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TV review: Extraordinary Escapes with Sandi Toksvig

Benjie Goodhart / 05 February 2021

This week there are plenty of incredible locations to see, both home and away, in Extraordinary Escapes with Sandi Toksvig and Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby.

Sandi Toksvig and Alison Steadman in Extraordinary Escapes, Channel 4
Sandi Toksvig and Alison Steadman in Extraordinary Escapes, Channel 4

Extraordinary Escapes with Sandi Toksvig, Wednesday 10th February, 9pm, Channel 4

I’ve watched a lot of nice telly in the last year. I mean, I’ve fallen off the ‘nice’ wagon a few times. Tiger King was a low point – awful people doing horrible things to animals and each other. But generally, it’s been lovely people doing lovely things in lovely places. Mortimer and Whitehouse fishing, Joanna Lumley gadding about the country, unbelievably talented people baking cakes and making pots. It’s good for the soul, that sort of thing. It’s brought me solace, acted as a soothing balm to my fractious mind. And now, perhaps when we need it most, it has reached its acme.

Extraordinary Escapes is about as lovely a TV programme as you could wish to see. I mean, of course it is. It’s presented by Sandi Toksvig, the absolute personification of happy positivity. And it follows her staying in some completely magical holiday properties each week, accompanied by a guest. And this week’s guest? Only Alison flippin’ Steadman. How, I ask you, could you possibly make a lovelier programme than that?

Oh boy. There’s your answer. You stay somewhere like Found Tower on the Deben Peninsula in Suffolk. Found Tower is an old Martello Tower – the network of fortifications built during Napoleonic times to repel the French hordes. From the outside, it is an imposing but rather ugly round brick fort. But the inside… It is nothing short of breath-taking. And then you get to the top floor…

Alison Steadman, it emerges, adores clouds. She photographs them all the time. Watching her and Toksvig gazing at clouds and shooting the breeze is a panacea for all of life’s stresses. Then it’s down to the beach, on camping chairs, for a couple of cheeky glasses of prosecco. And, it turns out, a story from Toksvig about Napoleon’s penis.

And so, on that slightly bawdy note, we move to property number two. It’s another absolute doozy. Moat Cottage is a 17th Century cottage surrounded by… well, I presume you’re there already. But yes, it’s a moat. And, actually, it’s not exactly what I’d call a cottage. It’s a glorious, ornate period house, with six bedrooms and views across rolling fields.

They go for a walk. Apparently Steadman likes photographing funghi as well. “You’ve not taken a single picture of me,” complains Toksvig. “It’s just mushrooms and clouds.” As long as its not both merged into one. That tends to be a harbinger of death, and it would be a shame for a nuclear winter to hit such a gorgeous Suffolk home. Particularly one with its own boat house (although there’s not an awful lot to explore rowing around a moat). And there’s still time for a spot of spoon-whittling, and cooking sausages over an open fire, while sipping mulled wine. “In this moment, I am entirely happy,” says Toksvig. Oh, me too, Sandi, me too.

And there’s still time for one more stay. It’s the 14th Century gatehouse to Rutley Priory, and it’s the most heavenly historic property. Complete with its own bar. I’m in!

Toksvig and Steadman make the perfect travelling companions. They are amiably silly, funny, and spend a lot of time giggling together. It’s infectious – and not the sort of thing you’d want to be vaccinated against. The joy of this programme is something that I’d be more than happy to see become a pandemic.

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Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby 4/6, Thursday 11th February, 9pm, BBC Two

From places that you might conceivably be able to stay in, to places you almost certainly won’t. Not because of travel restrictions, but due to something far more insidious – financial restrictions! Unless you happen to have thirty grand burning a hole in your pocket, you’re unlikely to be going to stay at the Jade Mountain Hotel in St Lucia anytime soon. Or anytime at all, come to that.

Which is a shame, as it is ruddy lovely. But I suppose that’s the least you’d expect, paying a minimum of £2,700-per-night.

If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s a belter (and this, incidentally, is the second half of the latest series, which initially went out in the spring of last year). The concept is pretty simple. Journalist Giles Coren and chef Monica Galetti travel to some of the finest hotels in the world, have a poke about in the sumptuous luxury, and then go behind the scenes and work alongside the staff. If the idea of watching people making beds and cleaning pools sounds fairly pedestrian, rest assured, it isn’t. The vision, the passion and the attention to detail in these remarkable hotels is truly exceptional.

