Let’s be clear from the start, Around the World with Orson Welles is not a good TV series. There’s a complete lack of consistency, forethought, and even technical coherency as Welles rambles across a number of European destinations. Over the course of six aired episodes, he makes little effort to show us around the world, as was perhaps originally envisaged when British commercial television station ITV contracted him to produce a series of travelogues. Instead, he engages in drawn out interviews and incomplete musings on seemingly random aspects of local culture; that is when he does anything at all, with several episodes demonstrably short of material.
And yet it remains an incredibly addictive proposition, partly because the sight of Welles cadging cherries off children or responding to hecklers is so bizarre, and partly because he proves, like an eccentric uncle, remarkably entertaining company.
Commissioned at the start of 1955, the original plan foresaw 26 half-hour episodes on an ambitious schedule that would have had Welles churning them out weekly for half a year. In the end, only six were ever completed — and even then not entirely — airing between October and December of 1955. This release from the BFI brings them together, including an episode previously thought lost, an excellent documentary that arose from an incomplete seventh episode investigating a triple murder, and a rare interview with Welles.
Given the truncated nature of the series, the title becomes something of a misnomer. Welles never gets out of Western Europe, only managing to visit four different countries. There are two episodes spent in the Basque region of Spain and France followed by trips to Vienna (the rediscovered segment), Paris, London and Madrid. Even the unfinished murder investigation took place in the south of France.
When he does turn up somewhere, there’s no discernible pattern to his travels, or even the way he chooses to document them. He may conduct interviews regularly, but even here they range from informal discussions with a guide at a local sports event to drawn-out conversations with Chelsea pensioners, and even spiky chat with a friend in which Welles disputes her statement that the Basque people are proud of their past on the basis that they haven’t actually produced anything of lasting impact to be proud of. Not that he’s out to trash other cultures. Welles shows great curiosity and respect for the places he visits, even if his choice of topics to investigate remains left field.
Here’s where it starts to become so fascinating. The topics he focusses on range from regional sport and berets in the Basque area to Viennese baking, cultural pursuits in Paris, Madrid bullfighting and the world of Chelsea pensioners in London. There’s no attempt to offer a broad overview, nor does he provide much in the way of preparatory material. Welles simply turns up with his camera, shoots some footage that appeals to him, and rounds up a few English speakers to chat away as if he’s sat shooting the breeze with friends. He’s just as likely to worry over the declining popularity of Viennese coffee houses as he is to regale the camera with jokes about Romanian cooking and aborted adolescent flirtation at the opera.
If this were anyone else, the whole enterprise would veer dangerously close to tedious, but Welles, in his capacity as one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic cultural figures, adds a dose of unpredictable excitement. Aside from the insight into his own interests, he is, as we already know, always an erudite, engaging speaker. Later years saw him semi-permanently occupy a seat on the chat show circuit.
His mix of humour and intellectual curiosity is mercifully free of the interminable celebrity gossip blighting some of these appearances. Instead, he shows genuine interest in Basque pelota, a popular ball game, or the cooking habits of a group of elderly women living in a Hackney almshouse. In the second of his Basque adventures, he spends most of his time hanging around with the child of a friend, even chatting to the kid when he’s up in a tree fruit picking.
While the amiable raconteur Welles is welcome company, distracted workaholic Welles undermines his own show. Unwilling to dedicate his schedule to travelogues, he quickly abandoned the project to stage a play. Even these six episodes are far from complete. The same footage and narration appears at the start of both Basque episodes.
It gets even worse in Paris, where the episode ran so short that it had to be padded with stock footage of the city, playing free of any narration. He also left his bullfighting trip unfinished, forcing American author Elaine Dundy, and her then husband theatre critic Kenneth Tynan to step in as co-hosts. Elsewhere in the series, there are odd moments of dead air and jarring cuts between scenes that suggest it was stitched together late in the day.
Editing is a problem in general, albeit one that produces some unexpectedly hilarious results. Most of the interviews are shot with a single camera focussed on the subject, yet in the show there are frequent reverse shots of Welles posing the questions. These were very obviously filmed later in the studio. Background noise cuts in and out depending on the shot on screen, while Welles breaks from the questions to address the audience as if the interviewee is suddenly absent, which in actual fact they are. It’s almost like a comedy sketch spoofing TV from that era, especially when it cuts back and Welles is puffing away on a giant cigar.
It doesn’t matter how many tangents he embarks on, or how shoddily put together the whole show is; it never stops being interesting. Like a black hole, once the first episode starts up, attention is sucked in until the series has ended.
There are little treats for film fans, especially the chance to see locations from The Third Man, and the footage of a now lost Europe should satisfy anyone with an interest in the changing world around them, but that’s not really where the magic comes from. This is Welles scattershot career in concentrated form. He gives us beautifully shot footage, especially the bullfight; a wide variety of subject matter, his own calming presence, and an inability to avoid distractions that would see him dabble with spectacular and incomplete results in so many areas. In short, he produced a TV series as only Orson Welles could.