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TV reviews: Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland and Top Gear

Benjie Goodhart / 11 November 2021

Miriam Margolyes and Alan Cumming reconnect with their roots as they travel around Scotland in a camper van, and Top Gear returns and hits its stride. Plus, the best of the rest of the week's television.

Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes in Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland
Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes in Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland, Channel 4. Photo by Graeme Hunter Pictures

Top Gear, Sunday 14th November, 8pm, BBC One

Cards on the table: I have absolutely no interest in cars. I mean, I find them a perfectly convenient way to get from A to B, and I like driving (provided it’s not an eleven hour trip to Scotland with two kids arguing in the back, a dog needing the toilet, and a wife shouting at me every three minutes over some perceived automotive infraction). I find driving can be quite relaxing, a way to focus and quiet the mind in its more fractious moments. But as regards what’s under the bonnet, I couldn’t give a stuff, as long as it doesn’t explode.

It came as something of a surprise to me, then, to discover, about 12 years ago, that I rather enjoyed Top Gear. It felt like a bit of a dirty secret, though. I live in Brighton, a liberal enclave where you can almost certainly be arrested for watching anything featuring Jeremy Clarkson. And it presented me with a dilemma: Was it okay to enjoy a show that flaunted its climate change denial tendencies like a badge of honour, and made comments about foreign countries that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1950s?

Ultimately, the dilemma was solved for me, thanks to a cold dinner and an angry presenter. After the departure of Clarkson, May and Hammond, the show lost its way a little in the era of Chris Evans and Matt Leblanc, before settling on the three current presenters: Freddie Flintoff, Paddy McGuinness and Chris Harris.

This is the fifth series that the trio have helmed together, and they just get better and better. While the show is still distinctly male, laddish and testosterone-fuelled, it has lost an element of the snide humour, not to mention that tittering at the idea of climate change or people with foreign accents.

Instead, the show is rather more inclusive, respectful and cuddly. The fun, and the rewardingly daft idiocy, is still there, and the three presenters have a chemistry and a fondness for each other that surely cannot be faked.

The first episode of the new series gets off to a distinctly turbo-charged start, as the three amigos each go for a spin around a circuit in their chosen ‘track specials’ – fast cars that have been made even faster by their manufacturers, for driving round a track.

I know, I know, in the shadow of COP26, is there really an excuse for making cars even more powerful, guzzling more fuel, so that an over-excited bonds trader can buy one and accelerate even quicker on his way to the golf course? And the answer is clearly no. But if we put aside the environmental lunacy of the endeavour, this is a really fun segment.

In their extremely fast cars, the three drive about talking to the camera and whooping a lot, as they tend to do in Top Gear, before getting down to the serious business of racing. But this time, they’re not racing each other – they’re racing F1 drivers Lando Norris, Sebastian Vettel and Antonio Giovinazzi – three of the fastest men on the planet. While the result is never in doubt, the fun is in the journey, which is rather appropriate in a programme about cars.

Next up, we have a tribute to the legendary Eddie Kidd. Paddy McGuinness waxes lyrical about his childhood hero, a man of impossible courage and skill, who also had matinee good looks and a hefty dose of charisma. The resulting film, featuring clips of some of Kidd’s insane, death-defying stunts, is riveting, nostalgic and, ultimately, genuinely moving. You don’t expect to watch Top Gear and have to wipe a tear from your eye, but in this new, touchy-feely version of the show, you just don’t know.

Top Gear ‘woke up’ – and is all the better for it.

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Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland 1/3, Tuesday 16th November, 9pm, Channel 4

Regular readers of this column will know of my deep and profound love of Miriam Margolyes. To me, she epitomises Jenny Joseph’s wonderful poem ‘Warning’ (you know, the one that begins “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”.) She is growing old disgracefully, filled with joy and vigour and mischief.

I’m aware, however, that she is a very polarising figure. Our nextdoor neighbours cannot bear her – they think of her as vulgar and coarse and boorish (all of which she undoubtedly is). So, I suppose how much you enjoy this new three-part travelogue that sees her and actor Alan Cumming exploring their Scottish roots is largely dependent on how you feel about Miriam.

And Alan Cumming, too, of course. Cumming is a wonderful actor and great company – funny and clever and warm – and the two of them make for an unlikely but utterly beguiling duo. Unless you hate them – in which case, they’re awful.

Over three weeks, they are travelling around Scotland in a camper van (although, mysteriously, there seems to be no indication that they are actually sleeping in it – I suspect each evening ended up in between high-thread cotton sheets in a variety of salubrious hotels…) visiting places of significance from their past as they reconnect with their Celtic roots.

