Archives for category: travel

I apologise in advance if I am starting my review of the second series of The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan in exactly the same way as I started the first. To be fair, I have written so many of these, finding a new to introduce my musings is challenging.

The celebrity travelogue is an overdone genre and one I only dip into occasionally as a last resort. I have two major beefs with the form. The first is that some destinations are decidedly overdone. India, Japan, the USA, Australia – there must be barely a town, river or mountain that hasn’t been visited. Any more ‘breathtaking’ visits to the Taj Mahal or Ayers Rock and I will throw my TV out of the window.

This leads me nicely to my second, which is the endless cooing of the presenter and the almost patronising repartee with the locals. This often descends into the trying of a local craft, which the presenter ‘hilariously’ fails to master. Is there any point to these moments, over than to titillate the Little Englanders back home?

What I like about Misadventures is that both of these faults are absent. The whole point of the show is to go to the most unloved by tourists places on earth. The first episode of the new series took us to Zimbabwe, a country more known for the cruelty of Robert Mugabe than its hospitality.

Yet, as we find out, there are plenty reasons to go. It offers some genuinely beautiful scenery, not least the best views of the Victoria Falls. And the wildlife is as varied as any other safari. Not only that, but there is genuinely a spirit of warmth in the people, for all their turbulent history. It is also splendidly irreverently presented, Romesh as fascinated by an elephant’s penis as he is by the landscape.

Which brings me to how it overturns the second convention. Romesh and his guide Chipo do not shy away from discussing the problems of the past, both in its colonial days and after. A chat in a country club certainly illuminates the troubled race relations and this is only heightened when the meet Ian, a white Zimbabwean and conservationist who made no secret of his longing for a return to empire days. Cue a surprisingly tense discussion over the nature of colonisation and the treatment of indigenous people – is it a process of civilisation or subjugation?

This is a show that is both lighter and deeper than your average travelogue. It’s engaging, fun and clever and is the perfect way to spend a Sunday evening.

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It’s rare I write one of these reviews where a show has hit all the boxes. There is normally a character that doesn’t work, or the tone doesn’t fit. Sometimes it’s just a sense of a good idea being not quite there. But when it does all come together, it is compulsive viewing.

Race Across the World is joining rare pantheon of programmes that ticks every box. The premise is simple. Five couple race from London to Singapore in the fastest time without taking a single flight. All transport must be land or sea based, and they only have the budget of the standard air fare to Singapore. They must hit pre-determined check points along the way, and can only top up their budget by doing a day’s work on their travels. Oh, and there’s no smartphones or access to technology.

The most immediate reason I love this show is that it features lots of maps. I love a map. I get nerdishly excited at seeing people’s progress being charted. I have had an obsession with atlases since childhood. I think that’s why I lack the wanderlust that others have – I feel I have read enough about the world, I don’t need to see it.

Another thing that won me over to the show is that it avoided the most obvious pitfall of making this all about the ‘journey’ of the contestants, as in the emotions. Yes, we have backstories – a husband and son who have lost touch, a retired couple who want to embrace the final act of their life with as much gusto as possible – but it never overwhelms the sense of competition.

Not only that, but there is never a sense of hunting for fame. Nobody taking part is doing so to land some kind of deal. It is about the thrill of adventure. You get the feeling that, within a day or two of being done, the contestants will all return to their normal lives, albeit with a lot more stories to tell.

The last selling point is that it is fascinating watching the different psychologies at play. One couple decide to use the kindness of strangers to succeed. Another takes advantage of work opportunities to fund the quickest, priciest way out. All reach breaking points. All couple bar one have either bickered or ripped up a map in frustration. It is telling the first to be eliminated where the first to get snippy with each other.

I already want a second series. Hell, despite my misgivings about my ability to hack it, I want to take part. For all of its modesty, it is actually the best show out there. Less is more has won the day.

We are used to travelogues being about the familiar yet exotic. Japan, Brazil, China, India… we all know about these countries enough to be conscious of them, yet still have that distance to make us curious. For all their other-worldliness, they are open to tourists and trade off it successfully.

The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan takes a different slant by taking us to countries that are not so travel friendly. These are places with, to put it mildly, an image problem and have become trapped by a conception that the Western world has fixed upon it.

The first episode saw comedian Romesh visit Haiti. It epitomises many of the problems third-world countries have. It has suffered a combination of cruel dictatorships, that when they collapsed left a country with no real infrastructure for a democracy to grow, gang warfare and poverty that has arisen from a lack of law and order, and natural disasters. The island’s political history meant that just as other Caribbean islands began to take advantage of tourism, Haiti was shutting the world out. And of course, it is the place that Trump poetically called a ‘shithole’.

Romesh is a good host, adding some dry humour to the potentially bleak atmosphere. My favourite comment was when he was describing his mum giving him a blessing before he flew out- ‘it was only slightly undermined by the fact she was still wearing her Royal Mail uniform’. He also gets mildly hysterical when taking part in a voodoo ceremony, in what proves to be a highlight for the viewer.

