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Last night’s TV: Billy Connolly’s Route 66


One of the many pleasures of Billy Connolly’s Route 66 (ITV1) is watching its presenter stay aboard his motor-tricycle despite the many occasions when it seems he might swerve into oncoming traffic.

Connolly insists on chatting to the camera crew in the vehicle in front of him no matter what the weather conditions or how busy the roads.

His concentration often slips and it’s a regular occurrence to see the trike – an impressive-looking machine which elicits many admiring comments – steer perilously close to the other side of the road. It’s always a relief when Connolly appears in the next scene.

This was particularly true in last night’s first episode as Connolly recounted the story of a brothel in Godley, Illinois in the early years of the last century.

One half of the town was located in a different county to the other, in another jurisdiction as far as the law was concerned.

The brothel conducted its business from a disused train carriage, so whenever word arrived that the police might be about to raid it, everybody inside would stop what they were doing, rush outside, push the brothel into the next county and resume their activities.

Connolly was so tickled by this story that he broke down into one of those well-known fits of laughter, his trike lurching left and right and looking like it might end up in a ditch, or worse.

But he maintained control and kept his appointment with an Amish family further along the road.

Connolly’s great strength as a presenter of a travel show is that he is as comfortable with the Amish community as he is telling a story about a brothel on wheels.

He’s a more empathetic tourist than Michael Palin whose curiosity about the people and things he sees is a bit more intellectual and cerebral.

Connolly dives into people’s histories and soon they are telling him their life stories. He went on a horse and carriage tour with an Amish man, who remembered how, 20 years before, he had killed his 14-month-old son by reversing over him in a barn.

Many people wouldn’t know what to say in a situation like that, but Connolly was genuine in his sympathy, as he was when he visited a suburb of St Louis where all the houses had been destroyed by a tornado a few days before.

Presumably the last thing the residents wanted to see, as they picked through the rubble with their bare hands, was a Scottish biker and a camera crew. But they responded warmly to his unfeigned concern, and spoke thoughtfully to him about what had happened.

No news team – worried about deadlines and getting easily-digested soundbites – could have done as well.

Connolly will take four programmes to cover the 2,500 miles of Route 66, which runs through eight states, from Illinois to California.

He started in Chicago, in a speakeasy once frequented by Al Capone.

Like the citizens of Godley, the gangster had his own way of fooling the police, buying in large quantities of non-alcoholic beer which his flunkies would inject with alcohol once the premises had been raided and the cops had gone on their way.

Connolly’s most interesting anecdote about Capone was that it was he who came up with the idea of putting best before dates on bottles of milk.

In the 1930s, he donated a million dollars to bankrupt Chicago schools to buy milk for their children, but insisted that the bottles be time-stamped so the kids could avoid the taste of sour milk which had so offended him when he was a child.

The only complaint about Billy Connolly’s Route 66 was a bizarre warning before it started and during the first advertising break about “racial language that some people may find offensive”.

That was a reference to a black artist called Preston Jackson who spoke to Connolly about segregation in the 1950s. The town of Anna, Illinois, he pointed out, got its name from the first letters in the words “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.

We’ve reached an unsustainable level of political correctness if a member of the African American community in Chicago, who has bitter memories of racial segregation, can’t recount those experiences without having warnings attached to his words.

It didn’t detract at all from the pleasure of an hour in Connolly’s company, but it was an odd decision, nevertheless.

As it happened, Connolly did suffer a biking accident while he was making the programme, although not while talking to the camera.

He ended up with broken ribs and some permanent scarring but after a week’s rest, he continued with his work. As always, the show must go on.

One show no longer going on as far as E4 is concerned is Friends, which the channel finally stopped showing last week after many years of repeats.

Perfect Couples is one of the US shows it has bought in to replace it, a decision which so far as turned out to be a bad one, like replacing The Sopranos with The Waltons.

Like Friends, Perfect Couples features three males and three females, but there the similarity ends. The characters in the new series have already hooked up and the plot, such as it is, focuses on their struggles to stay together.

It’s a loud and pointless mess. The characters are a uniformly horrible bunch, who spend all their time shouting at or needling each other in a very unfunny way.

In last night’s episode, one of the women gave out to her control-freak boyfriend for not allowing her to audition for American Idol, to which he responded by complaining that her voice “makes me want to kill myself”.

There must be a thousand funnier ways to get across the message that somebody can’t sing, but Perfect Couples has no interest in finding them.

Say what you like about Friends, but it was a lot funnier and often more subtle than that.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.