TV blog: Great Canal Journeys in India

Benjie Goodhart / 15 June 2017

Timothy West and Prunella Scales travel the canals of India in this sumptuous new series.Plus, the best of the rest of this week on TV.

Great Canal Journeys 1/2, Sunday 18th June, 8pm, Channel 4

I once stayed on a houseboat in India. I was 17, travelling with friends, and we were in Srinagar, Kashmir. The boat and the location were indescribably beautiful, and the experience was brilliant right up until the moment when we got the cook arrested. The poor man was in charge of catering for several of the houseboats, including ours, and one fateful evening, we asked if he could get hold of some local herbs for us, to cook a curry. Due to a linguistic miscommunication, and to his not-unreasonable assumption about a bunch of British kids, he thought we were asking him to buy marijuana. We had to bribe the police to let him go. We never did get our herbs, or, indeed, any marijuana.

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You can’t see that sort of thing happening to Timothy West and Prunella Scales, who are travelling through some of India’s waterways on a houseboat for the latest incarnation of their Great Canal Journeys – although it would make for marvellous telly, and no little scandal. Fortunately for the viewer, this two-part series needs absolutely no help on the marvellous front – this is as delightful, visually opulent and genuinely charming as television gets; a soothing, hour-long balm against the vicissitudes of life.

In the first episode, our intrepid pair are off to Kerala, around the canals built to service the old spice route (NB this is not a route that was designed to carry cheap aftershave). It’s only a few weeks since we saw the good people of The Real Marigold Hotel pootling along the same canals, but it’s certainly spectacular enough to warrant another look.

The houseboat itself knocks your average rental barge, complete with dodgy camping stove and chemical toilet – into a cocked turban. It is stunning – ornate design, spacious decking, carved sofas, and a luxurious wood-panelled bedroom scattered with rose petals. 

Both Pru and Tim dive into the local culture with gusto and characteristic good humour. The history and culture are fascinating, but it is the scenery that is the star. The country is simply breath-taking. And, as ever with this show, there is an element of the melancholy: Prunella Scales has dementia, and is beginning to find aspects of life difficult. “Now more than ever,” West remarks in the voiceover, “it’s important to keep looking forward, and enjoying what time we have left together.” That they are willing to share a small slice of that time with us is an opportunity the viewer should not pass up.

With its dazzling breadth of experiences and deep spirituality, India never fails to delight the senses and uplift the soul. Find out more here.

Supersize Cabbies, Monday 19th June, 7:30pm, BBC One

There are careers that lend themselves naturally to fitness. I don’t mean like athlete, or fitness instructor. But a postie, or a gardener, or a bicycle courier (the latter keeps you fit for the three or four weeks before you’re hospitalised with a broken femur). But other jobs aren’t quite so aerobic. TV critic, for example. Most of us never see daylight, spend our waking hours with the blinds drawn watching dramas about serial killers and stuffing our faces with cake and crisps. It’s an odd existence.

Being a cabbie definitely falls into the latter category. You spend pretty much all of your time sitting down, inhaling exhaust fumes. And, if the cabbies in this programme are anything to go by, inhaling pies and burgers as well.

Roger and Mike are both drivers for a Plymouth-based tax company which has decided, en masse, to lose weight. Roger, 46, is 31 stone. While a staggering 25 per cent of Brits are classed as obese, Roger falls most definitively into the morbid category. His weight may already have had severe implications for his long-term health. If he doesn’t act now, that long-term health may soon cease to be an issue.

Mike, aged 30, is 20-stone. His weight issues started as a kid, as a result of bullying. The weight issues then exacerbated the bullying. Oh, the joys of childhood. Now he is expecting a child of his own, a reason to take a look at the bigger picture if ever there was one.

Helping them both is Gavin, a personal-trainer who is equal parts patron saint and sadist. He is determined to target their ‘visceral fat’ – the fat around the vital organs that can cause coronary heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and cancer. Visceral fat, it is fair to say, is not the friend of longevity. Gavin measures Roger’s visceral fat level. Anything above 13 is high. Roger’s is 50.

This is a peculiar but engaging film. It feels like the initial story was to follow an entire taxi firm as they tried to lose weight, but that story is quickly disregarded in favour of the more morbidly fascinating tales of Mike and, in particular, Roger. The result is a little disjointed, but the stories themselves are affecting and sad. Watching Roger, in particular, standing alone in his empty house, looking out of the window, coming to terms with a worrying diagnosis, is borderline tragic.

But where there’s life there’s hope. And where there’s Gavin, there’s hard graft… and results.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 17th June

The Autistic Gardener 1/3, 7pm, Channel 4: Alan Gardner (hello, nominative determinism) returns to transform more tired and drab gardens, working tonight on a triangular plot in Lancashire.

Pitch Battle 1/6, 7:30pm, BBC One: A nationwide talent show for choirs, this looks a lot of fun. The barely spellable Mel Giedroyc hosts, and judges include Gareth Malone, and singers Kelis and Bebe Rexha (ask your grandkids).

Sunday 18th June

Theresa v Boris: How May became PM, 9pm, BBC Two: Drama documentary, part of the Brexit – One Year On season, that may, in fact, be out of date before it’s hit the screens. Certainly it feels like there is an act or two to still be played out…

Monday 19th June

Tennis: Queens, 1pm, BBC Two: Sue Barker presents coverage all week from Queens, where Andy Murray is bidding for a record-breaking sixth title.

Ripper Street 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: More murderous Victorian melodrama. (Um… can you tell I’ve never seen it?)

Tuesday 20th June

ITV Racing Live: Royal Ascot, 1:30pm, ITV: All the fashion and fillies from one of the biggest social and sporting events in the racing calendar. Alternatively, a lot of people in silly hats and teeny men riding horses round in a big circle.

Hospital 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Not available for preview, this documentary, set in St Mary’s, Paddington, tonight features victims of the Westminster terror attack. Sadly, the hospital has been in the news once again this week after events in West London.

The Martin Lewis Money Show Live, 8pm, ITV: An hour-long live special from the end of Bournemouth pier, advising viewers on how to go on holiday for less.

Trouble in Poundland, 9pm, ITV: Looking at 12 months in the lives of the store and its customers.

Wednesday 21st June

Brexit Means Brexit, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary following the major protagonists over the last year. Expect a lot of people shouting at each other and telling absolute whoppers.

Love Your Garden, 8pm, ITV: Good ol’ Titchy returns with his series where he potters about the country making lovely gardens for deserving people. Positive, cheering, and often very moving, this is feel-good TV. And why the dickens not?

Thursday 22nd June

Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row, 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the history of immigration to the UK, and what it tells us about today. I have no room to write more, due to the absurd length of the title.

Friday 23rd June

The Celebrity Crystal Maze, Channel 4, 9pm: The magnificently deadpan Richard Ayoade hosts a new series of the celebrated 90s gameshow in aid of Stand Up to Cancer.

Glastonbury 2017, 8pm, BBC Two: Coverage begins tonight of the festival. You know what to do: Clear the living room, invite round a few chums, turn the volume up full, pop a couple of extra teabags in the pot, and go flippin’ mental all weekend. 

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