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Review: An Idiot Abroad

Simon Pitt | Television | Sunday 3rd October 2010

Like many people, the first thing I think when I see Karl Pilkington is: is this real?
I'm a bit confused by Karl Pilkington. Is he a character dreamed up by the fevered imagination of Ricky Gervais? A struggling comic prepared to suffer any indignity in order to get his mug on telly? Or, perish the thought, Gervais's best mate coasting on the coat-tails of a rampant ego; a Jonathan Wilkes to Gervais's Robbie Williams?
Ricky Gervais must get asked this a lot; so much so that he now replies to the question before its even been asked:
People think the podcasts are scripted, that he's an actor called Graham, that me and Steve write all his lines - as if.
If Pilkington is acted by a bloked called Graham, then it's one hell of a prank. One of the loveable things about Pilkington is that he never seems to be making an effort to be funny. Even in throwaway freebie magazine Shortlist, he produced a genuinely funny interview.
If the podcast studio was on fire and you could only save one, Ricky or Steve, which would it be?

Steve would be tough because he's so gangly; I'd be like dragging a carpet. Ricky' lost a lot of weight, so I could probably chuck him over my back now. I pay my taxes - what are the firemen doing at this point? [Pause] Do Ricky and Steve know that I've seen them} [...] You shouldn't mess with fat. I'd say "I'm calling the firemen," and that'd be that.

I agree with The Metro (for once) that the confusion about whether Karl really is a massive joke or not was overshadows the beginning.
This bubble of confusion rather clouded the opening to An Idiot Abroad (Sky1), in which Gervais and partner-in-crime Stephen Merchant smugly outlined their evil plan.
The opening was rather strange. An overly dramatic sequence with Gervais and Merchant like two cartoon villains, and then a bizarre sequence in which Karl doesn't appear to understand that to make a television programme, he will have to be filmed by a television crew.
Ricky: You look nervous. You look uneasy
Karl: Well I am a bit. It's not normal is it?
Ricky: What? What isn't normal?
Karl: You're asking me how my day is, and there's a room full of people I don't know.
To me, this smacks of a sequence done for camera. Gervais explains that they just filmed loads and edited it down.
We just put a camera in his face like The Truman Show, for hundreds of hours, and then we just edited down the most interesting and funny bits.
If this is the case, then it's the editing that's at fault at the start, editing it down until it appears almost nonsensical.

Gervais and Merchant, who both usually appear quite likeable, actually appeared rather vindictive here. "I want him to hate every moment of it for my amusement" Gervais tells the camera at the start, and at times he appears to be goading Karl, waiting for him to say something stupid.

As The Telegraph remarks:
It could easily come across as a dull exercise in practical japery: two successful media types sending their working class mate halfway around the world as a prank.
After all, even the title "An Idiot Abroad" is a joke at Karl's expense. For a while, I couldn't figure out why he agreed to make a show with that title until I found out that it was originally going to be called Karl Pilkington's Seven Wonders, and Ricky changed it while Karl was in Peru.

The irony with Karl Pilkington is that while often his comments are strange, they are always down to Earth and grounded in realism.
its central figure is quick-witted, expressive and clearly no moron. The Great Wall episode is littered with witty, plain-spoken and wryly downbeat observations, which feel refreshing after years of plummy fellows like Alan Whicker and Michael Palin exploring the world on their behalf.
And this is perhaps the nub of programme's appeal:
He wasn't greatly taken by the Great Wall of China. 'It goes on for miles... but so does the M6,' a reaction coloured by the difficulty in sorting out which bit was new and which restored. But a spot of masterly kung fu clearly impressed as a balloon whizzed through a pane of glass. And there was the point of An Idiot Abroad: being taken by surprise, not wandering around reacting like millions have before.
I'm no fan of travel documentaries. The idea of 'finding yourself', or somehow understanding more about a country by going there and trekking round a series of tourist destinations is clearly ludicrous, and this is something that the programme undermines.

Ricky and Steve seem constantly amused by Karl dismissing the wonders, but Karl is right. They're souless tourist destinations. "How can you feel anything with so many people around", Karl asks at the Taj Mahal. When Princess Diana was there, he points out, the place was probably cordoned off for her. For most people, they simply queue up until they can have their photo taken just like everyone else.

I've talked about Sky's new more aggressive advertising campaign (indeed, since I discussed it, the poster at the end of my road of Meredith Ostrom has been replaced with one of Karl.)

Ricky and Steve torment an idiot

An Idiot Abroad is the next stage in this master plan; again, it feels somehow aggressive. The title is very in your face for what is actually a surprisingly subtle programme. I have nothing against commercial television, or even, really against Sky, but my feeling is that they are throwing "investment capital" at their programmes to persuade more people to join. It's business logic, rather than artistic vision. I suspect it's pure luck that An Idiot Abroad is quite watchable.

Yes, it's too long. Yes, at times it borders on racism ("There's a fine line between xenophobia and an understandable nervousness around unfamiliar customs" says The Metro), and yes, Gervais and Merchant are a bit too desperate and aggressive, but throwout all of this, Karl comes out with a constant patter of deadpan, wry remarks.

For all the prominence of their advertising, though, there is one person who won't be watching the series on Sky:
[Karl Pilkington] won't be watching the series when it starts this Thursday, he says, as he hasn't got Sky.


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