Another jaunty ITV travelogue for those of us going no futher than the park this summer presented by Joanna Lumley (don’t be fooled by the rocks that I’ve got, I’m still J-Lum from the block), grande dame of the small screen and the lady who the word mellifluous was coined for. This is a three part whistle-stop documentary on ITV and J-Lum (I’m going to use it until it catches on) is keen to play up the family connection. She was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, in the last days of the Raj and her family ties go back several generations. One might think she’s rather brave trading on being directly related to the old colonial empire. Thinking about it, that apostrophe in the title might be a little insensitive.
But don’t worry – this is not a programme designed for much thought or reflection. “Gosh!” and “Fabulous!” she enthuses every few minutes about everything. To her credit it certainly doesn’t seem forced and her sparky interest is very infectious. She talks with her hands in rhapsodies about everything – Morgana Robinson’s impression of her on The Agency is entirely accurate. Amusingly the Radio Times insists she’s toned it down a bit this time!
She pouts a little as her measurements are read out loud by a tailor in the market. Charmingly she tells us what her vital statistics were back when she was modeling. She styles out any embarrassment with a grin and it’s clear she’s quite comfortable in her own skin, which must be relatively easy when you look like a million dollars at all times.
It’s hard to go to all-points India and not be impressed. You could make a beautiful travelogue here blindfolded. The viewer is promised unusual sights, but we see Hindu temples, tea plantations, elephants and street children. Still it’s gorgeous; very exciting and completely exotic – this is all of the travel and none of the inconvenience. It’s extremely fast, nothing is lingered over, and as soon as one item is ticked off the bucket list we’re off to another location. There’s a sense of cramming as much in as possible, like an coach tour for easily bored American tourists. The south, middle and north of this enormous country is all covered in just one episode. There’s no real sense of a journey, just hopping all around the map. Continuity must have been a total ball-ache for the editors.
Alongside the ancient Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple we do get a nod to modern India represented by the booming Tollywood Bengali cinema industry in high-tech Hyderabad. We see (briefly of course) a digital effects studio, and J-Lum gets to dress up like an ancient Hindu goddess, which she does with relish. She’s still fabulous, especially with a tiger at her feet.
She seems immensely grateful to find a street food expert to guide her in Kolkata who says nice things about how well-ordered society was under British rule and how his grandparents generation are nostalgic for it. We gave them pavements guys! It’s ok! They don’t resent being ruled by oppression for 100 years! Despite the bucket list items, it’d be wrong to say it’s all picture postcard stuff. The grinding poverty some Indians suffer and complicated trans issues are touched on. J-Lum meets women who are supporting themselves through transition with sex work. “You are all my daughters! ” she coos, lovingly, when she hears about how unhappy their family lives are.
There’s only a hint of comic frustration at not being able to see the five peaks at Panchchuli because she’s there on an overcast day. It gets a little more tetchy when the programme is refused access to what was her mother’s childhood home; ‘The Residency’ which is a now a government building. “It breaks my heart” she says. So instead we’re off for a Who Do You Think You Are jaunt with daughters of an ancient royal family, looking at photos and letters from her grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel James Weir. It’s true the world over that it’s all about connections, so after an appeal from the Sikkim VIPs J-Lum does get a wander around the old family gardens, without cameras. She seems to be a lot more patient with bureaucracy than Michael Palin ever was, especially when friends in high places can intervene.
So it’s a very beautiful, very speedy ride in cheerful company. But whatever the personal slant J-Lum’s pedigree can provide it’s still a programme without much depth. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Joanna Lumley’s India is on ITV on Wednesdays at 9pm, or catch up with the series so far on the ITV Hub
And there’s a nice Radio Times interview with Joanna here – I bet you actual cash money that you’ll read it in her voice.