In the show, which is based on Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, Tennant stars as Phileas Fogg, who after a wager with other upper-class gentlemen, is determined to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. He is joined on the adventure by Leonie Benesch as headstrong journalist Abigail “Fix” Fortescue and Ibrahim Koma as his loyal irrepressible valet Jean Passeport.
In this abridged version of a festival conversation, Tennant talks about the series and his other television work.
When we think that you already played a Time Lord traveling through space and time, there seems to be a logic to see you become Phileas Fogg.
“Although the series is set in the late 19th century, it feels like the version of Around the World in 80 Days for the 21st century. I hadn’t read the book when I read the script, and then went back to read it. It’s of its time, isn’t it? It’s wonderful, but it’s probably not how you’d tell the story now. Phileas Fogg is an interesting character in the book, he’s very inscrutable, rather aloof, he’s got a sort of Zen-like silence about him. Nothing ruffles him, nothing bothers him, he floats above the action, assuming that everything is going to work out, which is very different to the Fogg that [writer] Ashley Pharaoh created for this particular telling of the tale. He’s mired in insecurity and self-doubt. And I suppose from an acting point of view, that was one of the attractions, that you’re playing someone who’s going on this journey for which he is fundamentally unsuited and apparently incapable of achieving. So, already you’ve got a kind of built-in tension there. Obviously, this is a story that’s been told many times and in many different ways and I suppose that’s because it has this out-of-the-box dramatic structure, it’s got this built-in momentum. There is an actual ticking clock pursuing them around the world, so you’ve got that dynamic pulsing under it the whole time. Which is a great place to start for a drama, and then you go to all these exotic locations, and you do it with people who are, by definition, out of their comfort zone. It makes sense that this is a story that we keep revisiting, and I think what Ashley did with the script for this version is he gave it a contemporary spin without taking it out of the time in which it’s set. It has things to say about us now, and we look back on those times, particularly the time of colonial Britain, with an eye that perhaps is different to how it was being glanced at then.”
It’s interesting that Fogg is shown as a lonely man with insecurities.
“Obviously, that appeals as an actor because you want to have the drama as well as the sort of rip- roaring adventure, which is a huge attraction of this story. But you want to do that with characters that mean something, and the foibles of whom will draw an audience in and will make them wonder, is this person even capable of doing this? And yes, this Fogg is an unhappy man, someone who feels like he has not fulfilled his potential and has wasted his life. By the virtue of his privilege, he’s undoubtedly wealthy, he doesn’t need to work, and therefore he doesn’t have to do anything. And therefore, he doesn’t. He just goes to his stuffy club every day and he has the same bowl of brown soup, he eats roasted meat and he will no doubt be hustled into an early gout-ridden grave. Then something snaps, and we meet him on the day where a number of events occur all at once. And because of that, he’s propelled into this journey that otherwise this human being would never have made. That’s interesting dramatically, to meet someone in that moment of crisis, especially if it’s a moment he didn’t see coming. When he wakes up that morning, he has no idea that by that evening he’ll be on a boat to France.”
And when he’s on the boat it’s not natural for him.
“No, he’s not a seasoned traveller. As we find out quite early on in this series, this version of Phileas Fogg has only ever been as far as Edinburgh. This is not a man who is a natural adventurer. So, everything is against him. Luckily, he has two companions that he discovers by accident: Jean Passeport, who he hires in a rush, because his butler at home is a little elderly and perhaps not ready to travel the world; while the Abigail Fix character is not in the book, even if there’s a character called Fix.”
He’s a policeman.
“Yes, he’s a policeman pursuing them around the world to arrest them. That is not who Fix is in this one. Abigail is the daughter of his friend, Fortescue, from the club. Fortescue owns The Daily Telegraph and Abigail wants to be a journalist and to write about interesting things around the world. It turns out that she is planning an article about how it is now possible to travel around the world in 80 days. But because we’re in the late 19th century she has not been given her own byline. She’s hidden under the nom de plume of a male reporter, which of course she’s furious about. So, she decides to come on this journey, much to Fogg’s chagrin, indeed, fury at first. These two very unlikely travelling companions display their tenacity, their bravery, and are the real heroes of the piece. They drag Fogg along, kicking and screaming.”
The character of Abigail Fix is very modern and appropriate for audiences in 2021. It’s very intelligent for the writers to have done that.
