TV blog: Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure

Benjie Goodhart / 06 September 2018

Joanna Lumley, Britain’s best-loved TV travel companion, visits Venice, Albania and Istanbul in part one of a four-part series exploring the Silk Road.

Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure 1/4, Wednesday 12th September, 9pm, ITV

There is much to complain about in the world. My daily battle with automated supermarket checkouts still reduces me to a state of near apoplexy. I live in a house with three people who think that even the tiniest house spider is a messenger of death sent by Beelzebub. And then there’s American politics. But this week, there is a skip in my step and a song in my heart, because national treasure Joanna Lumley is back with another travel series, and for a moment, all is right with the world.

This time, she’s journeying 7000 miles along the Silk Road, the old route used by traders that linked Europe with the Far East. She starts off in Venice. Start me off on a travelogue in Venice and the chances are it wouldn’t go any further. Why would you ever want to leave? The place is utterly bewitching. I took my wife there when we were courting, and it still rates as just about the most magical few days of my life. Although I wouldn’t recommend stopping for a drink in St Mark’s Square. It was £15 for a coke. Which my wife then promptly knocked over. Not that it still makes me break out in a rage-fuelled sweat 15 years later. That would be indicative of a dangerously tight-fisted psychopath…

Anyway, if you think the drinks in St Mark’s Square are expensive, you haven’t been to the family silk business that Joanna visits. Here, the fabrics are hand-woven on ancient looms, and are unimaginably ornate and luxurious. Which may be why they come with a price tag of 5000 euros per metre. Pound-for-pound, you’d probably get Lionel Messi cheaper.

Joanna has a high old time in Venice (much as you’d expect – it seems to be the sort of place she belongs). She flirts with a gondolier, visits a few churches, and goes in search of Marco Polo artefacts – which are always easy to spot, as they’re the ones with the holes in the middle. (Boom-tish – I’m available for private functions, barmitzvahs, weddings, you name it).

The five best places to visit in Venice

Then it’s on to the slightly less touristy location of rural Albania, where Joanna and a local archaeologist go off in search of the Via Ignatia, the old Roman road that became the Spice Road. They find it – at least, they find a load of old flagstones that he says is the Via Ignatia, so that’ll have to do. He’s a charming chap at any rate, and I think he’s taken quite a shine to Joanna. He’s even brought along a bottle of the local wine to impress her. What woman, after all, is able to resist a warm bottle of Albanian white wine?

Discovering Albania

From here, she journeys to Istanbul, the gateway between Europe and Asia, and home to a whopping 19 million people. For some reason or other, she goes to the home of one of the richest families in Turkey. It is a magnificent waterfront palace on the Bosphorus, and the interior is just about the gaudiest and most vulgar scene imaginable. There’s so much gold and brocade, it looks like Liberace, Michael Jackson and Donald Trump got together, drank a vat of Absinthe, and maxed out their credit cards.

Sightseeing heaven - amazing places in Istanbul

But it’s the breath-taking caves and rock formations of Cappadocia that steal the show. Here there exists a quite astonishing subterranean city from the 3rd Century. Claustrophobes, it must be said, should not apply.

All that, and there’s still time for a romantic sleeper train, a stunning cathedral that was once a pigeon loft, some Turkish cheese-making, and a visit to a family of nomadic herders. She packs it all in, our Joanna - game, classy and charming to the last. Welcome back, Your Royal Lumliness.

Read our interview with Joanna Lumley

Discover Joanna Lumley’s favourite TV travel destinations

Princess Margaret: The Rebel Royal 1/2, Tuesday 11th September, 9pm, BBC Two

There is a song in the (brilliant) kids’ musical Matilda that is all about the pernicious influence of television. It contains the line “All I know I learned from telly.” I have come to the startling realisation that this is almost certainly true of me.

Take Princess Margaret, for example. All I ever knew about her was that she was a rather distant, slightly forlorn-looking figure who appeared to hide her disappointment with life behind dark glasses and a perpetual frown. Then I saw her story (brilliantly played by Vanessa Kirby) in The Crown, and the truth about her confusing life of luxury and duty in a gilded cage became vividly apparent.

