Just back from my first ever visit to the island of Taiwan. After the hiatus caused by the production difficulties on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote I needed to make plans for some other outlet for my general restlessness. I needed to get back on the road. My friend and series photographer Basil Pao lives in Hong Kong, less than two hours flying time from Taiwan. Come and see it for yourself he said. You’ll be surprised.
A small island making cell phones wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for my first long-distance trip in a couple of years, but I like a challenge, and I’m glad I took it on. Taiwan is fascinating. Half is an international workshop and half is a huge and rather beautiful national park, with great trails through high mountains and spectacular forests (in which some of the trees have been standing since before the birth of Christ).
If you’ve time to dawdle, the street food is superb and if you’re in a hurry, a high-speed train can take you almost the entire length of the island in two hours. And where else would you find a bird called the White-Whiskered Laughing Thrush? I told it some of John Cleese’s old material and it flew off.
I’ll give a fuller account of my adventure (hopefully with some of Basil’s pictures) when I’ve had time to digest an exhilarating week in the country the early Portuguese explorers christened Formosa “the beautiful island”. Meanwhile here are a couple of snaps taken on the road. A selfie of yours truly taken at the top of a mountain trail (around 2,500 metres) and a view of the rather idyllic Sun Moon Lake before the tourists boats are out.
Having recently been described in this week’s Radio Times as “a relentlessly cheery Yorkshireman”, I bought a new coat and a pair of shades and took myself off to Paris to show that I’m in fact a cool and moody existentialist.
This disguise, modelled below in the Tuileries Gardens, certainly wouldn’t have impressed anybody in my home county. A couple of years ago I was crossing West Street in Sheffield, wearing what I thought was a pretty stylish Armani shirt without a collar, when two burly locals passed me. One nodded at me, nudged his friend and I heard him say : “ ‘Ello, bourgeois are back”.
My Paris trip, to stay with well-travelled writer and photographer Michael Katakis, also served to kick-start the travelling bug (sorry about the mixed metaphor). This summer, after finishing my stint as Molotov in The Death Of Stalin, I was to be seen at riding lessons up in Trent Park, reciting Spanish in Gospel Oak, learning lines on holiday in Majorca, and generally trying to get myself prepared to tilt at windmills.
By mid-September it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to be getting into Don Quixote’s saddle this year. With The Man Who Killed Don Quixote postponed I was able to follow up on some documentary ideas, all of which would take me to parts of the world I’d never seen. Can’t say more at the moment but it looks as if I’ll be dusting off my boots and checking the date on my anti-diarrhea pills in spring next year.
Though I was only in Paris for 24 hours the change of scenery worked wonders. In amongst all the fuss about Hard Brexit (which sounds like something you’d complain about at a hotel reception) and the delusion that foreigners are somehow bad for us, it was a delight and pleasure to walk the streets of this most civilised city and be reminded that enjoying doing things differently is not bad, it’s essential.
I’ve just completed my last day’s shooting on The Death Of Stalin. When I first brought Vyacheslav Molotov to life David Cameron was Prime Minister, Roy Hodgson was manager of England and The United Kingdom was a leading member of the European Union.
That was less than six weeks’ ago. Since then the back-stabbings and coups and plots and counter-plots in British politics have made Stalin’s Soviet Union seem awfully close to home.
And across the Atlantic the strutting Trump, tossing out solutions to his country’s ills like candy to children, would surely have found more than a few things in common with Uncle Joe.
But it’s across the Atlantic that I look with some relief and some hope for cheer in these times. Not the north Atlantic, but the south. In three day’s time the 2016 Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro.
When I was last there in October 2011 there was a great feeling of optimism in the country. Brazil was booming and stadiums were going up, not just in Rio but all over the country, for the double whammy of Football World Cup and the Olympics. Since then the Brazilians have had a very hard time indeed. Corruption scandals have rocked the government and the once invincible soccer team has been crushingly defeated on its own turf. The Zika virus has proved a hellish extra problem for them to deal with. Then the worst blow of all. Rory McIlroy decided that he wasn’t going to the Olympics.
I have such happy memories of Brazil that I look forward to the Olympics enormously. What I wrote about and saw in Brazil nearly five years ago still gives me encouragement. Though superficial circumstances have changed, Brazil remains a potentially rich country, blessed with abundant natural resources. It’s not a warlike nation, it’s people are predisposed to enjoying themselves on the wide beaches and in the generous sunshine.
Brazilians on the whole are tolerant of others and will be warm and hospitable hosts. They love a party, they love a bit of public celebration. Music and movement are in their blood. Despite all the gloom and doom, I can’t wait for the ultimate sporting carnival to begin.
June is going out with a groan. As I write there are people in the street with scarves and umbrellas, head down against the wind. And then there’s Brexit which seems to have encouraged some very unpleasant people to put the boot in on anyone they think foreign. As a traveller who has seen a bit of the world and received the hospitality, welcome and friendship of so many people in so many countries, I find the sight of racist abuse being dealt out by my own countrymen utterly repulsive. It must be immediately and roundly condemned, and the bullies charged under the law.
At times like this I look round for some good news. And it’s there if you look behind the headlines. England’s pathetic performance in the Euros is more than made up for by the national Rugby Union team’s whitewash against Australia and the comprehensive walloping of Pakistan by our women’s cricket team. Not to mention the pretty effortless superiority of our men’s team against Sri Lanka. “I told you not mention that” I hear Spike Milligan say. And, at the time of writing, Andy Murray’s still in Wimbledon and there’s the AbFab film to look forward to.
After a few lessons I’m feeling more confident on the saddle as the Quixote film looms. But before that, July means Russia 1953 and my Molotov moustache.
There, I feel better already!
Travels, anniversaries and deaths seem to have filled the last two months. The losses first – Ronnie Corbett, immaculate timer of comedy lines – on a par with Cleese – Prince, who I didn’t know a lot about until the obituaries rolled in and who I now know I should have caught up with much earlier. And Victoria Wood. That was a real shock. She had the great skill of reflecting our lives back at us, and making us laugh at ourselves in the best way possible. I always felt better after watching anything she did. And though she had many reasons to do so, she never played the big star. She quietly observed life, took it all in and gave it back to us with warmth and humanity, and above all, loads of laughter.
Two weeks ago, my missus and I celebrated fifty years of married life. A triumph of inertia, I always say, to avoid getting too sentimental. But to any married couples reading this I would recommend staying the course if you can. You find that almost without noticing, you’ve shared so much, and no-one else will ever share that much with you again. Two lives, inextricably entwined, encompassing the bad times and the good times is quite a storehouse. And by the end of the next week I’ll be 73, which sounds awfully old, but in my head I’m still in my twenties. Which is even more worrying!
I’ve been on the move. Not far. To Copenhagen to open an exhibition of paintings by Wilhelm Hammershoi, an artist who came to me completely out of left field, but who is now one of my all-time favourites. In fact I’m hoping to get to Copenhagen again to see the impressive Hammershoi exhibition at the equally impressive Ordrupgaard Museum, before it closes in June.
I spent 24 hours in North Wales interviewing Jan Morris the writer for a 90th birthday tribute to be shown on BBC2 later in the year, and after that I was lucky enough to have cause to visit one of my absolute favourite cities, Dublin, to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from University College. Very generous of them to give me such an award, but I always feel that being given a Lifetime Achievement Award is kind of like saying “Right, that’s it. That’s your lifetime”. I mean you never hear of anyone being given a second Lifetime Award.
But if I am now in my second lifetime I’m certainly going to make the most of it. As the month of May rolls in, watch this space!