7 Questions with… David Tennant and Ibrahim Koma: 'It’s quite hard to convince a camel that you’re right and it’s wrong'

Around the World in 80 Days stars David Tennant and Ibrahim Koma take time out from their travels to answer our questions on the BBC's adaptation of the Jules Verne classic.

By James Descombes Published: 29 November 2021 - 4.43pm
BBC Around the world in 80 days key art

Inspired by an article about the exciting advances in travel, Phileas Fogg takes on an almost impossible wager – to circumnavigate the world in 80 days. The thing is, Fogg has spent the last 20 years in a comfortable leather armchair at The Reform Club. Thankfully, alongside female correspondent Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue, Fogg has his valet, Passepartout, a street-smart, quick-witted and brave Frenchman to assist him along the way.

David Tennant and Ibrahim Koma tell us about the BBC’s new eight-part adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days.

1. What was it about Ashley Pharoah’s scripts and this version of the story that made you want to get on board?

David Tennant as Phileas Fogg BBC

David: I think with any script, you approach it with as open a view as you can. Episode one was very exciting to read, and I read it quickly and wanted to know what happened next. Those are all the things you’re looking out for when you’re hoping that something’s going to be exciting and a possible new project.

The first episode, which was all I read initially, rattles along and is a real mission statement for what the series is going to be. It’s very exciting. The characters are very much Ashley’s version of those characters; they’re quite different in many ways to Jules Verne’s original version.

What Ashley has done is create a trio who are an addition to the original source material. They work really well and send you into this extraordinary adventure.

Ibrahim: As an actor, when you’re given a script to read, the first thing I look for is the character arc. Is the character going to be interesting to perform? Of course, when I read Ashley’s adaptation of Around The World In 80 Days I was overwhelmed.

Before I had even finished reading the first script, I knew that it was beautifully written and I had a strong sense that the rest of the story would be just as good. I was already playing the character in my head as I was reading it, so I was very excited to be involved.

2. How does Fogg’s relationship with fellow traveller Passepartout evolve? 

Ibrahim Koma as Passepartout BBC

David: Passepartout becomes Fogg’s valet on his journey. This come about as Fogg’s butler Grayson, who he has lived with for many years is a rather elderly chap whom Fogg blithely assumes is going to come with him until it’s pointed out to him that he hasn’t left the house in twenty years. So, he applies to Fritton’s agency for their finest manservant. Passepartout intercepts that message and decides to present himself for the job.

Within minutes they are setting off to Paris on the first leg of their journey. There’s not really a particular exhaustive interview process; it all happens slightly by accident that they are thrust together on this journey.

Luckily for Fogg, Passepartout is resourceful and has a dash of courage and anarchy which Fogg lacks. Not that he would know it as they set off for Dover, he has, by sheer luck, ended up with someone who will be invaluable on his journey around the world.

Passepartout and Fogg very much start out as master and servant in a very old-fashioned 19th century way but inevitably as they go through all the ups and downs of this extraordinary journey their relationship becomes something else.

They form a bond and they become fairly necessary to each other. Certainly, Fogg couldn’t manage without Passepartout. Passepartout could probably manage without Fogg.

Ibrahim: At the beginning of the story, I would say that Passepartout doesn’t really like the kind of people who sit in The Reform Club, talking about a life that they don’t know and judging people. He doesn’t see them as men but as spoilt kids with too much money.

As we delve deeper into the story, we realise that Passepartout and Fogg begin to like each other. Through that emerging friendship the barriers between them begin to break down. When he finally discovers that Fogg is essentially a good person, he realises that they have something in common. They are similar and I think that’s how they get to appreciate each other.

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3. What were your impressions of the production values on the series?

David Tennant in Around The World In 80 Days BBC

David: Our production designer, Sebastian did an incredible job of using the various locations to the best advantage possible. Usually on a series of eight episodes, you’ll return to the same sets fairly regularly but of course the very nature of this story is that it’s a travelogue.

