TV review: Great Canal Journeys

Benjie Goodhart / 04 November 2020

Great Canal Journeys returns with new hosts Gyles Brandreth and Sheila Hancock but has lost none of its charm.



Great Canal Journeys 1/2, Sunday 8th November, 8pm, Channel 4

Like hungry snackers standing next to a vending machine with only a £10 note in their wallet, we’re all desperate for a bit of change just now. We’ve spent huge chunks of 2020 sitting on the sofa doing nothing, and while I could pretty much represent the UK at such an event at the Olympiad of Laziness, even I have my limits. A change would be good. Any change. A different set of curtains in the living room. A vaccine for Covid-19. A new Su Doku book.

But no. Mother of all things sacred, we do not want this change. No siree... Because, dear readers, I have bad news. Prupru and Timbles are no longer presenting Great Canal Journeys. Do they make a vaccine for a broken heart?

It was inevitable, I suppose. We couldn’t expect them to go on forever. Darling Prunella Scales has dementia, and Timothy West… well, actually, Timothy West looks like he could plough on for about five more decades. They built’em to last back then. But he couldn’t carry on alone, and he wouldn’t want to. This is their thing. The two of them. A team, together navigating the currents of waterways and of life.

So it’s time to hand the tiller to a younger team. A couple of Generation X-types, just out of college, with fresh faces and clear eyes, all fist-bumps and sockless shoes. Meet Gyles and Sheila. Fortunately, it’s Gyles Brandreth and Sheila Hancock, 72 and 87 respectively. They may not be Pru and Tim, but they are a safe pair of hands, and our lovely water-based adventures will endure.

They are taking to canal boating, says the voiceover, to celebrate four decades of friendship. That’s as may be, but one imagines the cheque from Channel 4 might also have had something to do with it – particularly as neither of them appears to know one end of a canal boat from the other. So, two weeks before they embark on their trip, they go for a lesson. Their teacher? Tim, who they find alone on their training vessel. It looks wrong, without Pru. All wrong.

Anyway, Sheila does a decent enough job at the tiller, but Gyles manages to crash literally seconds after taking the helm. Shortly afterwards, they encounter their next hazard. “Here’s a lock,” shouts Tim cheerfully. “Oh my God,” cries Sheila, as if the lock were populated by angry crocodiles carrying rocket-propelled grenades tipped with Ebola.

After somehow managing to survive the unthinkable terrors of passing through a lock, Gyles and Sheila (well, mainly Sheila, to be honest) are deemed water-worthy. And so, two weeks later, they set off on their first adventure – a gentle meander along the Thames, from Pangbourne to Windsor.

On route, they encounter an eccentric former airline pilot who invents Heath Robinson-esque creations and takes to the waters in them. They include the world’s only amphibious bath chair, and a floating jeep. In Henley, Sheila meets former Olympic rower Debbie Flood (with a name like that, she had to choose an aquatic career) and discusses the breaking of glass ceilings. Sheila then goes out for a row in a four-scull. She’s nearly 90, for goodness’ sake, and she’s hopping into a precarious boat and bending and flexing and all the rest.

There’s also time for a visit to Cliveden, a magnificent vast country pile built by the Duke of Buckingham for his mistress. I can’t offer any potential mistresses such grandeur, but I’ve got vouchers for Nandos and a semi-derelict shed in the garden. And on to Windsor, where Gyles has a regal treat in store for Sheila.

I am pleased to report, dear reader, that the show has lost none of its gentle charm. We will continue to potter languorously along the rivers and canals with our new friends. But we will not forget our old ones. Tim, Pru, if your voyaging days are at an end, enjoy the rest. You’ve earned it.

12 Puppies and Us, Wednesday 11th November, 8pm, BBC Two

Today being 11th November, it’s all about poppies. But let’s throw some puppies into the mix as well. (Take note: Only the former should be pinned onto your lapel if you want to avoid a few strange looks and a visit from animal welfare.)