One of the many pleasures of watching The Crown has been how it has inspired me to read up on the history and people portrayed. (I don’t want to get too grandiose here, it’s not like I’ve been going off into dusty archives to read original source material, I’ve just typed “Lord Snowdon” into Google and read the corresponding Wikipedia article.)

Anyway, as a result of all of this, I was slightly more informed about Princess Margaret’s life than I would have been two years ago. But this documentary (the first of a two-part series) provided a fascinating counterpoint to the drama, at some points reinforcing the impression given by The Crown, at others contradicting it. One example of the latter comes from a friend of Margaret’s, who claimed that the Princess seemed remarkably unbothered by her decision to split from Group Captain Peter Townsend rather than marry him. In The Crown, this was depicted as the single defining moment of her life, as duty and protocol forced her to abandon a future with her one true love.

The film features a wealth of archive footage, and some revealing interviews with friends and royal experts. There are also some fascinating snippets of her Desert Island Discs with Roy Plumley from 1981, not least among which is Margaret’s description of Buckingham Palace as “a very cosy house,” as if it were a two-up-two-down terraced home in Bethnal Green.

The Princess comes across as a welter of contradictions. She felt trapped by her position and her status, and yet was a stickler for protocol. She insisted that her friends called her ‘ma’am’ and walked a step behind her. But the trappings of royalty carried a burden, and the fact that she didn’t have a defined role in the way that her sister did, meant that her life lacked a sense of direction. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but in some senses, the head that wears the much smaller crown next to her was heavier still.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 8th September

Strictly Come Dancing, 7:35pm, BBC One: The ‘sequintessential’ Saturday night entertainment show returns for a new series, all sparkles and glam. Contestants include cricketer Graeme Swann, fashionista Susannah Constantine, This Morning’s Doctor Ranj Singh, while Kate Silverton fills the ever-present newsreader slot.

Massacre at Ballymurphy, 9pm, Channel 4: Feature-length documentary investigating the massacre in West Belfast in August 1971, when 11 people were killed after British forces opened fire on Catholic residents.

Sunday 9th September

Battle of Britain: Model Squadron 1/3, 8pm, Channel 4: Radio-controlled plane enthusiasts from Germany and Britain come together to recreate some of the most pivotal days of the Battle of Britain. Sounds utterly bonkers, but it certainly piques the curiosity!

Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: Fans of watching celebrities suffer should tune in. Among those featured are Hollywood’s Eric Roberts, Martin Kemp, Olympian James Cracknell, and woman-of-the-moment Rozanne Hallett.

Monday, 10th September

Travel Man 1/4, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Richard Ayoade and guest Frank Skinner are off for a short stay in Switzerland which, I am assured, is not a euphemism for euthanasia, in this welcome return for the cheerfully irreverent travel show.

Black Earth Rising 1/8, 9pm, BBC Two: The fabulously talented Michaela Coel stars alongside Harriet Walter and American heavyweight John Goodman in this tale about the Rwandan genocide and the ripples that continue to spread outwards decades later.

Strangers 1/8, 9pm, ITV: You can’t move for major new dramas on TV at the moment, and this one is given added promise by the presence of the ever-reliable John Simm, as a man whose wife has been killed in a car crash in Hong Kong. But what is the truth behind the secret life she appears to have been leading?

Tuesday, 11th September

Celebs in Solitary Meltdown 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: How would it be to spend five days in a room, all on your own, not setting eyes on a single other person? Three celebrities, of whom you may well not have heard, endeavour to find out.

Wednesday, 12th September

Trust 1/10, 9pm, BBC Two: New US drama starring Donald Sutherland and Hilary Swank, surrounding the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in 1973 by the Mafia in Rome.

Thursday, 13th September

Serial Killer with Piers Morgan, 9pm, ITV: As yet another Crime and Punishment season ticks over on ITV, we are treated to yet another instance of Piers Morgan meeting a hideous murderer. Today is my birthday. I will reward myself by not watching.

No Offence 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: DI Viv Deering and the Friday Street team return for a new series of Paul Abbott’s deliciously dark police drama.

Friday, 14th September

The Strait 1/4, 8pm, ITV: A year in the life of the Menai Strait in Wales, following the people and wildlife over the four seasons.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.