Therefore, in each episode we’re in a different country and they have to look new and foreign. That’s part of the journey that Fogg goes on; it’s one of mystification. He’s in all these places he’s never even dreamed of before and he’s seeing the world in all its splendour. It’s dazzling and different and new and alien to him and Sebastian has realised it all so magnificently.

In all the sets we were on it boggles my mind to think of the attention to detail and the amount of work that went into the construction before I even turned up. Now and again, there’s a bit of computer trickery just to give it the scale here and there. All of that is beautifully working together under the gaze and guidance of our production designer, creating this living, breathing world of a few hundred years ago. It’s very exciting.

Ibrahim: Even though we knew they were just sets, it really felt at times that we were in another century. The sets were very beautiful. Sebastian added all these smells to each of the sets so that you really believed that you were in these exotic places.

There were the smells of the animals and spices so you were able to get that real experience. It was better than I ever imagined and I was so impressed with the production values.

4. Ty Tennant joined the cast for the New York storyline. How excited were you to be working alongside your son for the first time?

Phileas Fogg BBC

David: Ty Tennant is my 18-year-old son and he arrived in Bucharest toward the end of the shoot. We’d never acted together until this so it was a first for us as a family. He’s been doing lots of other exciting things but in this he was playing a bit of a thug. In episode eight he had to try to take down Fogg in a New York warehouse so there were lots of family dynamics being played out that day! It was a great experience as I’ve been really looking forward to working with him.

5. Fogg has to ride a camel into the desert – what was your experience of working with the camels? 

Camels in Around The World In 80 Days BBC

David: I had ridden a camel once before and that was quite a sleepy camel. The camels on this series were mostly well behaved. I like riding a camel and you feel quite safe up there, until the camel decides otherwise and then you’re not. That’s when you realise that this thing you’re on is incredibly powerful and you are a mere gnat to it, sitting on its hump.

They were rather wonderful but every now and again I would be rather humbled and reminded that they were very much in charge. I’ve probably had just enough camel for the time being, which I imagine is probably how Fogg would feel. At first, Fogg is thrilled to be on the back of a camel. He never dreamed that life would bring him to such a place.

Yet, of course, quite quickly things descend into horror for him. I wouldn’t say it was quite the same experience for me. There was one morning though when the camels didn’t really want to play. They decided they’d had enough and it’s quite hard to convince a camel that you’re right and it’s wrong as it turns out. They don’t really understand the shooting schedule and the necessity of completing the day and why should they? They’re not in Equity!

Ibrahim: Camels are very special creatures. In a sense they’re actors as well – you really need to take care of them. They want to come on set and know who they’re going to be working with. They’re the stars on the set. They cannot be separated from each other because they have separation anxiety. If you try and separate one from the other, they will cry for the whole day, which can be impossible to listen to.

6. Can you give us a short list of the countries that Fogg and Passepartout travel to in this series?

Passepartout in the desert BBC

David: We start in London, go to Paris, travel across Italy and get to the Suez Canal, which takes us to Al Hudaydah. From there we go to Bombay in India then on to Hong Kong, then a detour to a desert island before being rescued and taken to America. Travel across American to New York then Liverpool and end up back in London.

7. What will appeal to a modern international audience about this adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure? 

Phileas Fogg, Passepartout and Abigail Fix BBC

David: This is a timeless story and one of those tales that everyone feels they have a handle on. It’s a story that has lived down the generations and hopefully what people will experience with this version is that sense of journey and adventure and the unknown. There’s lots of exciting action and adventure to keep you hooked that brings you back each week, but it is really those personal character stories that unfold that these scripts capture.

Ibrahim: I think what will appeal to a modern audience is the dynamic between Passepartout, Fix and Fogg and how they deal with life and the issues and challenges that come their way. Like modern day, those challenges can only be dealt with by trusting the people around you and it’s important to give everyone a chance. Everyone can relate to that. I do hope it’s going to be really well received because there is something for everyone-we have action and humour, so I think people are going to really appreciate that combination, especially families.

Around The World In 80 Days is coming to the BBC during Christmas 2021.