TV blog: The Ganges with Sue Perkins

11 October 2017

Two riveting travelogues compete for attention this week. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.

An apology to readers:

Not only are both of this week’s programmes travelogues – they are both on at 9pm on Thursday 19th October. I know what you’re thinking. “This nincompoop has a whole week to choose from – why did he have to pick two programmes on at the same time?” I can only apologise. Sometimes, when I choose what to write about, the programme’s actual transmission time hasn’t been finalised, and things have a tendency to move around in the schedules. As both are outstanding programmes, I’d suggest either watching Richard Wilson on More4 +1, straight after Sue Perkins, or finding one of them on Catch Up.

What is Catch Up TV?

7 tips for using BBC iPlayer

The Ganges with Sue Perkins, Thursday 19th October, 9pm, BBC One

We all deal with bereavement differently. Both Sue Perkins and I have lost our fathers in the last year. We both miss them a great deal, but while one of us has spent the time on the sofa self-medicating with cake and wine, the other has decided to use it as an inspiration to go off and discover more about the world. “Hmmm. But who did which?” I hear absolutely none of you ask…

Which is how we come to be here, with me sitting on the sofa, glass of Sauvignon and doorstep of banana bread in hand, watching the first in what promises to be a magical three-part series that sees the rather wonderful Ms Perkins travel the Ganges from source to sea, learning more about this sacred river and what it represents in a thriving, modern India.

To be honest, by the looks of things, I’m pleased it’s this way around. Sue starts off in the Himalayas, trekking towards the Ganges’ source. She looks cold and exhausted, and the altitude is making her sick. Her overnight accommodation is so cold she’s resorted to wandering around it wrapped in her sleeping bag, like a sickly caterpillar with specs. It’s draining, watching someone go through such physical hardship. I think maybe some more cake.

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

Perkins meets various deeply spiritual people, including a surprisingly garrulous cave-dwelling hermit (possibly the wrong career choice?) and a baba (holy man) who sits high in a wind-blasted valley in silent prayer for up to 13-hours-a-day. Such is life without decent wifi. She also meets a man known as ‘the clicking baba’, due to his preponderance for taking photos of everything. He’s like a religious version of David Bailey, if David Bailey was 90, wore orange and lived in a shack.

Walking in the footsteps of so many millions of pilgrims since time immemorial has a profound effect on Perkins, whose emotional openness and honesty is a thing to be hugely admired. Through tears, she talks with searing frankness about her dad, his death and her grief. It is profoundly touching, even if it’s a style of travelogue that Alan Whicker would struggle to recognise. And, I’ve no doubt, Perkins will come back emotionally unburdened, lighter for the experience. At least one of us is shedding weight.

Richard Wilson’s Highland Fling, Thursday 19th October, 9pm, More 4

It’s not often we meander away from the mainstream channels to the sections of the televisual map marked “Here Be Dragons” (and no, I don’t mean we’re reviewing Game of Thrones). And, generally speaking, I like to have a bit of variation in the two programmes I preview. But I make no apology this week for abandoning both of these principles, and trot over to More 4 to take in another travelogue.

But if Sue Perkins’ Ganges extravaganza is all altitude sickness and cave-dwelling, this one-off programme is a little more sedate, and distinctly more luxurious. It sees the actor Richard Wilson travelling around the Highlands of Scotland in the sort of manner to which Queen Victoria might have become accustomed if she’d been just a smidgeon posher.

Wilson’s journey sees him board the Royal Scotsman in London. With its fabulous sitting rooms, dining carriages, and wood-panelled bedrooms with en suite luxury, this is the Scottish version of Orient Express, with prices to match. Seven nights on board can cost in excess of £9,000, so the best thing to do is probably to have a hugely successful acting career and then get a broadcaster to pay your fare. That advice you can have for free.

Everything is beautiful. Those Victorians really knew how to travel in proper, opulent splendour. “The train dates back to the 1980s,” explains Wilson. Oh. Even the food looks beautiful, which knocks your traditional railway meal of a plastic piece of ham between two slices of polystyrene firmly into a cocked hat.

On arrival at somewhere called Boat of Garten, which is neither a boat nor a garden, Wilson disembarks, and is chauffeured 100 miles through epic Highland scenery to Oban, where he is embarking on the next leg of his slumming-it-in-Scotland experience. He’s spending a week on board the Hebridean Princess, a small cruise ship with a none-too-shabby pedigree – the Queen has chartered it for private holidays twice.

Wilson and 50 other guests are housed in magnificent luxury as they tour the islands of Scotland’s West Coast. There is an undoubted vicarious delight in watching someone travel in the style to which none of us, sadly, will ever become accustomed. And Scotland is a magnificent backdrop, as Scotland always is.

In many respects, then, this is the absolute yin to the yang of Perkins’ programme. But in other ways they are strikingly similar. Both Perkins and Wilson have had miserable years, and are on journeys to make sense of what happened. A year ago, Wilson had a heart attack that almost killed him. Like Perkins, his openness and honesty is striking, and it makes for compelling and occasionally moving viewing. That both are also funny, engaging characters travelling around places of astonishing natural beauty is more than a bonus.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 15th October

Louis Theroux: Dark States – Trafficking Sex, 9pm, BBC Two: Theroux’s look at the seedy underbelly of America sees him travel to Houston to investigate the illegal sex industry.

Monday 16th October

Tricks of the Restaurant Trade, 8:30pm, Channel 4: A new six part series for the show that promises to help viewers secure the best dining experience for their money. Simon Rimmer, Sophie Morgan and Adam Pearson chew over the facts.

Read our guide to getting a great deal in a restaurant

George Michael: Freedom, 9pm, Channel 4: This enlightening film is a salutary reminder of the stellar talents that the singer and musician tragically took with him to his grave last Christmas. This is his last piece of work, and tells his story, as he saw it. And he, after all, should know. 

Tuesday 17th October

Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me, 9pm, BBC Two: The broadcaster and naturalist takes an impressively and characteristically brutally honest assessment of what it’s like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome, how it has affected his life, and whether he would ever want to submit to new therapy to make him ‘normal’. Whatever that is.

Wednesday 18th October

Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke, 8pm, Channel 4: New series for the show that is basically a familiar formula (home makeover) with an almost uniquely awful title.

Army: Behind the New Frontlines, 9pm, BBC Two: First in a three part series looking at how the British army’s role in overseas conflict has changed from active to a more tactical role. Tonight, the British forces offer assistance in the Battle of Mosul.

Thursday 19th October

Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, 8:30pm, ITV: The preternaturally warm and big-hearted O’Grady returns for another series of the delightful (and occasionally devastating) series from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, where events can sometimes be a little ruff. (Oh please yourselves!)

Gordon Ramsay on Cocaine, 9pm, ITV: Oh, what wags they are at ITV with their wittily risqué title. In fact, this two-part documentary series is a sober look at the damage the drug can do not just to those who take it, but to whole communities back in South and Central America, where the drug cartels hold sway in an atmosphere of terrifying lawlessness. 

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