You've probably seen his penis several times, so how much better can you really know Ewan McGregor? And do you even want to? Assuming the answer is "maybe", the magic and mystery and majesty of reality tv has provided us with a window into how some seriously hard travel can affect the man, with only tangential mention of his willy.
Long Way Round is a six-episode television series (with companion book and soundtrack) chronicling the adventures of Mr. McGregor and his good friend Charley Boorman as they attempted to ride around the world on motorcycles in the summer of 2004. The concept is simple; the execution not so. Departing from London and terminating in New York City, their route was approximately 20,000 miles long and carried them through the countries of France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia again, Canada and the United States. As one cannot ride a motorcycle across the Bering Strait given the current state of the polar ice packs, an airplane was involved in making the continental leap.
The majority of countries listed in the above itinerary are fully modernized and feature lovely roads with luxurious pavement. However, the majority of the territory covered does not, and in much of that land one is lucky to find a dirt track betraying the passage of humans and/or their motive technologies. Ewan and Charlie had to prepare and to prepare mightily.
First issue on the table: how to fund the endeavor? The pair wisely decided to capitalize on their fame (or, really, Ewan's fame and Charley's... lesser fame) and document their experiences for television with the expectation that all expenses would be, at least, recouped. A production company was set up (complete with office and assistants) and television producers (David Alexanian and Russ Malkin) were brought in to handle the logistics.
One doesn't get far on a motorcyle trip without motorcycles, of course. Very hardy, heavy-duty motorcycles would be required for the inevitable off-road conditions and the pair went in search of donations. Both BMW and KTM were approached, as they both manufacture appropriate bikes, but BMW eventually won when KTM decided the trip was too dangerous and the likelihood of failure far too high. Terribly poor marketing decision there.
Ewan and Charley subjected themselves to high-impact physical training, a Russian language course, a hostile environment survival course (which featured lessons on how to avoid gunfire), a first aid course, motorcycle maintenance classes and off-road cycling training to get them used to righting the extremely heavy bike-and-supplies combinations after inevitable falls. Meetings with the consulates of the various countries traversed were held to gather information and the necessary visas and permits with varying degrees of success. A team of Russian diplomats tried to gently, yet condescendingly, inform the duo of the sheer vastness of Russia and a consultant from KTM did his best to throw the fear of God into them regarding the perils of the journey. Ewan and Charley were not to be dissuaded, however, by such practicalities.
Ewan and Charley were not traveling alone, however. Television does not erupt out of nothingness like flies from rotting carcasses. As such, a cameraman was hired (not without difficulty) to ride along on a third bike. The selection process was a bit more thorough than a simple interview, as this guy was going to be out in the wilderness with Ewan and Charley for four months... in short, they had to like him and he had to be up to the task. Other than the third rider's principal photography, extra footage would be collected by cameras and microphones in the riders' helmets, cameras mounted on the bikes and hand-held diary cameras wielded by Ewan and Charley themselves. The production team would not be sipping tea in London and checking in by satellite phone, either. They were piling into SUVs and trailing Ewan and Charley across the globe, though the intention was to meet up only at border crossings for the necessary paperwork and in case of emergency.
Finally, the bags were packed and they were ready to go. Four months of gruelling, prostate-crushing travel stretched out before the team, and off they went to Adventure.
Long Way Round is, overall, an excellent program. It hearkens back to the great adventure tales of old (many of them also starring subjects of the Queen), and is an incredibly engaging portrait of two friends experiencing a life-changing event. Despite my facetious invocation of reality television at the top of this essay, this is some good stuff; primarily because it dispenses with many of the more risible conventions of the genre. Long Way Round makes no pretense about being a television show. The entire first episode tracks the formation of the production team and the preparation, mental, physical and material, of the journey and the production itself. The show is not merely self-aware or reflexive, but rather simply honest about its media nature. There is no engineered drama here, no careful selection of a sexily antagonistic cast of stereotypes to carry the otherwise deadly-dull premise. This is a show about two good friends undertaking an exciting and dangerous adventure, and that, in itself, is enough.
Ewan McGregor is an extremely engaging personality largely because of his apparent lack of affect. In Long Way Round you will see him elated, frightened, depressed, in pain, stoic and any number of other states. His friend Charley provides unflappable optimisim, even when he tears shoulder muscles after attempting one too many lifts of his motorcycle.
I can find two primary faults with Long Way Round, neither of which are serious enough to dampen my enthusiasm. Firstly, the use of music in the program is inelegant. Popular music tracks are dropped in, seemingly haphazardly, in what feels like a pure exercise in selling a soundtrack. Simple removal, or subsitution, of this music would eliminate nearly all traces of a connection to the lesser "reality" programming vomited into the broadcast spectrum these days. Secondly, the series is far too short. Four months of travel, 20,000 miles of hard riding, is compressed into six one-hour episodes. Massive amounts of material has been elided and I can't help but feel that we, the viewers, are missing out on a simply tremendous amount of the story. In this age of DVD, I can only hope that when the American discs are produced they contain a wealth of what's missing.
Long Way Round is much more an entertaining documentary series than a so-called "reality show". If it is successful, perhaps it will steer more television producers into finding compelling stories that can be told in documentary, rather than assembling yet another cast of vapid models for twenty four episodes of pathetic competitions, manufactured conflict and engineered faux-drama. Enjoy.