Though you could never tell by looking at my book tour schedule for Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, I had a curious stop-off — London, England — slotted between book events in Kansas City and Chicago. I went there to record voice-over narration for “American Pilgrim,” my first-ever hosting gig for the Travel Channel.
Upon arriving at Heathrow Airport after a KC-Chicago-London transit, I was met at the arrivals gate by a burly Nigerian driver in a pinstriped suit, who chauffeured me via Mercedes to the London Olympia Hilton. That was about as glamorous as the experience got; after that it was all jet lag and hard work.
In fact, not only was it all work, for the most part I didn’t really feel like I was in England. Because it happened so quickly, I felt like my sound-recording experience could have just as easily happened in an underground bunker in Indiana. Apart from a couple of pub meals and a few rainy glimpses of London’s Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush neighborhoods out the window of my producer’s Citroen, I didn’t see much of England. Such is the reality of trans-Atlantic business travel. Indeed, after years of preaching (and practicing) slow travel, it was quite the jolt to try and experience a major world city in 48 work-filled hours.
Travel conditions aside, it was great to catch up with director Peter Wisdom and producer Jamie Broome and go into the studio to put the finishing touches on my debut TV hosting gig. Thanks to these guys, I had very a supportive and professional TV experience — both in shooting the episode in the United States in mid-August, and editing it in London several weeks later.
Though I mentioned in my last post that my journey into the world of television was due in large part to the Travel-Channel success of “qualified insiders” like Anthony Bourdain, I don’t think my Pilgrim show is going to make Bourdain nervous for his star status anytime soon. I mean, sure, my Thanksgiving-themed special looks great on the screen (and I did a decent enough job in front of the camera for a first-time presenter) but the subject matter simply isn’t hip and cutting-edge enough to, say, garner me sacks of mail from adoring female fans who want nothing more than to send me Polaroids of themselves in bikinis. Instead, this history-show about the travel conditions of the Mayflower Pilgrims is more likely to garner me mail from middle-aged male history buffs who take issue with my pronunciation of words like “Massasoit” and “Pokanoket.” In fact, as well-produced as it is, my show is a very old-school documentary rendering of American cultural history, to the point of being a tad sentimentalist in places.
And that’s just fine with me, actually. Instead of trying contrive something uber-hip out of my usual subject matter (vagabonding-style indie travel), I got to cut my TV teeth on a subject that — while fascinating to me — is not tied into some essential notion of who I am or what I’m supposed to represent. If I have any misgivings about the show, it would be (a) TV isn’t the best venue to communicate deep context or nuance (and hence it was hard to show how, while intrepid, the Pilgrims could really be intolerant jackasses sometimes); and (b) though we spent a day and a half shooting Indian perspectives on the Pilgrims, the initial edit didn’t contain much Native American point-of-view (though I’ve been assured that several minutes of Indian interviews were added in a second edit).
As for the sound-dubbing itself, it was actually a really cool process. I sat in a sound-proof booth across a window from my director, who cued me on when to lay in the narration, and how to give the words the right emotive energy. I’ve never worked with such high-tech equipment before, and it was wild to hear my own voice so crisp and resonant in the headphones as I tried to capture the right energy level for each section of the program. Sound editing is done by computer these days, and I could watch as the technician snipped little visual sound-wave chunks of my narration and placed them seamlessly into the show.
After a day and a half of this I was just getting over my jetlag and keen to get out and explore London — which was a shame, since I was due back in Chicago for more book tour events in less than 24 hours. So it goes!
If you watch the Travel Channel, keep an eye out for the debut of “American Pilgrim” on Thanksgiving weekend.