TV blog: Great Canal Journeys

Benjie Goodhart / 04 October 2018

The nation’s favourite narrowboaters take to the Nile for a glorious journey through history.

Great Canal Journeys, Sunday 7th October, 8pm, Channel 4

The days are getting shorter, we’ve all had to stick the heating on and Brexit continues to drive the nation apart, but Tim and Pru are back, so all is right with the world. This time, they’re off to Egypt, to sail along the Nile.

Feel the dry desert breeze from the Sahara and contemplate 5,000 years of human history in the magical land of the pharaohs. Find out more here

Our heroes are sailing along a 150-mile stretch of the Nile. It might be pushing it a bit to claim that a 4,000 mile river qualifies as a ‘canal’, but when you’re surrounded by this much culture, history and beauty, who’s going to quibble. Besides, I don’t care if Tim and Pru sail back-and-forth from one end of Dingle Reservoir to the other for a week, I’d still watch them.

Pru, whose gentle decline into memory loss has been sensitively documented in previous series, seems as perky as ever. “Some days I don’t know if it’s Monday or Lewisham,” she quips. Meanwhile Tim frets as to whether it’s fair to take her on these trips. But the mention of Egypt seems to enthuse both of them, which is Tim’s cue to start quoting Anthony and Cleopatra. He does love a good quote, our Tim! He promises Pru a ‘poop of beaten gold’. I did one of them once. I think it was a surfeit of carrots.

It may not have a poop of beaten gold, but the Nour El Nil barge they are travelling on is positively regal in its splendour; a huge, flat-bottomed floating palace with a crew of 12 and 70-foot sails. First port of call is Karnak, with its fabulous ancient temple. Mind you, you get the impression every hamlet in Egypt has its own fabulous temple. They’re like Egypt’s version of Pret a Manger.

Then it’s on to their hotel for the night, The Winter Palace. It seems an odd name for a hotel in the middle of endless scorching desert, a bit like building a hotel called The Palm Oasis in Antarctica or Sunshine View in Manchester. Mind you, if you have a room with a balcony overlooking the Nile and the Valley of the Kings, I suppose you can call it whatever you want.

The programme sees them visit some spectacular temples (natch!) including one which is filled with mummified crocodiles, who have hung on to their air of brooding menace despite having been dead for 2500 years. They visit Aswan, where they try a shisha pipe (“I’m rather enjoying it. Can you give me another toke,” says a cheerful Pru). Meanwhile, in the nearby bazaar, a trader offers Tim some Egyptian herbal Viagra. “Fifteen minutes, you’re like a horse,” claims the enthusiastic retailer. Thankfully, we don’t then cut to a shot of Tim on all fours, in a field, enjoying a meal of grass and hay.

As ever, among the history and humour, there is a pervading heir of gentle melancholy which gives this series such beauty. There are references to how much longer they can keep going on these magnificent trips, and after giving us a lifetime of entertainment, they have earned their rest. But oh, not yet, Tim and Pru. Not yet.

Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds, Monday 8th October, 9pm, Channel 4

On the whole, if a scientist comes to you and asks if you’d like to take part in some sort of a trial, it’s probably best to say no, unless you want to see out your years with blue ears and a leg growing out of your forehead. But if they happen to mention that the trial in question involves hanging out with a bunch of four-year-olds for a few weeks for a TV programme, jump at the chance, because this looks like glorious fun. And, unlike most forms of fun (Sauvignon Blanc, skateboarding, cake) this one could actually extend your life.

The first series of this show measured the physical and emotional wellbeing of the old people after spending weeks with their new little friends. In every instance, their results improved. (This seems to be in marked contrast to my own experiences – I’ve spent the past decade with my own children, and they have almost certainly shortened my life!) Now, for series two, the experiment is longer and larger, and the kids’ development is being measured as well.