But Romesh is not just some glib commentator. He is equally bewildered and appalled by what he sees, especially in some of the more poverty-stricken areas. Another comment of his is damning of our Western hunger for exotic luxury. Listing all the stereotypical delights of the Caribbean he is missing, he realises, ‘This place isn’t built for tourists because it isn’t even built for the people that live here’.

He does find some hope though. The beaches of Jacamel have been relatively unscarred by dictatorships and earthquakes. A bit of eco-conscious development here, and suddenly the economy could go. The island can repair its physical wounds and heal its emotional ones. This island does not have to be the prisoner of geography – look at its neighbour, Dominican Republic. The right politicians and a small dose of luck could see it rise.

The show is undoubtedly sobering. You realise that when cameras stop rolling, the people still need to keep living. There are ‘shitholes’ all over the third world that don’t have the skills to top being so. But a bit of global cooperation could go a long way.

I never had a gap year. To be honest, it didn’t appeal to me and seemed an expensive way to get drunk and have stories to tell. I certainly didn’t fancy going to places like Thailand I don’t deny there is beautiful scenery and a fascinating culture, but I like the familiar and my creature comforts.

Jack Whitehall, however, rues his missing gap year. So now he is having one, or at least a gap six weeks or so. And he is taking his elderly father with him, insisting that it will tick off things on his bucket list that don’t even exist. Hence the show Jack Whitehall: Travels with my Father.

The result is an incredibly funny programme about travel, families and the age gap. It is the last one of these that is played on most. Michael Whitehall wants his holidays to be about luxury and history. In episode one he took one look at the hostel that had been planned for him and bolted to the more refined hotel down the road, where he refused to eat the local food and demanded a lamb chop. Jack wants the backpacker experience and to take part in beach parties and free running.

It is their prickly but loving relationship that drives the show. Episode two sees Michael writing his autobiography. When Jack queries what exactly he is writing about, Michael reveals ‘well this chapter is about Hitler’ as if it is the most normal thing in the world, prompting Jack to query if his father was in the Hitler Youth. It is the silly meeting the deadpan that produces the biggest laughs, along with Michael’s lack of self-censure, at one point thinking that a man who was serving them had introduced himself as Stuart when he had actually said he was their steward. In another scene, he openly compared a temple priestess to Mollie Sugden.

I think the biggest reason I love this show is that there is a lot of me and my dad in this. There is a similar age gap and political misalignment. My father is as equally befuddled by technology and resistant to the modern world and makes politically incorrect statements and then has no understanding of the uproar he causes. My revenge for this public embarrassment is too be mildly insulting about his ways. The only difference is that my father wouldn’t even countenance leaving the country.

At just six episodes, it almost feels too short. I hope there is a second season, as there are still many cultures for Michael to mildly offend and bizarre situations to throw the pair of them into. It is after all Travels. It would be a shame to curtail their wanderlust, and our entertainment, so soon.

The success of some TV formats must take channels by surprise. I don’t think the BBC ever counted on The Great British Bake Off being the star of its schedules. Likewise, I think they were also caught off guard by the success of The Real Marigold Hotel. They had probably written it off as a light-hearted documentary revolving around old age and culture clashes. Too fluffy to be worthy, too full of painful truths to be just entertainment. It was supposed to be ignored by critics and viewers alike.

And yet, it proved to be a bit of a sleeper hit. People genuinely enjoyed Miriam Margolyes and Wayne Sleep et al. careering around India, offering sage insight into old age. So much the so, the new series has been promoted to BBC1, a sign of faith if there ever was one.

The cast this year is broadly similar. There’s the dancer (Lionel Blair), the soul diva (Sheila Ferguson), the cook (Rusty Lee), the retired sport star (Dennis Taylor). If things aren’t broke, why fix them? The only real change is the location, moving to the southern Indian state of Kerala.

The culture clashes are still present. Blair is constantly appalled about how unclean everything is, although the others take a more pragmatic approach. Buying underpants proves to be an unexpected challenge for some. And Ferguson nearly had a full-blown diva strop on a sleeper train.

But then there is the beauty of the country. India appears to really know how to astound the senses. Brightly coloured temples assault the eyes. The wildlife is off the charts for sheer magnificence. And anyone seeking spiritual enlightenment is spoilt for choice, not least with alternative medicines. That’s before you even start with the festivals, the music, the food – you name it, India has it in spades.

It isn’t shy on offering insight into the cruelty of old age as well. Take, for instance, Lionel Blair’s recovery from prostate cancer, which has left him with a bloated stomach he hates (although a meeting with an alternative medicine doctor suggests a sweet tooth could be playing a part as well). Bill Oddie is also refreshingly open about his mental health, offering the gallows humour that so many with similar conditions have.

