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Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World - Mark Jones Interview

Billy Connolly, Journey To The Edge of the World

Compiled by Jack Foley

PRODUCER Mark Jones talks about working with comedian and actor Billy Connolly on Journey to the Edge of the World, which was released on DVD on Monday, March 16, 2009. He discusses the danger that’s inherent in exploring the Northwest Passage, as well as why having a comedian en route helped to maintain morale when the going got tough.

Q. Why did you want to get involved in this adventure / production?
Mark Jones: An opportunity to make a trip like this, coast to coast via the Northwest Passage through the Arctic, comes along maybe once a lifetime if you are lucky. Getting to work on productions like this is what we are all in television for. It was a privilege to visit a part of the world we wouldn’t otherwise see and meet some fantastic people. And to do it in the company of a performer whose work you admire, well, who wouldn’t want to do it?

Q. How did you/crew prepare for this trip? Did you research previous journeys made by other explorers?
Mark Jones: From the start we decided that the itinerary was going to be one of our own choosing; we weren’t going to follow in the footsteps of any one particular explorer. We’d go wherever we found interesting things for Billy to see and do and people for him to meet.

The Northwest Passage, however, was an intriguing aspect of the journey, and gave it its unique quality, but it clearly wouldn’t fill four hours of television on its own, so we were going to be also exploring the Canadian regions of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Nunavet, The Northwest Territories, The Yukon and British Columbia. We knew we were going to be in some fairly remote places which brought with it not only some logistical challenges but also a small frisson of danger.

We would be a long way from help if anything happened, and there were beasts out there that are hungry and think we are quite tasty. With our Health and Safety hard hats on, we had some military survival expert guy come and talk to us about dos and don’ts in the wilderness. We could tell he was very envious of us making the trip but gleefully gave us all the willies in explaining how to deal with polar bears, grizzlies, wolves and all manner of other calamities that could befall us. Gulp!

Q. What criteria did you use to pick the unusual places you visited?
Mark Jones: Before we filmed our production teams went to Canada to recce their sections of the trip. When they returned with all the options of places and people they’d found we had to whittle them down to a doable itinerary. The most important criteria in choosing which places to film are “is it interesting?”, followed by “is it different from the other places we are visiting?”, and finally “can we actually get there and once we’ve got there is there anywhere to stay?”

Q. Considering the number of people who have lost their lives whilst trying to navigate the NWP, did you have reservations/fears yourself before setting off?
Mark Jones: The Northwest Passage is still undoubtedly an impenetrable waterway for much of the year, and even in summer its dangers should not be under estimated. But despite it having claimed so many lives over the centuries, the irony was that we were now going to be sailing it in some comfort aboard a Russian cruise ship.

We had confidence in the crew who had tackled the journey with ease the previous year, but the vagaries of the weather and the sea ice meant that we could never be sure if the ship would be able to complete the journey. Our biggest fear was that bad weather would stop us getting to our rendezvous point at Resolute Bay in time to embark the ship. It would have been very embarrassing if we’d not actually made it as there isn’t exactly any other ship making the journey that we could have hopped aboard instead!

Q. It is quite a gruelling journey. What was the one thing that kept you going?
Mark Jones: It was hard work and some of us had just a couple of rest days in the whole ten weeks, but we were a merry bunch. Quite a few of us had worked together on other programmes and were good friends, so we all got along very well, which is just as well as we had to share rooms and tents quite a bit. Humour is the one thing that got us through it all. Being able to have a laugh with one another was the best way to deal with life irritations. Having an internationally famous comedian in tow is useful sometimes.

Q. Aside from the magical polar bears, what other wildlife did you encounter? Did you see any species that wouldn’t have been seen, but for the passage becoming accessible?
Mark Jones: Wildlife was a bit thin on the ground in the Arctic to be honest. In some of the Inuit settlements, you would see caribou skins and wolf skins hung up outside their houses but we never got the chance to see living creatures. We would certainly have needed the hunting and tracking skills of the Inuit to guide us, but it could have taken days to find animals with never any guarantee of success. It’s time we couldn’t spare unfortunately. Billy was doing a piece to camera at Resolute Bay when a little lemming popped out to say hello. Billy was fearless.

Further south grizzly bears are a constant topic of conversation with most of us half hoping not to encounter one, but also half hoping we would! Apart from the ones Billy saw when he went looking for them with a bear expert, we would occasionally see one in the road before it scurries off. Moose were always a delight to see as we drove around, although we could see why they are one of Canada’s biggest killers; often you’ll drive round a corner and a big gormless moose will be right in the middle of the road with not a care in the world. Hitting one of those at speed doesn’t really do anybody any good.