The action takes place at Lark Hall, in Nottingham. With over 400 residents living in flats or bungalows, it is the largest retirement village in the country. The ten older people taking part range in age from 81 to the magnificent 102-year-old Sylvia. Sylvia has been a widow for 40 years, and recalls giving birth to her first child during a raid in the Blitz! Meanwhile Victor, a stripling at 97, was on the beaches of Dunkirk. Though today, he has “fallen into this doldrum” and spends most of his time watching CCTV footage on his telly (I know daytime TV isn’t always brilliant, Vic, but it must be better than watching people come and go in the building… Then again, Jeremy Kyle…)

The little people are all magnificent and funny and fabulous, because at that age, they all are. I particularly like the girl who is asked “how old is really, really old?” She thinks for a while. “37,” she replies emphatically. We’re all doing well, then…

The adults and kids get to know each other, with trepidation on both sides. As an ice-breaking exercise, they draw each other. Phoenix, though, just wants to play. Lavinia, 81, tries to get him involved, and gives him a picture. The next day, he comes in and gives her a picture he has made for her at home. Lavinia says she’ll frame it. Both parties are thrilled.

There’s something of the rebel about Lavinia. She recalls writing her name on a church wall as a kid, and laments her decision to put her own name up there. Then again, what sort of a monster would write someone else’s name on a wall in order to get them into trouble? (The previous sentence is directed very specifically at my sister Laura, by the way. You know what you did!)

The programme is absolutely packed with tiny triumphs like Lavinia’s picture. But there is sadness and loss, too, and not just for the older residents. Four-year-old Scarlett’s mum died just nine months ago. Her dad seems like one of those everyday heroes who just plough on regardless of life’s vicissitudes, but it doesn’t stop 85-year-old Beryl from worrying about Scarlett.

There is still time for gingerbread man decorating (though there seems to be more eating than decorating going on) a trip out on the tram, dance lessons, and making party invitations for their parents. The kids’ parents, I mean, not the residents’. Though having witnessed Sylvia’s extraordinary vitality, it wouldn’t surprise me if her mum and dad turn up in episode two, as part of a breakdancing troupe.

The best and the rest

Saturday 6th October

Troubles: The Life After, 9:30pm, BBC Two: A commendable and powerful feature-length documentary looking at the 30 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland from the perspective of the bereaved.

Sunday 7th October

Doctor Who 1/11, 6:45pm, BBC One: For some, this will be the most eagerly anticipated television moment of the year. For others, it will inspire fury and bile, because, while it’s plausible that you can have a time-travelling alien with two hearts saving the Universe every week, the idea of it being a female is absurd. But all accounts suggest Jodie Whittaker is a triumph in the role. Hurrah!

Still Open All Hours 1/7, 8:30pm, BBC One: Still going… My mum is staying this Sunday, so I daresay we’ll have to watch.

Last Chance Lawyer New York City 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary about celebrated criminal lawyer Howard Greenberg, whose mission in life is to take on the US Government. While the subject matter looks fascinating, this must be the worst series title of the year.

Tuesday 9th October

Love Your Home and Garden 1/3, 8pm, ITV: Hurrah! Alan Titchmarsh is back, and this time he’s not just making improvements to your garden! This series promises improvements both inside and outside the home for deserving recipients. Tonight’s is 15-year-old Josh, who is wheelchair bound, and needs better access to both kitchen and garden.

A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: This should be a riveting three-part series about the Al-Assad family that has ruled Syria since 1971. Spoiler alert: It’s not going well.

Thursday 11th October

Gordon, Gino and Fred: Road Trip 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Egos and testosterone presumably abound in this add concept, a three-part travelogue where Messrs Ramsay, D’Acampo and Sireix travel to each other’s homelands for a cultural and gastronomic extravaganza.

Friday 12th October

Would I Lie to You? 1/10, 9:30pm, BBC One: Return of the show that is consistently the funniest on British television. This week, Lee, David and Rob are joined by Dion Dublin, Bob Mortimer, Lucy Porter and Debbie McGee.

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