Former Practical Caravan editor and Van Life author Nigel Donnelly picks out some must-see caravan and motorhome films and TV programmes to enjoy while we’re in coronavirus lockdown
Being cooped up at home and cut off from any touring adventures, the best you can hope to do is to inspire yourself. Plainly, Practical Caravan will deliver in this respect, but reading a magazine or browsing a website is not the most sociable activity. Ideally, you want to find some inspiration on the TV so that the whole family can get involved.
There are hundreds of inspiring travel films and documentaries but if you want to find ones with self-catered motor vehicles at their heart, the choice soon slim down considerably.
The depiction of caravans and motorhomes in popular culture is broadly comic, and in truth, vanlife in all its forms is a rich source of comedy.
As you might expect, given American dominance of popular culture, most media which does exist centres around RVs, but there’s a handful which celebrate the role of the touring caravan too.
We’ll start with a couple of classics. There were two Carry on Films that prominently feature life outdoors. 1969’s Carry on Camping is the best known, which covers off a lot of main stereotypes of campsite life, including a money-grubbing site owner, bad weather and so on. Carry on Behind from 1975 was actually the one with caravans in it, and was supported by the PR department of CI Caravans who recognised a unique chance to expose their mid-70s tourer line-up on the big screen. Both are available to watch on Amazon, but Carry on Camping is more expensive – likely due to the fact it is a better film. Either is yours for less than a fiver.
The Likely Lads film from 1976 also features caravan holiday mishaps, including Bob and Terry crashing into the back of their own Sprite on a garage forecourt, having set-off from site with ‘the wives’ asleep in the back. It’s very seventies, very silly but very watchable. And ideally, it can be rented and watched immediately on Amazon Prime video for less than four quid. The very fact that they are towing a caravan with a Vauxhall Chevette (equivalent to today’s Corsa) really dates this. You couldn’t carry most awnings in a modern Corsa without overloading it. Four adults and caravan in a Chevette!
More contemporary laughs can be had with 2012’s Sightseers, which sees a newly-attached couple’s caravan break take an unexpected turn into a murderous tourist rampage. It’s funnier than it sounds, but it’s not really one for watching the kids. Unless they are really keen on late-1990s Abbey tourers, in which case, this is must-see. Again, if you only want to watch it once, it is yours on Amazon Prime for £3.50. It is a comedy horror film, though so approach with caution.
There are a few TV caravan highlights worth looking out for too. A celebrated episode of Father Ted from 1996 entitled ‘Hell’ details a claustrophobic weekend in a tiny ramshackle caravan and features a guest appearance by Graham Norton as a priest with a fondness for Irish dancing. The episode is the first episode in series two of the celebrated sitcom and happily, you can watch it for free on 4 On Demand. No excuse not to tune in.
While you are on 4 On Demand, you can also dig out the cringy classic ‘Caravan Club’ episode of The Inbetweeneers. It has nothing to do with ‘The Caravan & Motorhome Club’ but everything to do with lewd sex jokes and loads of toilet gags. Much like the recent episode of Friday Night Dinner (The Caravan) which is also on the same platform, it doesn’t portray caravan ownership in a particularly positive light, but it may raise the occasional smile and doesn’t cost anything to watch
At the other end of the scale, US-medical drama Grey’s Anatomy put swoon-worthy surgeon Patrick Dempsey in an American Airstream travel trailer to add a little mystique and crank up the sex appeal. Interesting choice. Surely a set of scrubs and looking like a film star should be enough? Regardless, selected seasons of Grey’s Anatomy can be watched on Sky/NOW TV, but if you want to see all 16 seasons. it’s Amazon you need.
If you stretch the coverage from caravans to include motorhomes and RVs and you get a really good documentary travel films in addition to the comedy.
Magic Trip (2011) documents a 1964 LSD-fuelled journey to the New York World Fair in a psychedelic school bus called Further in an adventure felt by some to herald the start of the counterculture era. The same bus also features in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. If you are child of the sixties, it may be relatable, but for the youngsters among us, it is more of historical piece about how incoherent documentary-making is when there are too many drugs floating about. It pops up on Netflix from time to time, but if you are keen to take it on, Amazon can help immediately.
More relatable to non-hippies is Austin to Boston – a 2014 documentary telling the story of five Type 2 Volkswagens, each loaded with musicians who tour across the US from the SXSW music festival to Boston and all their stops and breakdowns along the way. This is broken up with gig footage along the way and is pretty fun to watch, but it is not a great advert for relying on classic Volkswagens to get you anywhere. Check Netflix as it pops on and off there, but Amazon has it available if not.
Also on a musical, documentary theme, New-wave rockers Squeeze made a name for themselves from the mid-seventies onward, but the path of rock stardom does not necessarily run smoothly. Front-man Glenn Tilbrook embarked on a solo tour of the US in 2006 and acquired an RV in order to cover the miles. It broke within minutes, but the story is a great way to crush an hour or so and remind yourself that Squeeze did some great tunes. Better than that, the whole thing is on Youtube and can be watched for nowt One for the Road.
For something that is a little more about the pure pleasure of travel, the 2017 documentary Expedition Happiness follows a German couple on a journey from Alaska to Argentina in a converted school bus with their dog, Rudi. The story of the conversion kicks things off, but the reality of travel soon takes over, with plans changing as the reality of life on the road kicks in. It’s available on Netflix.
Of all the films, few capture the appeal and essence of vanlife as The Leisure Seeker. This 2018 film featuring Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren tells the touching story of a couple who run away for a final adventure in their Winnebago Indian RV after Sutherland is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a comedy, but plainly deals with some pretty heavy issues. Keep a box of tissues handy to dry those eyes. At least it is currently available on Netflix for subscribers.
If you fancy something a little lighter and more knockabout with a motorhome at their core, there are plenty of options. RV (2006) puts Robin Williams and his screen family offers a fairly predictable look at newbie motorhome adventures with lashings of top-drawer silliness. Meet the Fockers (2004) also covers off some of the lighter elements of RV life in some style, with Robert De Niro embarking on a road trip to meet up with son-in-law Ben Stiller’s family at the other end of the country.
Paul, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, about two guys who go on an RV trek through the Arizona desert looking for UFO sightings in the hope of picking up an alien. It’s not very high-brow viewing, and you’re unlikely to fancy a bagel afterwards. If you’ve seen it before, you’ll know why.
And, if you’ve watched all these great films and still got time on your hands, why not take advantage of this excellent reader offer? Enjoy a 40% discount on Nigel Donnelly’s book Van Life, as well as Road Trip and Build Your Own Motorcaravan. Got to Haynes.com and use the discount code code PCPM40 to claim your fantastic discount!
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The depiction of caravans and motorhomes in popular culture is broadly comic, and in truth, vanlife in all its forms is a rich source of comedy