It seems the world and his wife wanted to get a puppy this year. The domestic drudgery of lockdown gave people both the motive for getting a dog (escapism, fresh air, entertainment, cuddles) and the time to look after and train it. While the last eight months have been really rather tedious for most of us, for dog breeders they’ve been the salad days. The pandemic has been financially very bountiful for them. They’re like Jeff Bezos, only with more wee on their carpet.

This new six-part series follows the fortunes of 12 puppies over the first few months with the families who have taken them in. First stop is Salisbury, where Jamie and Emma are looking for a companion for Mr Cooper, their dachshund. (It may be worth noting, here, that Mr Cooper is an absolutely excellent name for a dachshund.) Anyway, they live in a flat, and already have one small dog, so presumably they’re going to get another little furball – perhaps a Westie or a miniature poodle? Errrr, no. Meet Shelby. Shelby is a Great Dane pup. At seven weeks, he is already bigger than Mr Cooper. Give it a few weeks, and he will be making the ground shake every time he moves, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, only hopefully less hungry.

In South London, Sheryl and Reggie are getting a new dog. Well, Sheryl is getting a new dog. To say Reggie isn’t keen is something of an understatement. “I’ve never gone near a dog,” he says. He literally crosses the road to avoid them. That’ll be difficult, when one is on the couch next to him. Sheryl’s got her work cut out. She’s not only got a new pup to look after – a gorgeous Staffy-cross called Sage (presumably not named after the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) – but she’s got to train Reggie as well. Oh, and she’s got five sons, including a couple of toddlers. Yikes.

Reggie, though, remains the hardest nut to crack. “They can sense when a human is nervous, and that can make them nervous,” he fusses. “Then an attack could follow.” Sage, it’s important to remember, is soft and gorgeous, and about the size of a 50p piece. You’d be in more danger being savaged by a travel pillow.

In Somerset, 16-year-old Victoria has taken delivery of Meg, a nine-week-old border collie, who she wants to train as a sheepdog to work on the family farm. Meg is intelligent and playful, and Victoria is determined and dedicated, and prepared to put in the endless hours it will take to train her dog. Meanwhile, I have spent the last 18-months trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade my kids to pick up just a single one of our dog’s poos.

This is, ostensibly, a show featuring tips and dos and don’ts on puppy-raising along with an engaging and entertaining look at the idiosyncrasies of the families involved. But really, this is just an hour-long festival of cuteness. The puppies are simply adorable, affording the viewer an 60 minutes of heavenly canine escapism, allowing us to sit on the sofa, forget our worries, and just go “Awwwww,” a lot. Which is something we could all do with just now.

Read our guide to avoiding buying from puppy farms

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 7th November

Surviving the Stone Age 1/3, 7:10pm, Channel 4: Eight Stone Age enthusiasts go back in time to try and live like our forebears, using prehistoric resources and tools. I prefer my Stone Age experience to involve a trip to a museum and a night in a comfy hotel myself…

Britain’s Most Historic Towns, 8:10pm, Channel 4: Professor Alice Roberts returns with a third series about our historic gems, with the opening programme looking at Lincoln, including its cathedral that was once the world’s tallest building.

Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance, 9:10pm, BBC One: Huw Edwards presents this 90-minute programme, pre-recorded due to Covid-19, paying tribute to all those who have lost their lives in conflict since the start of World War One.

Sunday 8th November

Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph, 10:15am, BBC One: David Dimbleby presents live coverage of the wreath-laying event, closed to the public this year, from Whitehall. Highlights are on BBC Two tonight at 7pm.

His Dark Materials 1/7, 8:10pm, BBC One: A second series of the acclaimed adaptation of Philip Pullman’s equally-heralded fantasy novel series, starring Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson and Ruth Wilson. Tonight, Lyra and Pan travel to a strangely deserted city, Cittagazze, and make a new acquaintance.