To think the message is about how well India treats the old is wrong. Yes, we have the stats on price of living and the like, but this isn’t really what the show is about. It is about not letting being old stop you seeing and doing new things. The joy of life is the big story here. And so it should be.

There’s a lot of ‘Celebrities doing things they are not qualified’ for shows on TV. Most of them are vacuous puddles of nothing, in spite of all the talk about ‘journeys’ and the like. The fact is nothing has improved for that celebrity except their bank balance. The fact that the same celebrities appear on each one makes it even less of a treat. I mean, how many journeys does a person need before they are journeyed out?

Every so often though, one comes along that is actually worth the time. The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel is more than just a travelogue or celebrity show. It is one that asks fundamental questions about ageing and retirement, showing that the slow ebbing of life escapes no one, yet is easier to deal with if you surround yourself with the right things.

Whilst some of the participants have done other reality programmes (Rosemary Shrager and Jan Leeming has done I’m A Celeb, Roy Walker and Bobby George Come Dine with Me), there isn’t a feeling that there is a grasping for the limelight from any of them. Largely perhaps because Miriam Margolyes, who adds both stature and humour, is in it most of the time, but also because you actually feel that for once the journey is for real.

Take, for example, Margolyes herself. Like many, she has no reached an age where bits of her body need replacing. During a health check, it is confirmed that she needs at least one, if not two knee replacements, as well as an operation to remove her gallstones. What is most startling though, is that while in the UK she will face many months of waiting and a bill for tens of thousands of pounds, India can offer a turnaround of just over a week for a fraction of the price, with no compromise on quality of care.

It is when discussing the medical realities of aging that this show most serves its purpose. Aging is all down to philosophy it seems. Bobby George, for example, has never allowed himself to see himself get old in the mirror, so has therefore aged less in the mind as well. Margolyes knows in reality she has to go at life slower, but is no less determined to reach all the same destinations she originally planned. All that happens is that your priorities change. Your health moves from the periphery of your vision to the centre. Being comfortable and well becomes more important than the other qualities of life.

This is actually a surprisingly thought-provoking programme, once you get past the fish out of water humour that was going to be inevitable. The beauty of India is shown alongside its poverty and backward social attitudes (class is more important here than even the UK, homosexuality is still treated as ‘don’t ask, ‘don’t tell’). It is a weird blend of tradition whilst still looking to the future full of optimism. Perhaps, that’s why it is so good at looking after their elderly. It remembers that its past is the key to its future.

If there is one genre I have a major beef with it is the celebrity travelogue. You know the sort, actor or comedian no longer gets work so their agent bags them a free trip somewhere and we are supposed to find it enlightening.

There are two categories of this genre. The first is the UK-based ones, which quite frankly should all have the title ‘Ooh isn’t Britain lovely?’ as it mainly consists of shots of countryside, stately homes and some berk trying to learn how to do dry-stone walling. Of course, it does make you wonder if you are actually in Britain at all – where are EDL marches, overflowing A+E’s, the homeless? This type of programme is the Kalms of the TV world, soothing you into thinking everything is ok so you can sleep at night. Nothing needs fixing so long as somewhere there is still a field of cute little lambs frolicking.

The second type is the international one. Here the celeb is flung to some corner of the globe. Again they take part in some mindless task to try to ‘fit in’ with the locals. In India you are expected to grind spices (although next time I suggest the presenter in question instead does a 12-hour shift in a call centre), America you become a cowboy, Spain you learn a flamenco. The worst moment is when the presenter quotes that odious word ‘journey’. Because in order for this not to be just some holiday they need to have personally grown from it. The only journey I get from it is my hand moving to the remote and putting something else on.

So it may surprise you dear readers then that I actually am enjoying Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure. The first reason for this is that the trip in question is very timely – Russia and China are two countries that seem to be rarely out of the news and are both experiencing cultural changes. China has created a capitalist/communist hybrid that is all-consuming, whilst Russia is moving socially backwards at such a pace that you do wonder if they are on an alternative timeline.

What is more, Lumley is actually genuinely engaging. As the title suggests, there is no fake ‘journey’ happening. This is a straight-up adventure, where Lumley is just wanting a good time. There is something to be said for her dry, knowing humour as well. I actually laughed at her refusal to wear traditional Chinese get-up for her tour of the Emperor’s palace claiming it doesn’t suit Westerners, as two very white people appeared. ‘You look fabulous’ she said a glimmer of something in her smile that suggested politeness beats sincerity every time when you are a tourist.

Finally, her interviews are actually interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed her meeting with a neighbour of the last emperor’s favourite concubine, who stole the episode with her ability to steamroll over Lumley’s questions. Ditto the frosty meeting between the Russian guard and the production crew, a rare moment where travelogue became an almost Newsnight-style report on censorship.

And the most joyous thing about the whole show? Not a single shot of dry stone walls.