Somewhere in south London, Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull are sitting in a sky-blue pedalo on a greenish municipal pond, gazing at an inflatable globe. Together, they’re trying to work out the longitude of an imaginary island to which they have just travelled (yes, in their pedalo!) and, to be frank, it’s all a bit baffling. As anyone with eyes can see, they’re in a suburban English park, not the north Atlantic. (“Westward, ho!” shouts Seagull, pointing in the direction of… where, exactly? I’m going for Nunhead, or perhaps East Dulwich.) But it’s also rather touching in its way. The only other presenter I can think of who would not be utterly embarrassed by such a charade is Lucy Worsley, though she would doubtless have disguised herself as Emma, Lady Hamilton, before boarding her stately vessel.
Actually, Monkman and Seagull do indulge in a spot of dressing up in this series (18 May, 9pm), a travelogue inspired by the geniuses of the Industrial Revolution (they were in London to visit the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, home of John Harrison’s marine chronometer of 1759, the first timekeeper to allow a navigator accurately to assess a ship’s longitude). In part one, they donned frilly shirts and false moustaches to impersonate Nevil Maskelyne, the astronomer who was the first person to measure the Earth’s mass, and Joseph Priestley, the chemist who discovered oxygen (or, as he called it, “dephlogisticated air”). Mostly, though, they’re in mufti, which in their case means a shirt and tie, items they wore even when overnighting in a mountain bothy. Did Monkman, in fact, sleep in his tie, up on that Scottish hillside? Who knows. But the sight of him trying to squeeze his sleeping bag back into its sheath the following morning was really something: he was St George, and it the (lightweight, polyester) dragon. Wrestle the beast to the ground, Eric, and watch your glasses while you’re at it!
Monkman, who is from Ontario, and Seagull, who’s from Newham, met when they each captained teams on University Challenge in 2017. Since then, alongside academic careers, they’ve parlayed their famously cheery nerdishness into a nice little line in radio and TV. As a double act, they bring to mind Morecambe and Wise, though obviously they’re somewhat less funny. Their manners, like their clothes, are quaint, which makes them seem older than they are (both are in their thirties). But they’re weirdly juvenile, too. “Which would you rather fight?” Seagull asked Monkman, as they drove their blue Mini down a country lane. “One hundred duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?” Monkman took the question very seriously, not even allowing himself to be distracted by the Haribo in the glove compartment. “One horse-sized duck,” he said finally, after a period spent gazing at the horizon.
Their route comprises a kind of greatest hits of British science and engineering: in Cromford, Derbyshire, they visited Richard Arkwright’s cotton mill, the first to have its shuttles powered by water; in Birmingham’s Thinktank museum, they saw a James Watt steam engine, later performing a bizarre interpretive dance to demonstrate its revolutionary mechanism – quite how the nice Brummie blokes watching on didn’t collapse into laughter, I’ll never know. It was as if Raymond Baxter and Michael Rodd (kids, these two were the redoubtable presenters of Tomorrow’s World back in the day) had suddenly joined Pan’s People (kids, this was a campy troupe of… oh, never mind).
The show’s budget appears to be on the tight side. Pitching up in Oxford for a ride in a hot air balloon – it was from Christ Church Meadow in 1784 that pastry chef James Sadler successfully flew up and away – our heroes were told it was too windy for safe flying; the coffers apparently not allowing for an overnight stay, it seemed they could not come back another time. Disappointment flickered across their faces. But then they clambered into its basket anyway. If you can sail the high seas in a fibreglass pedalo, you can float high above the Cotswolds without leaving the ground. Vroom! I thought of two small boys in a driveway, happily pretending to drive a parent’s stationary car.
Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Adventures
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show