Years ago, there used to be a television programme called Swiss Railway Journeys. Judging by the response I get when I ask people: “Do you remember Swiss Railway Journeys?” the only people who ever watched it were me and Dr Sheldon Cooper, but believe me, it was great. There was no commentary; no irritating voice-over droning on about stuff you already knew, or weren’t interested in. The train started; then about an hour later, the train stopped. In between, it was just you, the train and the glorious Swiss scenery. You could almost taste the Toblerone.
I’ve got about 900 channels these days, but I can’t find Swiss Railway Journeys on any of them. However, all is not lost, because British Airways has come to my rescue.
The world’s (former) favourite airline has just introduced the sort of in-flight entertainment that appeals to people like me. On long-haul flights, passengers can tune in to a seven-hour-long film showing a Norwegian railway journey between Bergen and Oslo. Nothing but the train, the track and hour upon hour of snowy, Scandinavian superlatives. Frankly, I’m thinking of buying a ticket to Kuala Lumpur just to be able to see it.
British Airways says it is showing The Seven Hour Train Journey to Oslo because staff noticed how many passengers were riveted by the moving maps it provides, where you can check on information such as the progress of the flight, the cruising height, wind speed, et cetera. I completely understand this. In fact, my ideal plane journey would be to look out of the window while the pilot keeps me constantly updated with precisely what’s below me. I’d happily look at nothing but clouds, if someone was explaining that the Maldives were under there somewhere.
The seven-hour journey programme is part of a genre called “Slow TV” and if it’s a success, a BA spokesman says the airline is considering providing other “hypnotic and calming”, “wallpaper-style” programmes, like “knitting, a walk in the park, and everyone’s favourite – bird feeding”.
I can see how this could be a hit, and not just with people who are so terrified of flying, they’d rather pretend they were anywhere except on a plane. The only nagging doubt I have is that, ideally, if I were going to Kuala Lumpur, I’d like to experience the actual journey to Kuala Lumpur. My favourite thing to do when travelling is to gaze out of the window, just enjoying the passing sights, or slowly losing myself in reverie. This has never been a problem, unless I’m driving. Unfortunately, in this case, I’d be torn by wanting to see both the real world outside the aircraft, and the great railway journey inside.
I’m forever telling my eight-year-old to get his nose out of his Nintendo DS and look out of the bleedin’ car window. (Then why did you buy him a DS? I hear you ask. Well, it’s complicated, but yes, guilty as charged, it had something to do with stopping him saying “Are we there yet?” every 30 seconds.) I miss the old-style in-car games where you had to pay attention to the journey, or you wouldn’t spot a yellow car (20 points), or a purple car (30 points), or the all-important, game-winning white Volkswagen Beetle (because that was Herbie. Oh, the summer of ’75.) Now I’m a parent, I realise that these games were expressly invented to stop anybody saying “Are we there yet?” But at the time, I enjoyed them, and it makes me sad to think that not only will my son never play them, he’ll also have no idea where the heck he’s been.
Then again, perhaps the lure of the screen is the key to informing and educating all those people who don’t want to look out of the window. The Norwegian tourist board has been extremely clever in distributing this film of the Bergen-Oslo journey. Now, thousands of people who never had any intention of going to Norway will be on their British Airways flight to, say, Mexico, and unexpectedly find themselves spending seven hours of their flight marvelling at the breathtaking beauty of the Land of Nul Points.
By staring, rapt, at the screen for seven hours, these travellers will certainly miss out on the topography of Texas, but chances are that the moment they touch down, they’ll be planning their next holiday to Scandinavia. So, what’s to stop VisitScotland from doing something similar?
How about a film of the West Highland Line, from beginning to end? OK, it might not take seven hours on a good day, but if you factor in all the request stops, summer stops, and the 15 minutes to divide the train at Crianlarich, I’m sure we could eke it out until it would be an acceptable entertainment on at least a medium-haul flight. Or, for real Slow TV, how about a leisurely walk around Fair Isle? Or seven walks around, and around, and around North Ronaldsay?
The sort of people who prefer to pull down the blind on their plane window and do nothing but stare at their little monitors have always driven me mad, but perhaps now there’s a way to show them the world, even though they’re doing their best to ignore the fact that they’re travelling around it. If I could somehow put the car journey from Edinburgh to Fort William on the tiny screen of my son’s Nexus, I bet he would lap it up, even if the real thing was passing him by at 60mph.
VisitScotland could even take things a step further and attract tourists by using some of our capital’s landmarks to create an interactive game to play on long-haul flights. We could call it Princes Street in August and all you have to do is get from Haymarket to Waterloo Place, without colliding with a tram, or anyone handing out leaflets, in less than seven hours. It’s exactly like being there.