Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oliver’s Travels

Oliver's Travels

Question: What does a lover of books and word games do when she's stuck on the crossword and too tired to read? Answer: Watch an episode of Oliver's Travels , available on DVD.

After being made redundant from his job as a university lecturer, Oliver, a man obsessed by trivia, jokes and the mighty anagram, and a two-time question setter for Mastermind, decides to go on a journey to meet his favourite cryptic crossword compiler, Aristotle, with whom he has corresponded for years.

Soon after setting out, he encounters an intelligent and feisty policewoman, WPC Diane Priest. She does him a favour, and in return he offers to solve any outstanding local mysteries. She suggests that of the farmer found floating face down in the river. Oliver, a great lateral thinker, comes up with a plausible if outrageous explanation, and he and Diane stumble into a web of murder and corruption, aided by the clues they find planted in newspaper crossword puzzles.

As their joint quests – solving the mystery and finding Aristotle – take them north, they pass through a stunning landscape and meet a host of fascinating characters: an insecure and officious university chancellor and his 'wife Norma' (anagram: Fire Woman); an oracular maintenance man; a tramp who claims to remember the Restoration dramatist, George Farquhar, 'in his little coracle'; the jazz-loving 13th Baron ('Dizzy blew in here!') Kite and his insignificant other, Sara ('but I'm his bimbo, really'); a stonemason who fondly remembers Jimmy James, Hutton Conyers and Bretton Woods; a knock kneed pigeon toed geologist; an elfin computer hacker; a motel owner who talks with his ghosts; and, of course, the sinister Mr Baxter who follows them wherever they go.

Like all good journeys, the joy is in the travel: the people they meet, the stories they share, the jokes they tell. Oliver's favourite joke is about frogs; his second favourite, about the horse that liked to sit on eggs; and his third, about a man walking in the forest, naked except for a bowler hat. He tells the latter when posing as a lay preacher to a small evangelical Scottish sect.

Absolutely incorrigible and utterly defensive, Oliver uses his quick wit to keep people away. Diane, his chosen and predestined companion (thanks to an anagram of 'Diane not Priest'), sneaks in through the chinks to become an energetic, passionate and grounding counterpart.

For all the jokes, overt and otherwise, the series is bittersweet. It is tinged with the sadness that often accompanies middle age. Oliver and Diane are both affected by marriage breakdown; minor characters have experienced grief, failure, and other losses. While the characters reflect on religion, class and inheritance, the series as a whole is about paying homage: to the past, to one's family, to one's gods (in Oliver's case, Beethoven, Lester Young, George Farquhar and Aristotle), and to each other.

This is television by, for and about intelligent, mature, good-humoured people. Like a good joke, it can be relished again and again. This particular intelligent, mature, good-humoured person likes to watch it late in the evening with a cup of tea, and the thought of some Chocolate Digestives.

(Oliver's Travels was written by Alan Plater. It features Alan Bates as Oliver, Sinéad Cusack as Diane, Bill Paterson as Mr Baxter, and a host of wonderful supporting actors too numerous to mention.)

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