Wednesday 22 November 2017

Television: Joanna is still Ab Fab in her latest Far East adventure

TV odyssey: Joanna Lumley displays genuine courtesy, warmth and empathy on her travels
TV odyssey: Joanna Lumley displays genuine courtesy, warmth and empathy on her travels

John Boland

In Joanna Lumley's Japan (UTV Ireland), the presenter was in the country's far north and was so agog to see a flock of red-crested cranes that she'd crawled out of bed at 4am and hiked through a freezing landscape to see them. "They're very rare birds," she whispered to us.

She's a rare bird herself. Iconic model of the Swinging Sixties, star of The New Avengers in the 1970s, Absolutely Fabulous's imperishably drunk Patsy in the 1990s, she's also been an eloquent activist for good social causes, is both intelligent and witty and has a wonderfully distinctive voice. Oh, and she remains gorgeous. Can she really be 70?

In recent years, she's been a terrific companion in travel programmes. In most such celebrity-fronted series, the star's ego and mannerisms tend to get in the way of what's being shown, but Lumley has the gift of conveying genuine curiosity about everything she encounters - and genuine courtesy, warmth and empathy, too, towards all the people she meets.

It was these qualities that so enlivened her trans-Siberian adventure last year and that also make her current series so absorbing. At an annual snow festival in Sapporo, she marvelled at the fact that the huge ice sculptures had been built for the occasion by local soldiers and mused that "in an old hippie dream, you'd think that's what the world should be like".

"This is going to be an extraordinary trip," she had promised at the series' outset and so far that's what it's been, mainly thanks to her elegant, enthusiastic and informative presence. By contrast, the four presenters of New York: America's Busiest City (BBC2), which ended its three-part run this week, managed the not inconsiderable feat of making the Big Apple seem uninteresting - each of them strenuously vying for our attention as they focused on "the hidden systems" that keep the city running.

The final instalment was mainly to do with Central Park and with the workers who ensure that it never reverts to the squalid and lawless conditions of the 1970s. And so we heard from grass mowers and garbage collectors and all the other worthies who are intent on keeping its 843 acres spick and span.

A segment on Manhattan's stratospheric property prices provided a welcome break, but the main thrust of the series was laboriously handled and conveyed none of the thrill that visitors almost invariably feel whenever they set foot in this teeming metropolis.

Indeed, thrills were in short supply on television this week unless your idea of excitement is to watch five overweight celebrities as they attempt to shed some flesh on Operation Transformation (RTÉ1).

All very worthy, no doubt, but rather you than me, and nor can I get worked up by the news that Channel 4 has outbid the Beeb for the future rights to The Great British Bake Off - leading the Guardian to declare in a headline that "The loss of Bake Off is a blow, but the BBC will rise again". It's a series about making cakes, for God's sake. Still, the Brexiteers probably love it, as they no doubt still cherish the memory of 1960s sitcom Steptoe and Son, described by Steve Coogan as enshrining a "Little Englander mentality that's contemptible and loveable at the same time".

He made his comment in British Sitcoms: 60 Years of Laughing at Ourselves (BBC4), which chronicled six decades of situation comedy, while curiously omitting to even mention such classics as Dad's Army, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Blackadder, The Inbetweeners, Black Books or The IT Crowd.

The latter's creator, Graham Linehan, was on hand to describe One Foot in the Grave as "subversive and extraordinarily surreal", and indeed it could be very dark in its depiction of suburban isolation and loneliness, and due tribute was paid to Father Ted, though far too much to the irredeemably cosy The Vicar of Dibley.

The programme was at its most interesting in its reminder of sitcoms that couldn't be made today, especially those with a racial theme - a black-faced Spike Milligan in the short-lived Curry and Chips (1969) and the equally offensive Love They Neighbour (1972) with its casual references to "nignogs" and "coloured blood". 'Social discomfort' was what Steve Coogan detected in most British sitcoms, whether concerning race, class or sexuality, and it was hard to disagree.

The second episode of Cold Feet (UTV Ireland) confirmed that, despite all the odds, it had been worthwhile to revisit these characters in middle age, especially with a script so sharp and playing so unforced. And Poldark (BBC1) is holding the attention, too, even if the lead character has become so high-minded that he risks becoming insufferable. Hopefully he'll lighten up a bit now that the noose no longer hangs over him, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Best drama of the week, though, came in Beck (BBC4). This Swedish crime series has been outstanding since it first aired years back, but it reached a new level in this episode, which was filmed this year.

It began with the shooting of Beck's maverick sidekick Gunvald, who has been played with such luminous charisma by Mikael Persbrandt that it's a wonder he's not internationally famous, and the mood darkened even further as the episode progressed.

Beck himself is a dogged, by-the-book detective but Peter Haber invests him with such decency and empathy that he becomes the viewer's touchstone amid all the mayhem. Yet even he couldn't make this episode less than desolating in its impact.

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