Of all the figures who have used TikTok to propel themselves into the limelight, none are quite as fascinating as Francis Bourgeois. A polite, winsome English boy, his videos on the platform are charmingly sincere and deeply odd.
Bourgeois is a trainspotter who films himself brimming with excitement as rolling stock buzzes past him in the British countryside. However, he films himself by attaching a GoPro to his forehead; if you have seen any of his videos, you will know that this has the effect of distorting his face beyond all comprehension. Watching him convulse with happiness as a British Rail Class 390 Pendolino screams past him is – and I mean this with all the respect in the world – exactly the same as watching the Roswell alien undergo several bouts of electroshock therapy.
Now that his notoriety has hit critical mass, it’s only right that Francis Bourgeois has his own TV show of sorts. Trainspotting With Francis Bourgeois is a series of shorts for Channel 4 Digital, and sees Bourgeois accompany various celebrities through locomotive-based activities. It’s fun, but suffers from one huge central problem: nothing on the show is quite as interesting as Bourgeois himself.
Bourgeois, you see, has been accused of being a fake. His name, for better or worse, isn’t actually Francis Bourgeois. It’s Luke Nicholson, and late last year photos emerged of him looking like a normal boy. He wasn’t dressed like a dandy. He had gel in his hair. In one picture he was topless and flexing his muscles, which by all accounts is a deeply unBourgeois thing to do. And then there were the weirdly angled GoPro shots. Surely no serious trainspotter would do that to themselves. Surely it was a matter of time before Francis Bourgeois would be exposed as an elaborate, train-based Sacha Baron Cohen-style prankster.
Trainspotting With Francis Bourgeois, then, acts as a sly repudiation of this argument. His TikToks are a largely solitary affair, but here we see him interacting at length with people, which allows us to see a more well-rounded version of him. My conclusion, at least based on the first two episodes, is that Bourgeois really is the halting, posh eccentric he claims to be. Either that, or he happens to be a world-class actor who for some reason has chosen to harness his talents for the exclusive purpose of smiling at trains on the internet.
Both episodes demonstrate this in different ways. The first, which features as a guest the comedian Aisling Bea, is an ungainly cross between his TikToks and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Most of it is spent on a siding, teaching Bea the correct way to encourage a passing train to toot at you (would-be train enthusiasts should note that there is an incorrect way of doing this, known as “tone-wanking”). By some distance, Bea is the more confident personality. Bourgeois is stilted and awkward for huge tracts of the episode, only really coming to life when he gets to describe different types of rolling stock. You can’t help but sense that this really is where his heart lies, and that he will be relieved when the bizarre ironic online fascination with him passes.
Episode two, meanwhile, is extraordinary. Bourgeois’s guest is the Nottingham Forest winger Jesse Lingard, and it is a masterstroke of casting. Professional footballers are not always the most eloquent people on camera, and so it proves. For the most part we just watch two sweet, awkward young men struggle to make small talk. It happens in the end, but only after something much more momentous than you would expect from an 11-minute YouTube video.
Halfway through the episode, Bourgeois takes Lingard to a diesel festival, where train enthusiasts pour on to diesel trains just for the thrill of the ride. As soon as they set foot onboard, there is palpable hostility from the other passengers. As he makes his way up a carriage looking for a seat, Bourgeois is peppered with dirty looks and muttered asides and, in one instance, a two-finger salute. In a footwell, he explains to Lingard that the trainspotting community has taken against him, because they – like many on the internet – doubt his authenticity. It makes his heart hurt, he says. Lingard then proceeds to give him a pep talk for the ages.
I won’t reveal how the episode ends but, out of nowhere, it becomes absolutely heart-rending. If Trainspotting With Francis Bourgeois can do more of this, if it can tap into what makes Bourgeois tick rather than use him as an object of fun, it deserves to be on television proper very soon.