In a new series, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ gets more worldly
By Roslyn Sulcas
David Tennant, sitting in a wicker chair in the large, empty garden of a grand hotel here, gestured at its pink pillared veranda. “An appropriate setting!” he said, alluding to the colonial era architecture and his role in “Around the World in 80 Days,” a new television series based on the 1872 novel by Jules Verne.
It was February 2021, and it was Tennant’s last day in Cape Town, where he and the rest of the cast of “Around the World” had gathered to complete filming, almost a year after the pandemic had put a stop to production. “I was packing my suitcase for Cape Town when South Africa announced a lockdown, and they said, ‘Stand down,’ ” Tennant recalled. “It feels very special that we made it back and the finishing tape is in sight.”
Ten months later, the finishing tape is behind them. The eight-part “Around the World,” a zippy take on the Verne story, was to premiere Sunday on PBS’s “Masterpiece.” (In Britain, it debuted on Dec. 26, on BBC 1.)
There have been many film and television productions inspired by Verne’s novel, most notably Michael Todd’s 1956 version starring David Niven, which won an Academy Award for best picture and included cameos by Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra and Buster Keaton, among others. A less faithful version, from 2004, featured Jackie Chan as the story’s (originally French) valet, Passepartout.
But this version is tailored to contemporary sensibilities, introducing a diverse cast of characters. An ambitious young journalist, Abigail Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), and an updated version of Passepartout (played by the Black French actor Ibrahim Koma) share the limelight with Phileas Fogg (Tennant), the buttoned-up Englishman whose initial ideas about the world are based on a colonial-era vision typified by our grand hotel surroundings.
“We are in the world of 1872; it’s very much of the time,” Tennant said. “But the show looks at the social mores and expectations of the era with a 21st-century lens.”
The series begins in a stodgy men’s social club in London, the Reform Club, where Fogg reads an article describing a recently finished Indian railway line that makes it theoretically possible to traverse the globe in 80 days. Goaded by a hostile fellow member, he bets a considerable sum (around $3 million today) that he can make it back to the club 80 days later, by 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
“It’s a fabulous setup, the man taking a bet, then racing against obstacles and time,” the series’ lead writer, Ashley Pharoah (“Life on Mars”), said. “A screenwriter is always desperate for that kind of great premise.” But the new series is “more of a re-imagining than an adaptation,” he added. In this version, Abigail — whose byline is Abigail Fix, using her mother’s maiden name — writes the newspaper article that prompts the bet from Fogg. Despite opposition from Fogg and from her father (Jason Watkins), who owns the newspaper, she decides to chronicle Fogg’s journey; together with Fogg and Passepartout, who is given a more complex back story and emotional trajectory than in the book, she forms part of an unlikely trio of adventurers.
“We wouldn’t have made a version with three white middle-aged men going around the world because we wanted it to resonate and connect with a modern audience,” said Simon Crawford-Collins, an executive producer of the show. “It felt like a very natural thing to make the change to a more diverse setting that was still faithful to the era.”
The writers also added cameo characters from history like the legendary Bass Reeves (Gary Beadle), who escaped slavery and became a deputy U.S. marshal, and the famed English beauty Jane Digby (Lindsay Duncan).
“She was an aristocrat and fantastic personality who had scandalous affairs with all sorts of people and married a sheikh,” said Steve Barron, who directed five episodes and helped develop story lines. “She would have been about 54 at the time, on Fogg’s path, and he would have been appalled by her, so it felt like a great way to bring out more of his character.”
Viewers familiar with Verne’s novel will recognize the name Fix, which Abigail adopts as a way to distance herself from her father — the name a nod, as Pharoah described it, to the “rather boring” Detective Fix in the book. But the inspiration for Abigail Fix, he said, was the American writer Nellie Bly, who emulated Verne’s voyage in 1890. (She did it in 72 days.) Making Passepartout a Frenchman of color “felt natural,” he added. “As a writer, it gives you much more to play with when there are three of them, with such different personal histories.”
For Benesch, who is German, and Koma, who is French, these were their first major roles in English — and Benesch’s first role playing a native English speaker. “And Abigail talks and talks!” Benesch said with a laugh in a telephone interview. (Benesch’s British accent is cut-glass perfection.)
Fix, she said, is “outside of societal convention but with real precedents.”
“I think her motivation comes from a very deep need to prove to her father, to herself and to society that she is a good and worthy journalist,” she continued, “despite her sex and age.”
Koma said that he was struck, when approached for the role, that Passepartout was a Black man who is a central character. “I thought it was audacious, and I was intrigued,” he said in a telephone interview.
“In the book, the characters don’t really evolve, but in our series there are real evolutions,” he added. “For Passepartout, the challenge is to deal with his life, to trust people, because when you are Black there are always presumptions. As he goes through that journey, he becomes more able to take that risk.”
When directing the actors, Barron said he had tried to achieve a balance between the fantastical adventures of the story and striking a more realistic tone. “I felt there hadn’t been a definitive new version that said, ‘This is the spirit of Jules Verne’ and felt more contemporary without being too theatrical or broad,” he said. “You can get into a jokey kind of pantomime with the story, but I wanted to create something audiences could relate to.”
Tennant said that he hadn’t watched the 1956 movie. “David Niven has such flair, and there was a danger I would try to emulate that, and it might not be relevant to this version,” he said. The Fogg of the book is “a rather unknowable, Zen-like character,” he added. “He is utterly inscrutable and unpanicked, and if he has an emotional life, it’s deeply hidden. Whereas my Fogg is full of insecurity and failure and is not heroic at all. The others are the heroes.”
Fogg’s emotional journey is, in fact, the heart of this new adaptation, Tennant said in a follow-up telephone interview in mid-December. “For the character, it’s a journey around the world and into the soul,” he said. “He is a man of privilege who is terribly frightened by life, and the whole thing is a white-knuckle ride into the unknown for him.”
And, Tennant added, “we worked hard on the thrills and spills.”
The narrative arc of the show was shaped by the route the travelers follow, Pharoah said, traveling east from Europe to Yemen, India, Hong Kong, the Pacific and to the West and East coasts of the United States before heading back to London. (Apart from brief scenes shot in London, filming took place in South Africa, which stood in for the “hot countries,” Pharoah explained, and Romania, which was used for Europe and North American scenes.)
When it was suggested that telling a story set in colonial Britain might be a sensitive issue today, Tennant said that from a 21st-century perspective, “you have to acknowledge it’s not something to celebrate.”
He added: “That’s part of Fogg’s journey I think — realizing that the world he lives in isn’t necessarily the world as it should be. And you have Passepartout looking at it all with a raised eyebrow, another lens on colonial history. I think people will go, this is a time in history we have mixed feelings about.”
Then he grinned, settled back in his chair and looked around the beautiful garden. “But everyone loves a period drama!”