First published 7th September 2010
I was expecting something quite different from Channel 4’s ‘My Family’s Crazy Gap Year’ last night, but then again, what should I really have expected from a family travelling with a national television channel camera crew? Parents who never fully satisfied their desire to travel before the kids came along, now dragging the reluctant teenager to corners of the globe he’s never thought of, or had any desire to visit before? Pretty much. But of course the producers come along and insist on a theme of world education and cultural experiences for the children to cherish forever. There we go, that’s much more audience-friendly.
We’re introduced to the Willmott family with a sweeping view of their 6 bedroom country house and the fact that their unforgettable journey will start off with a business class flight to India, not the most normal start to a gap year then. Thoughts of carrying your every possession in your back pack and washing out the same cup each day doesn’t spring to mind for some reason.
We quickly learn that the whole trip is mum’s idea, and that the comfortably wealthy husband will provide whatever she wants him to, including business class flights and 5* hotels for everyone, just in case the poverty and cultural differences of Mongolia get too much. But how could it when they have TV producers arranging every encounter for them? Anyone who has been travelling for any length of time will know that unless you’re able to plan your exact route and schedule before leaving, then arranging transport and finding somewhere to stay each night is a lot more stressful than anything else, especially if you don’t speak the language or particularly know where you are, let alone have Internet access.
Watching the show and hoping to get inspiration for my own travel plans I was severely disappointed, not only with the lack of footage of the incredible destinations the family visited, but the behaviour of the family themselves, or should I say the mum in particular. Yes, that’s right, the one who wanted to go travelling in the first place. On her second day in India we see her demanding a personal appointment with the Dalai Lama, ensuring the success of this by marching past ill, elderly people who are waiting patiently to see if their journeys on donkeys have paid off, even the security were pressurised into escorting her directly to him, just so that the teenage son could later state the experience didn’t mean that much to him.
My Family’s Crazy Gap Year Credit must be given to the kids though, as kids do they adapted well to challenging environments which tested their health and stamina. Herding cattle on horseback to eating boiled lamb which had been slaughtered in front of their eyes were all taken in their stride. Mum on the other hand was of course hiding away from it all, finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that meat does in fact come from live animals.
Next we see the Willmott’s go in search of an Indigenous tribe living in the rainforest. When the plan to do this was mentioned at the start of the show I couldn’t help thinking of the ethics of this: a group of people who have lived their whole lives without technology, western influence or any idea what a television show is were now going to be what I can only think of as the equivalent of invaded without intension of violence. Their undisturbed and remote lives were to be ruined by a woman’s curiosity to hunt them out and put them on display for her children.
Upon approach to the tribe the youngest of the boys shared his nervousness that they could be watching their boat there and then, ready to attack their invaders, which you’d think would be fairly accurate. We then learn that the tribe are regularly visited by western academics and conveniently have a camp set up along the river bank, in perfect view of the camera crew hoping to find them. Perhaps I’m being too judging here, but the whole scenario felt extremely staged and set-up to meet the demands of mum, especially after the family enquire about the estimated time the tribe will return to camp, when we hear ‘we’ll try and get them back tonight’, meaning someone has just been sent into the rainforest looking for them to tell them to stop what they’re doing and come back to be filmed.
In this location especially it comes to light just how little travelling the Willmott’s are doing and how much chauffeuring they are experiencing instead. We see the daughter of the family teaching the tribe’s children how to use a shipping rope, five minutes later twenty more skipping ropes have appeared out of nowhere for them all to have a go, and something tells me she hadn’t brought spares in case this scenario arose.
Overall I believe the experience for the kids was a good one; any opportunity to travel shouldn’t be overlooked and hopefully their gap year will inspire them to do some more travelling when they’re older when they can go alone and experience the true travelling lifestyle of organising everything for themselves (if dad can help himself from hiring another few drivers that time). As for the parents, I’m not so convinced they did learn how little relevance luxurious hotels have, especially with the few seconds of home-footage we saw of the daughter playing in a 5* swimming pool at one point, and how much relevance appreciation for other cultures has to an experience like theirs. Travelling is about learning how to live in environments that are strange to you with the belongings you have on your back. I’m not sure how small camera crews, producers, drivers and researchers can fold up between sleeping bags and mosquito nets.