Alan and Jeremy do the South Pacific

webpostcardComing Home to BanabaImages and quotesTranscriptThe Making of …

(Prepared for Alan Marlow’s Open University retirement party, August 2020)

In 1997 I was a producer at The Open University Production Centre. I decided to make a documentary about a remote Pacific Island for the OU course “Pacific Studies”. It was to be a story about colonial exploitation, WW2 occupation and devastation, forced exile to Fiji, and environmental disaster. We would join a ‘Homecoming Trip’ of people who had lived in Banaba as natives or phosphate miners. The 2000 mile ‘Trip’ began in Fiji; we joined it in Tarawa.

For more details and images see my website at:

To keep costs within the limited budget, I asked for volunteers to come with me as camera/sound person: it would involve a 3 week trip working for 24 hours a day with no overtime and limited expenses. My risk assessment ran to 12 pages and was subsequently used by BBC Training as a model! The Union agreed (well, I was on the Branch Committee!) and there were two volunteers. One of them I wouldn’t have taken to Bletchley; the other was Alan.

The programme Alan and I shot is still valued and used by the Banabans as an account of the 1997 Homecoming Trip and of their people’s history. Of all my work at OUPC it is the programme I found most rewarding, both in the making and in it’s reception and widespread use.

Alan was a brilliant companion and an utterly professional cameraman throughout our very memorable experience. Alan proposed using entirely digital video equipment for the trip – a first for OUPC, and possibly for the whole BBC. It turned out to be an excellent choice, mainly because it was relatively lightweight. We took two cameras (“his” and “mine”) and as little kit as we could get away with. The only technical problem we had was when Alan’s camera shut down for 30 minutes because it got too hot – the temperatures were always well up in the 30s.

Here are some photos of Alan in action (TRIGGER WARNING: bare legs):

The best hotel in Tarawa – but not as good as it looks! Alan became The Driver, as I had forgotten to bring my driving licence.
The Homecoming Trippers reach Tarawa. Also on the plane were Sir Peter Ustinov and crew filming a travel series following R.L.Stevenson’s trip along the Equator. “You’re not filming me are you?” Ustinov asked. “No, Sir” I replied and immediately wondered why I was being so deferrent. “I don’t know what I’m doing here” Ustinov went on, “bloody silly idea.”
Ex-British naval guns on Tarawa – owned and installed by the Japanese during WW2 to fire at the invading Americans.
Luxury cruising for 48 hours. Shameful lack of shaving!
One of several welcoming gatherings on Banaba.
Another gathering. Me with a fan, looking knackered; Alan looking tired but relatively compus mentis (and shaven). The other man was one of the trippers – I’m still in touch with him 35 years later!
Banaba’s landscape was completely wrecked by British/Australian colonial phosphate mining, which started in 1900. There used to be a village and palm groves at the level of the tops of the coral pinnacles you can see here. The phosphate-rich soil (from guano) was dug out from between the pinnacles, processed, and shipped to Australia and New Zealand.
Phosphate mining ended in 1979. This is one of the industrial plants left behind. There is machinery all over the island, just left standing when the miners decamped.
We had some rain – a very rare event. Ever the scientist, Alan explores whether the water going down the plughole really does rotate the opposite way in the southern hemisphere. I can’t remember the result, but I think we were too near the Equator for a definitive answer.
The old lady with the bag was born and lived on Banaba before being removed to Fiji in 1945 with all the other Banabans. She told us she wanted to be buried on Banaba: she died weeks later in Tarawa on her way back to Fiji. Our programme is dedicated to her memory.
Alan is contemplating another 48-hour boat ride to get back to Tarawa …


… on this catamaran. It had had several engine failures on the way out.