Enough cannot be said about the virtues of slow TV, programming that forgoes traditional ideas of a narrative in favor of leisurely gazes at the ordinary. Unhurried and unassuming, these unconventional documentaries are an antidote to the cacophony that often fills our screens. The most notable of these programs is Norway’s firewood burning marathon, an hours long event that had bewitched viewers contemplating the minutiae of firewood. Most recently, BBC has latched onto the trend with its thus two-part All Aboard! series. The show invites those with an abundance of patience and an appreciation for natural beauty to experience unique and tranquil journeys, both familiar and far out.
I watched the recent Christmas special, The Sleigh Ride, about a pair of reindeer herders trekking across part of the Artic Circle, before I watched The Canal Trip, which aired half a year earlier. And while the tundra boasts captivating vistas, the recent cold snap in Hong Kong, where I live, left me wary of embarking on my own frosty, -40 degree adventure. The Canal Trip, however, offers a sunny alternative and worked like a tourism advert for the Kennet and Avon Canal in southern England. An uninterrupted two-hour ride, the movie takes you down a small section of the route, from Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct.
One distinguishing feature of slow TV is the lack of narration, and this show’s only soundtrack is a raw compilation of nature sounds – water gurgling beneath the boat, wind scrambling through reeds, birds chirping in mid-flight. In fact, the very aim is to approximate, as well as a television program can, the experience of floating down the canal on a quiet Saturday mid-morning, not with your best girlfriends or your college flatmates, but with a book, a desire to clear one’s mind, and maybe a significant other with whom you can share long bouts of silence.
Far from lazy programming – the show is ostensibly a single camera mounted atop a boat, I found The Canal Trip to be television in fine form. This is one where less indeed turns out to be more. Absent typical narrative intrusions, the canal and its environs become characters of their own. As the boat winds eastward, you see snatches of hidden life. The city park gives way to expansive fields and isolated farms. Every once in a while, a village comes into view, next to a picturesque stone bridge that stands steadily as cars flit across. And like a light aside, embedded graphics about the canal’s history and ecology fade in and out but always in the most unobtrusive way. It’s not a fantastic leap, if you watch this with a sense of purpose and not as white noise, to imagine yourself perched at the bow, absorbing the rustic beauty.
What I most appreciate about the All Aboard! series, and this show in particular, though is the way the visual and aural space sweeps past the television screen. If you needed permission to let your mind wander, this is it. Stillness leaves so much ripe for imagination. After an hour or so, I noticed that the water rippled out like a giant thumbprint and that the sound of mini waves hitting the boat was like that of wet batter being slapped around a mixing bowl. I peered curiously into the windows of certain houseboats; there was a beaten one with fraying tarps moored next to a gleaming one with a new blue paint job. Then I wondered why there was so little traffic and, when there was a backup on the waterway, how one might navigate it. Confident there were measures in place for this very issue, my eyes drifted back upwards towards the crisp sky, occasionally clouded over by an English grey. Surely I should start every weekend with a journey this subdued.
Prod: Clare Patterson
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four