“I think so. Yes. It seems almost an obvious thing to make one of our main characters female. It seems rather regressive not to do that in this day and age. But what I think Ashley’s done is he’s not denied the fact that it would be unusual, because it’s still set when the novel was set. So, to have a woman traveling around and writing about this journey for The Daily Telegraph becomes part of the story, so that the sexual politics of the time are investigated. Also, the fact that the brilliant Ibrahim who plays Passeport is a black man, is also something that I think is right and proper in terms of having a diverse cast. Ibrahim is the only actor you’d ever want to play that role. Ashley made sure that is talked about rather than just having that in there as a piece of colourblind casting. So, we look at some of the sexual politics and the racial politics that would have been part of the world at that time. And I think that is the right way to tell that story in the 21st century, not to pretend that the world was some sort of wonderful melting pot back in the 1870s.”
Shooting the series was also an adventure, thanks to the pandemic.
“We shot for about three and a bit weeks in Cape Town and then downed tools. We all went home, as did everybody. We sat inside our houses and went, ‘What is this? What do we do now?’ We had various restart dates. We were going back to Cape Town in May, we were going back in June. Eventually, we went to Romania in October, and then finally got back to Cape Town in January and finished in February. So, it was around the world in exactly 365 days.”
Who was the first Doctor Who you discovered on TV?
“I grew up in the ‘70s, which was Tom Baker’s time, so he was my first but then I was still very much watching with a fervour approaching religion when Peter Davison was the Doctor as well. So, they’re always my two. It’s very peculiar because we’re now sort of related, which still seems very unlikely. If that show gets you, as it gets so many people and as it got me, it takes a peculiar hold on you. There’s something about the magic of it that stays with you forever. There’s something about the brilliance of the central idea.
“I grew up with lots of things that I loved, I loved comic books, I loved Star Wars. But, there was something about the Doctor that was specifically endearing. I think partly because he wasn’t a jock, he wasn’t a muscle man, he didn’t overpower people. I suppose I felt I could identify with that, because I wasn’t the sport hero, I wasn’t going to be smacking people around the head. And I wasn’t going to be firing a gun at people. There was something about the way the Doctor could win the day by being clever, by being witty, by being kind. And I think that’s part of the reason why that character persists and is so beloved and inspires so many people. I mean, the amount of people who are now working in the creative industries who were inspired by that show! I’ve never done a survey, but it feels like it outnumbers people who are the fans of other things.”
We’ve just learned that Russell T. Davies will return to the show.
“I know, right. It’s exciting, isn’t it?”
The show is celebrating its 60th anniversary. The return of David Tennant would be another big thing.
“Do you think? Well, you need to speak to Russell T. Davies. I don’t know where it will go. I mean, where do you go after Jodie Whittaker, who’s been so brilliant and mould breaking. It’s never easy to cast the new Doctor. This is a tough one. But if anyone can do it, Russell can do it.”
What was striking about Broadchurch? Was it that it wasn’t just about the crime, it was about people in the aftermath of a tragedy? It was about people. Do you agree that is the reason it was so touching and gripping?
“Yes. I think as with 80 Days, you need that plotting, you need that drama, you need that momentum. With Broadchurch, a bold whodunit, you have that dramatic momentum. But unless you populate it with characters you can relate to and care about, it’s not going to mean anything. And I think that’s what Chris Chibnall did so brilliantly. He created not just these characters, but he created a community. So, you saw these characters interacting with each other, and you felt like you knew and understood who they all were.
“James Strong, our director, created this kind of visual and audio vocabulary that went with it, which I feel is now being borrowed by every crime drama everywhere – not that James wasn’t stealing a few ideas from the Scandi noir world as well. But, you know, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
“As actors going through it, we didn’t have all the scripts when we started, so we didn’t know where the story was going. We were experiencing it as each new script came along. There was a heated debate on the set about which character was doing what to whom, who was lying, who was telling the truth and what the ultimate resolution would be. So, we shouldn’t have been surprised when that seemed to be replicated. Still, I don’t think we were expecting the reception. It just took off and by the time episode eight came out it seemed to be talked about everywhere. It was something that captured the imagination, that captured the moment – but again, it’s down to the script. Actors can make a mess of a good script, but they can’t make a bad script good. So, you’ve got to start with that kind of writing by people like Chris Chibnall, Russell T. Davies and Ashley Pharaoh.”
Around the World in 80 Days will screen on Channel 7