There’s a familiar figure standing at the check-in desk next to mine, conspicuous in a long leather coat and a bespoke blue suit.
Tokyo-bound, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is booked in ANA’s business class and has scored an upgrade to first. The power of celebrity.
We shake hands and say hello just in time to hear my upgrade request being rebuffed. So much for power by association.
“See you on the other side then,” he says. And with that, he’s gone.
Fourteen hours and £2,000 worth of excess baggage later, I’m helping the two-man film crew unload boxes of equipment from the luggage belt. Laurence is aghast. “Don’t get involved. They’ll only expect it next time,” he warns.
Later that evening, Laurence and the crew meet with director Richard Heeley and researcher Deborah McCarthy, who have been in Tokyo for the past three days to confirm shooting agreements.
The script is dissected and locations discussed: scenes are planned at the Imperial Palace a Kendo martial arts school the fish market and a camera shop, and that’s just for starters.
“I’m a bit worried Richard is basing the film on the 1974 Blue Peter holiday,” muses Laurence.
When I meet them the next morning, director and star are bickering like an old married couple. The Kendo sequence is the first bone of contention. “I wouldn’t have done it personally,” argues Laurence, “but I gather you like lots of sweaty men hitting each other with sticks.”
Richard defends the decision, citing its cultural significance in Japan, its popularity and its filmic quality. “And the man we’ve found to interview has a nice smiley face.”
A sequence at a traditional Japanese bath house also gets the thumbs down. “Just not elegant,” according to Laurence. Body shots aren’t part of his contract so the bath house doesn’t even make it to the cutting-room floor.
The squabble, with its frequently hilarious – and mostly unprintable – putdowns is all part of the editorial process. I get the impression it could go on all day were they not under pressure to get some film in the bag.
First up is the Imperial Palace, for a scheduled introductory piece to camera. Simple enough, but various factors conspire against them. A helicopter buzzes overhead, ruining any take in the process. Crowds of tourists crop up in the background, then a security van.
Just when everything clears, a white zeppelin hovers into view. Getting a 30-second piece done takes about an hour.
It’s all par for the course, according to Richard. No shoot runs smoothly, which is why a local fixer is always engaged. Sometimes fees have to be paid, and local laws need to be adhered to. For example, none of us is sure whether it’s legal in Japan to film out the back of a moving van with the door open, so it’s done rather surreptitiously, pausing while we rumble past the police station.
As for getting everyone out there in the first place, that’s the job of the researcher, plus a host of tour operators, tourist offices, airlines and hoteliers.
“Our budget comes from the licence fee, so we have to be careful about how we use it. Everything is paid for, but we get media rates,” says Richard.
“We have to maintain editorial integrity, so even if an airline provides a cheap flight, we’ll still mention other carriers in the report.”
Lost in translation?
Bewilderment was going to be the theme of this programme.
“Initially, I thought I’d be walking around like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, but it’s not turned out like that,” says Laurence.
“Maybe it is for Americans, but for well-travelled Europeans, Japan isn’t as scary and mysterious as it might once have been.”
The question is how to translate that thought to the screen. It’s hard to establish in a short feature whether Japanese culture has become diluted by globalisation – and whether that’s a good or bad thing.
Yodobashi Akiba – a multi-storey mecca for all things electrical – was supposed to illustrate Japan as an alien, gadget-obsessed nation. But aside from the rows of automated toilet seats and bizarre exercise equipment – electric rocking horse anyone? – there’s not much we haven’t seen before. Laurence is concerned the sequence won’t ring true.
What transpires is a debate that sounds like it may never end, but eventually results in a slight change in tack. Uncharacteristically, he seems relieved and gives way to some sincerity.
“It’s important we get this right. It’s the first show we’ve filmed since we heard we were being axed and we want to go out on a high.”
It’s the first time anyone’s mentioned the ‘A’ word. For all their banter, it’s clear they are passionate about getting it right.
Despite his constant baiting – “Would you like ketchup or mayonnaise with the words you’re going to eat later?” – he goads Richard on one take, there’s a mutual respect between presenter and director.
“Richard’s real skill is in pulling it all together at the end,” concedes Laurence. “I know he wants to get some James Bond-type stuff in there and that will make an impact. We’ve only got nine minutes to play with, so I’ll give him Kendo. I’d have preferred flower arranging.”
When they come to film the much-discussed Kendo sequence, Laurence takes one look at the black-clad warriors screeching and hitting each other with sticks.
“And how exactly does this differ from Monty Python?” he asks. From then on it’s difficult to keep a straight face.
Laurence is convinced the demise of Holiday does not mean the end of the road for travel for the BBC. The programme regularly pulls an audience of about four million and 18% of the market share for its slot.
That prime-time 7pm slot is in demand. However, Holiday is having to make way for the channel’s new One Show, a nightly local affairs programme hosted by Adrian Chiles, presenter of spin-off show The Apprentice: You’re Fired!
Nor have we seen the last of Laurence. Appropriately enough, he’s working on a programme about dandies, as well as reporting from the Royal Academy summer show for BBC2. He’s also redesigning Blackpool illuminations. “My dream job,” he declares.
If Laurence cares half as much about lighting up the Lancashire resort as he does reporting for Holiday, they’ll have a display to remember.
It all began in more innocent times. Holiday 69 was the title, Cliff Michelmore the presenter and Torremolinos the destination.
Today, 38 years later, the name is more streamlined but the concept is the same: present a short feature on somewhere exotic and make it accessible to everyone.
Countless faces have presented the show, from Joan Bakewell to Craig Doyle to Jill Dando.
With just about every corner of the globe covered, it’s now time for the show to bow out.
“Holiday has been hugely successful over the years and very influential on how people plan their leisure time,” says BBC 1 controller Peter Fincham.
“However, the way people plan their holidays is changing and we are looking for new ways of featuring travel across the BBC.”
The last episode of Holiday will air March 2007.
- Read director Richard Heeley’s Tokyo blog