And nowhere more so than in Jade Mountain. Opened in 2006, it is an absolute marvel to behold. All of the 29 bedrooms have their own open walkway to their front door, and their own infinity pool with clifftop views stretching out to the pitons, the volcanic peaks that tower over the island. And, to make sure you get the most from your extraordinary view, the rooms are missing an external wall. They go straight out on to the terrace, open to the elements. I’ve stayed in a few hotels in my time which were maybe missing the odd wall or door, but never by design. It’s quite unique, and a stroke of genius. Either that, or it’s ruddy expensive camping.

Each room also comes with its own personal butler. Pah. Everyone’s got one of those these days, right? Even my kids have one – although they clearly don’t pay him that well, as he has to moonlight as Saga’s TV critic. Anyway, no sooner has Coren checked in than he’s put to work butlering, carrying trays vast distances and up endless flights of stairs (the eco-friendly hotel has no lifts). And etiquette dictates that the tray must be carried at shoulder height on one upturned hand – which proves somewhat tricky for our stand-in butler.

The hotel is the brainchild of a Canadian-born chap, Nick something-or-another (hey, this isn’t Wikipedia, you know?) who dreamed of an environmentally sustainable hotel built using traditional methods, and employing local people, and sourcing local materials and goods. In short, he’s a good egg. Two thirds of the income of St Lucia comes from tourism (which makes you think life there can’t be a bowl of cherries just now). Given the prices of staying at Jade Mountain, I expect two thirds of the income of St Lucia comes from room seven!

Over a delightful hour we watch Coren and Galetti at work in the kitchens, cleaning the infinity pools, raking the beaches, hunting the invasive Lionfish, going to market, waiting tables, and cutting flowers for a beachside wedding. They are charming and funny, and clearly fond of one another. But the star of the show is the hotel, and by the end, both agree that the rooms are the best they have ever stayed in. I’d be booking my stay immediately, only it’s frightfully difficult, on a butler’s salary.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 6th February

When Fergie Met the Monarchy, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary exploring the relationship between Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew, from their childhood friendship to acrimonious divorce, and beyond.

Sunday 7th February

Musicals: The Greatest Show, 7:40pm, BBC One: Sheridan Smith hosts a celebration of musical theatre, featuring songs from Chess, The Greatest Showman, Mamma Mia!, Hamilton and more, and a conversation between musical legends Idina Menzel and Elaine Paige.

The Ranganation 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: Romesh Ranganathan presents a topical comedy show in which he encourages a panel of 20 members of the public to share their thoughts on modern Britain.

Monday 8th February

Undercover Police: Hunting Paedophiles 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: Series of 90-minute documentaries following officers as they adopt fake online personas in a bid to engage with people who have demonstrated a sexual interest in children.

Tuesday 9th February

Match of the Day Live: The FA Cup, 7pm, BBC One: Gary Lineker presents coverage of the cup tie between high-flying Manchester United and a resurgent West Ham, who are battling it out for a place in the last eight of the FA Cup.

Forensics: The Real CSI 1/10, 9pm, BBC Two: Investigators examine the home of a man covered in blood who hands himself into the police declaring he’s murdered his wife, but who claims to have no recollection of the incident.

Wednesday 10th February

Trump Takes On the World, 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the foreign policies adopted by the erratic 45th President of the United States, as told by those who were in the room at the time. The opening episode focuses at the first 18 months of his term in office.

The Disappearance of Shannon Matthews 1/2, 9pm, Channel 5: This two-part documentary series investigates the extraordinary story that unfolded in Yorkshire in 2008 when a nine-year-old girl went missing… or did she?

Thursday 11th February

Match of the Day Live: The FA Cup, 7:30pm, BBC One: Our Gary is back with another FA Cup tie, this time from Oakwell, where Barnsley will be looking to inflict an upset on Chelsea, under new management after the recent firing of club legend Frank Lampard.

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, 9pm, ITV: The controversial journalist returns with a new series of the in-depth interview show, beginning with a bare-all chat with Gemma Collins, the ‘Queen of reality TV’.

Friday 12th February

Stonehenge: The Lost Circle Revealed, 9pm, BBC Two: Professor Alice Roberts presents a documentary following a team trying to solve the mystery of where the famous stones were quarried and where they first stood.

Big Weekends with Gregg Wallace 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Gregg the Egg is off to Barcelona in the first of four travel shows. In his weekend away, he’ll admire the astonishing architecture of Antoni Gaudi, visit a festival in the neighbourhood of Garcia, and taste an array of backstreet tapas.

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