First off, in Glasgow, they pay a visit to Allison Street, the Govanhill road where Miriam’s father lived as an infant in 1901. His were humble beginnings, with a family of six living in one or two rooms. Then, it’s off to a tartan mill near the Cromarty Firth, with Miriam regaling Alan with a typically absurd story about how her knickers fell off during her first driving test (she failed). Tartan is an important part of Alan’s Scottish identity, and he has commissioned a brand new form of tartan for the two of them – a flamboyantly colourful offering with which Miriam is touchingly thrilled.

A journey to Cawdor Castle brings out the (barely concealed) thespian in Alan, who can’t stop quoting the bard. But it’s not just Shakespearian links that have brought them there. Alan’s family worked on Cawdor estate for generations. A portrait of one of the former Earl’s of Cawdor bears a remarkable resemblance to Alan, which has him thinking there may have been some below stairs shenanigans, and he may have blue blood running through his veins. He has commissioned a DNA test to learn if he is related to the Earl of Cawdor.

Next up is a diverting trip to the charming village of Fordyce, to meet the wonderful Bill Paterson, with whom Miriam worked 41 years ago in the village, on a series called The Lost Tribe. It’s a happy reunion, filled with jokes and happy memories.

Less happy is their next calling point – the house where Alan grew up. Living under the yoke of his cruel father, Alan was subjected to a traumatic childhood. “Everybody was scared of him. He was a tyrant,” he recalls. Faced with the prospect of going into the house, Alan declines – the memories are too raw. It is a moving and sobering moment.

Back to Cawdor Castle, Alan is excited to discover whether he has aristocratic heritage. En route, they have to stop off to empty their ‘grey water waste’ from the motor home (don’t ask). Before the big reveal, though, there’s still time for some sage advice from Miriam to Alan. “You can’t live your life being frightened of Madonna.” Wise words indeed.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 13th November

Monty: Our WW2 Hero, 6:30pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary telling the story of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, whose military genius played a key part in the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance 2021, 9pm, BBC One: Huw Edwards presents coverage of a show live from the Royal Albert Hall, where stars including Alfie Boe, Jack Savoretti and Alexandra Burke will entertain an audience including members of the royal family, in memory of those who have lost their lives in conflict.

Sunday 14th November

Remembrance Sunday, 6:50pm, BBC Two: David Dimbleby presents footage from this morning’s service at Westminster Abbey.

The Lakes with Simon Reeve 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: The traveller and presenter journeys closer to home for this new series, which sees him exploring the splendour of the fabulous Lake District. But beyond the rolling hills and stunning views, life here is hard for a number of permanent residents.

Monday 15th November

Live International Football: San Marino v England, 7pm, ITV: Mark Pougatch presents live coverage of England’s World Cup qualifier against perennial whipping boys San Marino. Expect goals.

Food Unwrapped, 8pm, Channel 4: The food magazine show returns for a new run, with the first episode investigating how the industry is meeting the challenges of climate change.

Kate Humble: Good Life, Green Life, 8pm, Channel 5: the broadcaster and farmer shows us how to live sustainably, maintain biodiversity, cut waste and save money in this new series.

Ancient Secrets of Althorp with Charles Spencer, 9pm, Channel 4: Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, has long been fascinated by stories of a lost Anglo Saxon village somewhere on his estate. But a team brought in to investigate ends up discovering something far older…

Diana: Queen of Style, 10pm, Channel 4: Documentary telling the story of fashion icon Princess Diana’s life through her most famous outfits.

Tuesday 16th November

Who Wants to be a Millionaire Celebrity Special, 9pm, ITV: Jeremy Clarkson returns with the quiz show where celebrities including Robert Rinder and Scarlett Moffatt can win huge sums of money for charity. Continues tomorrow.

DIY SOS: The Big Build Children in Need Special, 9pm, BBC One: Comedian Rhod Gilbert guest presents as the team get to work transforming an overgrown 2.5 acre site into an adventure campsite for a youth organisation.

Wednesday 17th November

Grand Designs: Home of the Year 1/4, 9pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud presents the ultimate in property porn, as we take a gander round some of the most spectacular new homes in the land, and wonder why we’ve not hoovered under the bed for six months.

Friday 19th November

BBC Children in Need 2021, 7pm, BBC One: Broadcasters including Graham Norton and Mel Giedroyc present sketches, musical performances and special guests in the annual charity fundraiser live from Salford. Chequebooks and hankies at the ready…

Griff’s Great New Zealand Adventure, 8pm, ITV: The delightful Mr Rhys Jones presents a brand new travelogue series which sees him exploring the many and varied wonders of New Zealand.

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