He explored Sherwood Forest ... and now explores the world (sort of)


When I first started writing about the iffy concept of cable-TV, some of the first stories were about "Explorer."

The show began in 1981, at a time when made-for-cable shows were rare and cheap; at first, it simply bought and packaged world documentaries. It went from TBS to Nickelodeon (a couple of the earliest channels, created in 1976 and '77) to MSNBC and then found its natural home, on the National Geographic Channel.

The show vanished for five years, returned ... and is now making an ambitious transformation. The new version debuts Monday (Nov. 14) and reruns Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

If you grow up in
Robin Hood turf, you might start to think anything is possible.

For Richard Bacon,
it has been. After a string of successes (and one scandal) in England
and some sputtering in the U.S., he now has his big moment – taking
over as the host of “Explorer.”

“I think this has
turned out to be the best thing in my career,” he said.

Here is a show that
began three decades ago. It's been hosted by an actor (Robert Urich),
singer (Tom Chapin), filmmaker (Lisa Ling) and even an actual
explorer (Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic).

And now it returns
with the best spot the National Geographic Channel has – 10 p.m.
Mondays, with the first six weeks tucked neatly after the epic “Mars”
series.

“Explorer” will
go from here to Timbuktu ... literally. In the opener, stories range
from a Timbuktu librarian (who rescued books and artifacts from the
al-Quaida) to funerals in a town in Indonesia.

The latter custom
“involves keeping their dead around for a number of years before
they bury them,” Billie Mintz said. Then “they have a ritual in
which they sacrifice lots of animals for the funeral.”

For Mintz, reporting
the story involved a 52-hour journey (three planes and a tricky
mountain drive) and other obstacles. “I've never had the fear of
slipping on blood before.”

Coming up are some
stories that are thoroughly serious, including the harsh training of
British teachers to spot terrorists. “You've got a 4-year-old who
said the word 'cucumber' wrong,” Francesca Fiorentini said. The
“teacher thought he said 'cooker boom' and the kid gets
interrogated for an hour.”

And some stories
that aren't nearly as serious, including a beer pipeline in Belguim,
leading to less-dire fears. “If there's a spill,” reporter Jena
Friedman said, “a couple ducks will get drunk.”

Bacon's reaction to
that story? “Any facility that gets beer to people quicker, I'm all
in favor of.”

That's part of his
function, to be serious when the story calls for it – including
interviewing activist Erin Brockovich in the opener – and light
when it doesn't. His background prepared him for both.

Robin Hood was
fictional, but “Sherwood Forest is very real,” Bacon said. He
grew up in Mansfield, alongside it. Just down the road were
Nottingham and a 12th-century castle of King John; in the forest,
kids would imagine that an ancient tree was one where Robin Hood
lived.

This was a place
where they could dream big things; “I just found it intoxicating,”
Bacon said. As a teen-ager, he was on BBC Radio Nottingham; at 21, he
became host of “Blue Peter,” a kids' TV show ... then was fired
18 months later, when a tabloid paper showed him using cocaine and
pot.

That was almost half
his life ago. At 40, Bacon comes across as a stable chap – married
for eight years, with two kids, ages 5 and 2 – who also has a
strong sense of fun. He's hosted a huge list of TV and radio shows in
England and moved with his family to California.

That's the same
risky move that's been made by other Englishmen, including James
Corden. “James and I came in the same week,” Bacon said.

Corden promptly did
movies and became CBS' late-night hot; Bacon merely scrambled.

He landed an
on-location interview show right away, he said, “but it took me a
lot longer to get my (work) visa straightened out than I thought.”
The show vanished.

Mostly, he kept
landing work back home. “I was commuting from Los Angeles to
London.”

Now he commutes from
L.A. to NewYork. In a new studio, he has a new version of an old
show.

One of the first big
cable shows, “Explorer” began in 1985, 15 years before the
National Geographic Channel was born. It's been on five channels,
disappeared for a five-year stretch, returned last year, and now has
transformed into a hugely ambitious, weekly show. “It has a bit of
everything,” Bacon said.

Hosting it seems to
be almost as much fun as Robin Hood's job ... and, perhaps, a lot
less dangerous.

-- “Explorer,”
10 p.m. Mondays, National Geographic; opener (actually at 10:01 p.m.,
Nov. 14) reruns at 1:01 a.m. and then Friday at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

-- Each of those
hours is preceded by the “Mars” opener (9 p.m. Monday) and its
reruns..