Monday, 19 September 2016


This article originally appeared in The Dundee Courier on 17 September 2016.

Joanna Lumley’s Japan: Friday, STV

Celebrity Home Secrets: Monday, STV

In the far-flung court of the celebrity travelogue, Palin is the unconquerable king. He started this whole racket in the first place with Around the World in 80 Days, but let’s not blame him for that. He knew not what he wrought.

However, if we must put up with programmes in which famous people go on expense-free foreign holidays – and clearly we must – then Palin does at least have two highly capable lieutenants: Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley. Like him, you always get a sense that they’re genuinely interested in the cultures they engage with. They’re the best at what they do.

In the latest episode of Joanna Lumley’s Japan – a title which suggests she’s gone mad with power and staged a political coup – the charming Thesp once again displayed her natural command of the formula.

With that warm, familiar voice set to Maximum Caramel mode, she marvelled at the vast wonders of thoroughly modern Tokyo.

Western documentaries about Japanese culture often adopt a condescending tone, but Lumley is too courteous to mock its supposedly wild and wacky weirdness. Instead she strove to celebrate Japan as a country in the gradual process of laying to rest its old social restrictions.

Its image as a strict beacon of conformity was challenged by Lumley’s visit to a progressive kindergarten where individual expression is encouraged. This laudable institution may be a notable exception in Japanese society, but it’s a step in the right direction.

By contrast, her conversation with a traditional Geisha Girl was rather sad. It appears to be such an oppressive, lonely life. There was also something slightly dubious about Lumley’s encounter with an 18-strong girl band, whose audience consists almost entirely of men. Have they just come to ogle these girls? Or is it just a bit of harmless, innocent fun? I couldn’t make my mind up, and nor, I suspect, could our host.

If Lumley didn’t come across as such a nice, genuine person, her breathy style of narration and gushing expressions of awe would be laughable. But I find her quite endearing, even when she flirts with self-parody by using verbose phrases such as “an unfathomable matrix of discombobulation.”

However, such borderline pretention is preferable to enduring the likes of a bored Paul Merton staring wryly at some unusual foreign hats. At least Lumley looks like she’s being enriched by her adventures. Like Palin and Connolly, she also seems to enjoy meeting people and enquiring about their lives.

For that reason, I actually learned something new about the subject at hand. That should be the point of any travelogue, of course, but it’s all too rarely the case in reality. Long may Lumley broaden her carbon footprint.

While watching the latest episode of Celebrity Home Secrets, it struck me that Janet Street-Porter would be a dreadful travelogue presenter.

I’ve always liked her, despite disagreeing with some of the guff she comes out with for coins, but just imagine her spectacular disinterest when faced with some of the people and wonders that Lumley encounters.

She was reliably unsentimental during this supposedly nostalgic piece of flotsam, in which celebs return to homes which defined certain chapters in their lives. 

Basically an over-extended One Show item, it’s the shrugging definition of a TV time-passer, bolstered on this occasion by Street-Porter’s natural gifts as a caustic raconteur. 

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