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March 2010

Travelling Man: The Complete Series

cast: Leigh Lawson, Terry Taplin, Tony Doyle, John Bird, Matthew Taylor

creator: Roger Marshall

650 minutes (15) 1984-5
Network DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Ian Sales

Travelling Man: The Complete Series

In the US, they call them tele-novellas, a format borrowed from Central and South American television. In the UK, we call them serials, although they're often also known as series. We've been making them for decades. These are television dramas which unfold their story over the course of a fixed number of episodes. While individual episodes may standalone, the story, and programme, was planned right from the start to finish with a final episode. The programme does not need to be renewed each year or season. Travelling Man is one such serial from 1984. It was made by Granada Television, and, like many British television dramas, it was written by a single person, Roger Marshall. It was originally broadcast in two seasons of six 60-minute episodes each, from November to December 1984, and September to October 1985.

Alan 'Max' Lomax (Leigh Lawson) is an ex-policeman. Two years previously, he had been found guilty of stealing money in a drugs raid gone wrong, and sentenced to two years in prison. Now he is out and determined to find the person who framed him. During his time inside, his wife left him and emigrated to Canada, and his teenage son ran away from him. The only thing Lomax has left of his former life is narrow-boat called 'Harmony'. So he travels about the UK by canal, looking for his son, Steve (Matthew Taylor), and trying to find out who really stole the money so he can prove his own innocence. He's helped in his quest by Robinson (Terry Taplin), a journalist for a national daily, who believes that Lomax is innocent. There are also assorted women - Lomax is a ladies man - who play their parts.

There's an early 1980s bleakness to Travelling Man. It's not just the Britain it shows on the screen. At that time, city canal-side precincts had not been gentrified or developed, and were mostly rotting industrial slums. Travelling Man does not paint a pretty picture of towns and cities in northern England. The villages, and the stretches of canal in the countryside, are more picturesque. True to his moniker, Lomax does indeed travel... Some episodes take place in London, one occurs in an isolated Welsh village (a little too isolated to be plausible, in fact), yet another on the River Weaver by the Anderton boat lift, and so on... The stories themselves are mostly pessimistic - few of the episodes have happy endings - almost as if they were a deliberate response to Thatcher's 'enterprise culture'. By 1984, the winter of discontent was merely a memory and, although it cast a long shadow, things were not so grim as the programme suggests.

Having said that, the dozen episodes do indeed resolve both of the story-arcs, as Lomax finds Steve, and there is some reconciliation - as Lomax at least persuades Steve that he wasn't guilty of the crime with which he was charged - but afterwards they go their separate ways. And when Lomax does learn who it was who framed him, and then hunts him down... the final result is not what he wanted and the story finishes on an especially black note.

Lawson plays a good part, ably supported by a cast of 1980s' television stalwarts, including a few more familiar faces near the beginnings of their careers - Alan Cummings, Peter Capaldi, and John Bird (who looked exactly the same then as he does now). Having Lomax live on a narrow-boat gives the programme an interesting geographic spread, and it can be as picturesque at times as it is grim at others. Perhaps to modern viewers, the pacing of Travelling Man seems somewhat slow, but it's a well-written drama so that's not especially noticeable. They don't, as they say, make programmes like this anymore. Happily, they're now being released on DVD so we can watch them anyway.



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