbul to discover the 2,000-year-old trade route.
He argued that there were advantages in a comedian, rather than a historian, making travel programmes. “The value is that you can communicate and hopefully lighten sometimes quite big and heavy information, and react in ways that will make it an entertaining programme as well as an educational and informative one,” said Baddiel.
While travelling the world’s first international trade route, Baddiel is chased by wild dogs, collects pigeon shit to make gunpowder, watches an ancient version of polo played with a headless goat and gets drunk with Uzbekistan’s last Jewish family.
“You brought back an absolute crackerjack of a series – I even watched it,” said Baker, who admitted that he could simply have watched the clips to be shown at the RTS event. “This isn’t your regular trawl through A, B and C. It’s a very brave thing to do and expertly carried off.”
Baddiel jumped at the chance to make the Discovery show. “I have reached a stage in my life where I want to do work which I’m going to enjoy. And I knew I would enjoy an adventure like this,” he said.
“When I watch Blade Runner there’s a bit where Rutger Hauer [the replicant] is dying and he says to Harrison Ford, ‘I have seen things you will never see,’” he continued. “My basic urge was to travel into the unknown.”
Baddiel travelled light with just a director, Glenn Swift; sound recordist Phil Bax; and assistant producer Henry Fraser; and the odd local fixer. “Top Gear, I believe, takes away 37 people when they go filming,” he said. “Now I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson needs that because he’s going to punch a lot of them. A lot of them are going to fall along the way.”
The skeleton crew “allowed us to improvise, because quite a lot of stuff when you’re in central Asia will not go right. These places are not really set up to follow a programme,” Baddiel continued.
“I did five series of Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned and before that on stage a lot of stuff where I was improvising and ad-libbing. I think you can do that with people and landscape too.”
Baddiel has been bitten by the travel bug and would like to make another series. “I’m interested, without wishing to overdo the Jewish thing, in the history of Nazi hunting,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a programme which looks at South America in terms of the traffic in Nazis after the war, the channels to places like Paraguay and Argentina and how they were caught, and sometimes not caught.”
David Baddiel was in conversation with Danny Baker at the Hospital Club, Central London on 29 February. The event was produced by Richard Lambert from Discovery and Jamie O’Neill at the RTS.
All photos by Paul Hampartsoumian