Synopsis: One morning, Danny Wallace decided to start his very own country. Little did he know it was a decision that would take him tens of thousands of miles across the globe, meeting world leaders, inventing laws and becoming a King. He meets Cardinals, Princes and the man who owns the moon. He travels to Italy, Denmark, America and the UN. He tries to enter the Eurovision Song Contest, make all crime illegal and, with an army of loyal citizens backing him up, he strives to create the nicest little country in the world… As seen on the BBC, join Danny as he gets his face on a stamp, his flag on a pole, and embarks upon the feelgood journey of a lifetime!
eyelights: the premise. the humour.
eyesores: Danny Wallace’s lack of logic. the end result.
‘How to Start Your Own Country’ is a six-part humourous reality TV series that was produced for the BBC in 2005. It follows British comedian Danny Wallace as he travels the world in an attempt to start his own country and have it recognized internationally.
I stumbled upon it at my local library. Although it was never released on DVD in this region, their bookstore had the UK edition for cheap. Intrigued by its central conceit (after all, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to have their own country), I picked it up.
Not only did I know nothing about the show, I had never heard of Danny Wallace before either. It turns out that he has helped produce ‘The Mighty Boosh’ and has written a number of books, including an auto-biographical one on which ‘Yes Man‘ is based.
At first glance, Wallace didn’t have the allure of credibility: on the cover of the DVD, he looked like a goof, with his lame haircut, stunned expression and faux-regal garb. If anything, it made you want to slap him across the head, not turn to him for territorial emancipation.
The series soon solidifies that impression. While I did initially chuckle at some of his antics (such as “invading” a small island with the help of his security guard friend), his judgement soon came into question, leaving me to wonder if he was playing or being the fool.
Endemic to the series appears to be Wallace’s inability to understand the complexities involved with being your own country, such as borders and resources. For instance, after declaring his flat a country, he ignores that it’s on British soil and that all his livelihood come from there.
He’s hardly independent. In fact, should the UK agree to his terms of secession, he would immediately have no money, running water, electricity, food, security, …etc. He would be extremely vulnerable until treaties were signed with the UK to allow him to use their resources.
The fact that he is either ignorant, chooses to ignore these issues, or makes simplistic and convenient conclusions that merely serve his show, quickly lost him any admiration. Even if the show is done as a joke, he would have needed to tackle such serious matters more directly.
Otherwise, the whole show feels false, and it doesn’t really motivate one to watch how his quest unfolds unless one sees it as a one long prank. But, even pranks need to be clever, and this one is any but that: as he confronts authorities, at no point does Wallace seem prepared.
His (mock) ambition is his sole weapon.
The show follows him, documentary-style, as he travels about, but it also inserts material apparently shot on his webcam, as he muses about the problems he’s facing in his quest. He also shares with us his creative output as he tries to define what his country shall be.
While the formula is adequate, it seems as though the show itself is gasping for material, leading Wallace to consult with U.S. gun owners to decide if his citizens should carry weapons or having him enter a theme song for his (unnamed) country in the Eurovision competition.
These are completely redundant and contribute nothing to the show or his quest, especially since in many instances he already has his mind made up – so why consult at all? It really does give the impression that producers were trying to flesh out the programme in some fashion.
Having said this, for all its flaws, ‘How to Start Your Own Country’ does have a significant number of highlights.
- I was fascinated to hear of Sealand, off of the coast of Britain, in the North Sea. It was a waterborne fortress built for the war, and 40 years ago some guy took it over. It’s stayed in the family ever since and they’re officially an independent state. Wallace went to visit, and the sight of this cement platform held up above the water on two pillars was really strange. I mean, who would live there willingly? Adding a first touch of humour to the show, Wallace introduced himself to the Sealanders in a hilarious fashion.
- We meet Dennis Hope, a United Statesian who has laid claim to the moon and has sold 412 million acres of it, so far, to people around the world through his company, Lunar Embassy. I couldn’t help but wonder about his sanity (or shrewdness!) and the gullibility of the customers. It’s a pretty great scam and/or novelty. But does anyone actually take this seriously?
