herald

Sunday 19 August 2018

Easy Ride for Billy Connolly

billy connolly's route 66 (utv) too big to fail (sky atlantic)

AS television pitches go, "A British national treasure drives through America in an unusual vehicle," is an old standard.

A couple of years ago Stephen Fry did it in a London taxi. Last night Billy Connolly did it in a three-wheeled motorbike. I suspect that having to motor across the New World in an unusual jalopy is in the small print of many celebrity contracts.

So I'm surprised that Billy Connolly's Route 66 is not mired by a wacky-races style traffic jam in which various elderly TV-darlings beep horns at one another.

"I'm sorry about this," I imagine Connolly saying. "But we're stuck behind Dame Judi Dench in a camper van, Bruce Forsythe on a penny-farthing and Richard Attenborough piloting some sort of hover-car."

Still, even if it's not an original idea, and even if European telly viewers must now know more about the American heartland than most Americans, that doesn't mean that travelling with Connolly isn't enjoyable. Starting in Chicago, he gives us a learned account of that town from the great fire to Prohibition to the present day and then drives down Route 66 into a hinterland of kitsch, culture and heartache.

"If you want to feel like you're in a movie, hit the open road," he says. "You too can feel like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider." Although, to be fair to Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, Fonda didn't drive a motorised tricycle, wasn't almost 70 years old and didn't giggle at the idea of Abraham Lincoln sitting on the toilet ("I can't help thinking of him sitting there with that big hat on," corpsed Connolly, while examining the Lincolns' outhouse).

But Connolly knows his stuff, and more importantly, he's a paragon of relaxed easy-going humanity.

As a result he connects with everyone he meets. He trades pie-recipes with a champion pie-maker, commiserates with the victims of a Tornado as they salvage their property from the rubble, and rides a horse and cart with an Amish farmer who unexpectedly tells him about the accidental death, 20 years before, of his young son. "I still think of it," he said. "I'll bet you do," said Connolly with sympathetic sadness and warmth.

Connolly's exploration of Middle America was much more enjoyable than Sky Atlantic's dramatic expose of its financial system.

Too Big to Fail is an exploration of the US government's bailout of its wayward banking system featuring an impressive cast.

It's essentially The News: The Movie and it's just as exciting as that sounds. Besuited characters (all based on real people) sat at big mahogany tables, took hushed phone calls and walked up and down corridors speaking gibberish and trading sums.

The dramatic peak came when William Hurt (playing Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) strolled through Times Square with a worried expression on his face.

As a drama it made no sense.

There were no interesting characters because everyone was playing a real person, so no-one was allowed to be sue-ably interesting (the only exception was James Woods, who did his best to sneak some malevolent hubris into his performance as Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld).

Sadly for everyone on earth the real-life plot was nonsensical. Why the western world has given vast subsidies to the rich for so little in return is still unclear to me after two hours of expository dialogue.

For dramatic purposes they should really have made something up.

"The financial crisis has been caused," Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti), Chairman of the Federal Reserve, could have said, "by a race of mole people from beneath the Earth!" Then he, Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner (Billy Crudup) could have spent a couple of entertaining hours battling mole people while mounted on armoured fire lizards.

That would have been both far more exciting and far more believable than the boring reality.

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