Cornwall with Simon Reeve 1/2, 8:10pm, BBC Two: Nothing sums up this year’s restrictions quite as much as the fact that exotic travelogue explorer Reeve is presenting a new series from… Cornwall. Still, his enthusiasm and insight mean this should be a fascinating watch.

I’m a Celebrity: a Jungle Story, 9pm, ITV: Ahead of the new series of the celebrity reality show, this time set in Wales, Ant and Dec look back on 19 series of the entertainment juggernaut and select their favourite bits. Celebrities also relive some famous moments, while the Geordie duo undergo a Bush tucker Trial for the very first time.

The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, 9:10pm, BBC Two: New documentary series looking at the life and crimes of Oscar Pistorius, the once heralded Paralympic and Olympic athlete who murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013.

Monday 9th November

Nigella: Cook, Eat, Repeat 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: Nobody does luxurious comfort food like Nigella. This new series opens with recipes for aromatic lamb shank, banana and chocolate tahini, and something called bhorta.

My family, the Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder 1/2, 9pm, BBC One: The barrister and TV personality investigates his family’s history and fate in the Holocaust, and helps other British Jewish families do the same. Important and sobering.

Hospital 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: New series of the show looking at the day-to-day reality of life in an NHS hospital. This episode looks at how North London’s Royal Free hospital coped with the first wave of Covid. A must-watch for any morons who think wearing a mask is too much to ask.

Tuesday 10th November

Summer on the Farm: An Extraordinary Year, 8pm, ITV: Alan Titchmarsh, Angellica Bell and Amanda Owen examine how British farms have coped during this extraordinary year of extreme weather and Covid-reduced workforces.

MasterChef: The Professionals 1/18, 9pm, BBC One: Gregg Wallace, Monica Galetti and Marcus Wareing return with the 13th (!) series of the cookery competition open to ambitious industry professionals. Four chefs face three challenges for a place in the quarter finals. Continues on weeknights.

Industry, 9:15pm, BBC Two: Drama following five university graduates as they join a financial behemoth and begin the battle to climb to the top of the greasy pole. Sort of like a fictionalised version of The Apprentice, with fewer wallies.

Wednesday 11th November

Paul O’Grady’s Great British Escape 1/6, 8pm, ITV: The acerbic, big-hearted presenter takes cameras on a staycation as he explores the delights of his home county of Kent, including a trip to a birds of prey rescue sanctuary.

Sarah Beeny’s New Life in the Country, 8pm, Channel 4: New series following the property presenter as she and her family relocate from London to rural Somerset, where they are renovating a semi-derelict former dairy farm to be their dream home.

Thursday 12th November

International Football Live: England v Republic of Ireland Live, 7:30pm, ITV: What’s more boring than an England friendly? An England friendly in front of an uninspiring Ireland side, in an empty stadium. I love football, but even I have my limits…

Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge 1/4, 8pm, BBC Two: When chef Tom Kerridge embarked on a mission to help a handful of struggling pubs, he thought he had an inkling of how tough things were going to get. Enter a certain virus, stage left, to shake things up somewhat…

University Challenge: Children In Need Special, 10pm, BBC Two: Kirsty Wark takes the presenter’s chair from Paxo, and supervises proceedings in this fundraising special as Dara O’Briain and Faye Ripley captain teams from the BBC and ITV.

Golf: the Masters Highlights, 11:30pm, BBC Two: Highlights from the first day at Augusta National, in what may be the most beautiful golf course on the circuit. If you don’t like the sport, just look at the flowers.

Friday 13th November

Children In Need 2020, 7pm, BBC One: Mel Giedroyc, Alex Scott, Chris Ramsey and Stephen Mangan present an evening of socially-distanced entertainment with the aim of making children’s lives better. There’s music, and special surprises from EastEnders, Strictly, Doctor Who and The Repair Shop.

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