- I loved seeing Wallace invade Eel Pie Island, because it was a silly prank to me and I found it amusing to see people’s reaction to his lackluster efforts to lay claim to their land.
- It was terrific seeing the people at design studio Pentagram put together a package for Wallace’s coat-of-arms, flag and motto. They took the work very seriously, but were clearly amused. The results are actually splendid; I would have been pleased with their work. Sadly, Wallace never picked their best designs, which contributed to my doubt about his judgement and ability to pull this off.
- Wallace goes to Celebration, FL, USA, the supposedly friendliest place to live. As he visits, he high fives people as he passes them, just to check how they’ll respond. Yep, you read right: that’s his gauge. The place is very orderly and has tons of rules, including the colour of one’s blinds. At the very least it looks peaceful and quiet, if a bit dull.
- He also visited the self-governing state of Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, which was interesting because it’s essentially a large commune that looks very ghetto, squalid and filled with dubious characters. It was less inspiring, and begged the question of whether or not it was a properly functioning community.
- Wallace visits with Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County, AZ, USA, law enforcer who proclaims himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff”. Apparently a controversial figure, he comes off as a bit of an unethical jerk-off with a tendency for prisoner abuse. I just couldn’t believe that someone like that could keep their job.
As the series wears on, Wallace’s quest becomes progressively less believable and, by the last two episodes, completely falls apart; nothing he does is remotely credible or conducive to reaching his goal. It became very difficult to be enthusiastic about watching the next episode.
Ultimately, if ‘How to Start Your Own Country’ had been funnier or wackier, it might have been a fun little show despite its credibility issues. However, it’s only mildly amusing. This leaves us to dissect Wallace’s lackluster attempts. But hardly anything he does survives scrutiny.
This is not at all how one starts one’s own country. I wish it were this easy.
Dates of viewings: July 13-20, 2015
The DVD is filled to the brim with a bunch of extras that will no doubt delight Wallace’s devotees and citizens of Lovely. For starters, there are the requisite outtakes, of which there are plenty for most episodes, but there are also behind the scenes footage of the making of the music video, karaoke videos and picture galleries.
The most substantive of the lot, however, is a show called ‘Citizen TV’, which was broadcast online after each episode (I’m not sure if it was on the BBC website or at the official http://www.citizensrequired.com website). This was basically a 20-minute show hosted by Wallace in his flat, providing updates and news about his new country.
Over the course of the six episodes, Wallace spent a lot of time reading emails from his citizens, taking calls from them and answering questions as best he could. His improv skills were better used here than during ‘HTSYOC’, and you could frequently hear his crew laugh in the background as his interactions produced silly results.
Some of the highlights were a call from the Dennis Hope (episode 1), getting a live musical accompaniment from Sig and Wag (episode 2), another micronation calling in to be recognized by Wallace’s country (episode 2), getting a caller to swear allegiance on speakerphone (episode 2) and reintroducing his Minister John Bond (episode 3).
By episode 4, he was announcing his country’s Poet Laureate, discussing having a prison in his country with his Minister of Home Affairs (they considered his bathroom since it has a lock), announced his Goodwill Ambassador, and unveiled his official portrait. By episode 5, he replaced his Minister of Foreign Affairs on the air.
It was fun to see him exchange with his “citizens”, and proudly showed off some gifts that had been sent to him (such as knitted toilet paper roll covers and mittens), made one lucky person a millionaire (in the country’s official currency, the IOU) and engaged them enough that his country surpassed many smaller countries in the process.
The final episode of ‘Citizen TV’ was much shorter and consists of a pre-recorded intro by King Danny, after which we are taken to the Leicester Square gathering of episode 6, where a correspondent interviews the citizens to get their impressions. He also eventually interviews King Danny, but he appears (appropriately) dismissive.
All in all, it should be plenty to satiate fans. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with all of it, but it was entertaining enough to watch. I just don’t know that I would slog my way through it all again. Once is plenty. Perhaps if Wallace had been more convincing in his quest, I would feel compelled to watch again. But it was just a show; it was done for laughs.
At least someone is keeping the country alive, if not well.