Q. What was the most overwhelming and humbling experience of your trip?
Mark Jones: It was an enormous privilege to go camping with an Inuit family in Pond Inlet. David and Maggie and their kids took us in their boats for two and a half hours through gob smacking glacial scenery to their favourite place to pitch their tent in the wilderness. When you consider Pond Inlet feels like the edge of the world anyway, perched as it is right at the top of Baffin Island, this was genuinely very remote. We pitched tents in a place of incredible beauty, and while David took Billy off to hunt a seal, Maggie fished for supper with ease; popping the fish eyes out with a knife to eat raw as a delicacy. The seal was butchered right there on the beach and eaten raw even by Maggie’s baby snuggled in her hood on her back; blood and snot mingling on her little face. This was a way of life that has existed for countless generations in this part of the world and continues to this day.

Someone noticed a group of narwhal, the extraordinary dolphin like mammals with unicorn tusks surfacing nearby, and while the production team and crew were looking, as if we had seen a real unicorn, a deafening rifle shot rang out and they disappeared under the water. We saw Disney, the Inuit saw food. It was a freezing night of shivering in our tents, and this was August; but I don’t think any of us would have chosen to be anywhere else at that moment!

Q. What behind-the-scenes secrets can you reveal? Did you guys play any particular jokes/pranks on each other whilst travelling or did anything go wrong?
Mark Jones: In a 10-week trip of this nature thing were guaranteed to go wrong. Cars broke down, and bad weather caused flights to be cancelled and helicopters for our aerial filming to be grounded. One of our cameras got accidentally splashed with sea water somewhere in the Northwest Passage and just completely stopped working for a worrying day or two.

We lost stuff: the production manager lost her credit card that was supposed to pay for everything along the way; we lost several Sat Navs, and a tiny hi-definition camera that we’d bought specially for the trip but it was so small someone mislaid it before it was ever used and it was never seen again.

The Dempster Highway is one of the truly great wilderness roads that links Inuvik in the Northwest Territories with Dawson City in the Yukon. For 450 gravelly miles it weaves a lonely route through spectacular and remote scenery.

You’ll pass very few vehicles on the way, and there’s no mobile phone coverage so breaking down here is a serious business. (One of our vehicles did break down, but that’s another story!). There’s one place to stay, the Eagle Plains motel, almost exactly at the mid-point of the Highway. It’s here you are supposed to fill up with petrol before completing the journey. There’s no gas station for another 230 miles or so. In fact, there’s nothing very much at all, apart from the scenery!

Two of us set out in advance of the rest of the team early one morning as we had to meet with a helicopter a hundred odd miles or so down the road to do some aerial filming before being joined by Billy and the others who were going to be taken by the helicopter into the Tombstone Mountains National Park. Somehow we both forgot to fill up at Eagle Plains and by the time we realised we were running on empty. We’d gone too far to think of turning back and knew we wouldn’t make it back to Eagle Plains.

Our only hope was to try to meet the helicopter as planned and work something out from there. It was a tense drive in silence as we drove on expecting the car to splutter to a halt at any second. Luckily, we found the helicopter and were able to radio back to the others at the motel asking them to bring some canisters of petrol with them. Hugely embarrassing; especially since one of us (no names, no pack drill) had made the same mistake on the recce!

Q. What was it like being on the road with Billy Connolly?
Mark Jones: One of the best nights of the trip was in a small village in Nova Scotia called Chéticamp. The whole village was plunged into darkness in a power-cut and the team were sitting in the dark in a bar, hungry because none of the cookers would work. Billy entertained us with a really funny impromptu routine, and we all laughed so much our sides ached.

We weren’t sure at first how much of the star treatment he expected from us and in one of the bigger airports early in the trip we had arranged for him to be escorted into a VIP lounge whilst the rest of us waited for our connecting flight in an airport café. He lasted about ten minutes on his own as a VIP before he found us and was happier chatting with his new mates.

We stayed in some really nice hotels, but also some quite basic hostel type places. Billy was happy to rough it with the rest of us. He is remarkably fit for a 65-year-old so there wasn’t anything we ever felt we were held back from doing with him.

Q. Do you feel you have come face to face with the effects of global warming during this trip?
Mark Jones: It’s so hard to tell. We were seeing the Arctic in the summer so although there was not much snow or ice around, that’s the way it usually is. The fact that the Northwest Passage is now ice-free for a few weeks is more remarkable.

Q. What tips would you offer to anyone thinking about undertaking this trip?
Mark Jones: Take lots and lots of money; nothing is cheap in the Arctic. But do go if you can; Canada is the most beautiful country. The Arctic is barren and otherworldly; the Auyuittuq National Park gets only 600 visitors a year and is extraordinarily spectacular; the Yukon and British Columbia are both gorgeous. But always remember there are things there that will eat you; it’s not Disneyland.

“Read our preview of Journey to the Edge of the World”: