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TV blog: Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti

Benjie Goodhart / 06 March 2020

Our TV blogger takes a look at Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti, Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure and the best of the rest...

Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure 1/2, Monday 9th March, 9pm, BBC Two

We’re a heavyweight nation. I don’t mean geopolitically, economically or culturally. I mean it literally. We are a bit too fond of a curry, a chip and a pint. We are, collectively, fatter than we’ve ever been. I include myself. A nasty bout of plantar fasciitis followed by a meniscal tear has meant I’ve not been able to exercise for the best part of a year, and I have not adjusted my calorific intake accordingly. (For the thousands of you craving more information about my riveting medical history, please feel free to contact me directly…)

A two-part documentary series investigating the causes of, and solutions to, our national obesity problem sounds about as appetising as a celery and wheatgrass smoothie. But throw into the mix the deliciously irreverent Miriam Margolyes in the presenting role, and suddenly things are looking a good deal more palatable.

As ever, Margolyes is blunt, forthright, honest and completely unfettered. The opening scene sees her being weighed. At 4’11” and 14st10, she has a BMI of 41.6, and classifies as morbidly obese. But it’s Miriam. She doesn’t care, right? She’s brilliant, and happy to stick to fingers up at society’s obsession with thin-ness, I have no doubt. “I’m happy with who I am,” she says. Oh, so are we, Miriam, so are we. “But I am disgusted by my body. I loathe it.” Oh. “It’s difficult being fat. It’s a hard, miserable fate.” Oh lawks. I’d like to hug Miriam, but I think she’d respond by belting me. Also, note to self, you can’t hug people through the TV screen.

“It seems we’ve become a nation of humungous arses,” she says in voiceover, while showing the rear end of some poor, unsuspecting member of the public walking down the street. “Sagging bellies,” she continues, while the cameras focus in on someone’s swollen gut. “And pendulous bosoms.” You wouldn’t be delighted if you were the man in the Wolves football strip whose man-boobs fill the screen at this stage.

First stop for Miriam is a boot camp in Shropshire. She begins by interviewing Craig and Paula, who run the place. Craig starts telling her about the activities, before Miriam interrupts him: “Are you two lovers?” Erm… what? What documentary do you think you’re making, exactly?

It’s a mixture of exercise, portion control and counselling. Miriam isn’t keen on the exercise, but to be fair, she’s 78. Besides, sport was never her thing. She reflects that she was always picked last at school. “Just as I was the very last person at the school dance. And I was always the wallflower that was stuck longest to the side of the wall. It’s a humiliation you don’t forget.”

There can’t be many things sadder than hearing someone still reliving that kind of humiliation 60 years later. And there is plenty to be sad about here. And angry. Like the fact that fattism is the last acceptable prejudice, and that fat people face abuse and judgement on a daily basis. Miriam meets people whose struggles with their weight are inextricably intertwined with their mental health. More optimistically, she also meets people who are embracing their larger size. They are able to persuade Miriam that it is possible to be both fat and comfortable with oneself.

This two-parter (the second programme is tomorrow night) is hugely watchable, as is anything with Miriam Margolyes. But this is more than just her larking about and being shocking (though those of a sensitive disposition may find the language a tad fruity). It turns out that she is also a sensitive, thoughtful interviewer, and someone who is unafraid to ask the hard questions. In short, she is a national treasure, with a BMI of 100. Bloody Marvellous Index, that is.

Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti, Tuesday 10th March, 9pm, ITV

The day this story will be published is my son’s 12th birthday. We’ve got quite the weekend planned for him. My wife has convinced me this is still too young to take him out for a pub-crawl, so instead we’re doing presents and a steak dinner on Friday. He loves nothing more than steak that has basically spent a couple of seconds in the same postcode as a candle – I think he may be a sort of lion-zombie hybrid. Anyway, the following day, he and his friends are all going gaming, followed by pizza. It’s basically two days of unadulterated bliss for him. Which is just as it should be.

But I have great news for everyone. It turns out that it’s all of our birthdays this week. It must be. That’s the only explanation for the largesse the TV gods have bestowed upon us – that we, too, are entitled to our own two days of bliss. Because hot on the heels of Miriam Margolyes, the pint-sized, potty-mouthed, irascible and irreverent national treasure, we have the radiant, fragrant elegance and indisputable charm of the fabulous Joanna Lumley as she travels across two of the Caribbean’s lesser-known island nations.

Actually, the first part of Lumley’s odyssey is on at the same time as the second part of Myriam’s show, which may eventually prove too much simultaneous magnificence for the Universe to handle. But if, by some miracle, we don’t all end up sucked into a worm-hole-vortex of televisual fabulousness, viewers will have to plan ahead. If you have the facility, remember to record one. If not, you could always watch Miriam on BBC Two and then watch Joanna on ITV+1 straight after. Or watch Joanna, and then catch Miriam on iPlayer. Just don’t force yourself to pick between the two – a Sophie’s choice for the digital age.

Anyoldhoo, I should probably tell you something about the programme, seeing as that’s what I’m employed to do. This two-part series follows Joanna Lumley making her way across Cuba and then on to Haiti, in an effort to show us that there is more to the Caribbean than all-inclusive hotels with white sandy beaches and azure waters. I mean, booooriiing, who needs that stuff, right?

First off, she’s in Havana, with its extraordinary sense of faded grandeur, like an old Spanish city that has fallen on hard times. Which makes sense, I suppose, as it’s an old Spanish city that has fallen on hard times. Lumley stalks the streets, admiring the architecture. “Here we’ve got a lovely light cream, and this dull raspberry sorbet.” Which is great if you’re talking about house colours, less good if it’s a restaurant review.

Much of Cuba’s appeal, to outsiders, comes from this sense of faded grandeur, that looks from a distance like a sort of designer shabby chic, but is, in fact, born of grim economic realities. Thanks to economic sanctions, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, this pariah state is very poor. The whole place could double as an extremely large set for an Alfred Hitchcock film. There are no neon adverts, or 4G connectivity. And the cars are all absolutely gorgeous vintage numbers – although in Cuba they’re not vintage cars, they’re just… cars.

Lumley visits a grand old villa inhabited by a grand old lady. Both seem to yearn for happier times. Each room is a monument to a bygone era, with gorgeous furniture and vintage books surrounded by peeling paint and frayed curtains. The fridge is a 1942 model, and has never needed to be repaired. The whole place has an air of beautiful, decaying melancholy. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the patron don a wedding dress and produce a girl called Estella.

One of the things Cuba is famous for is boxing. They’ve won a remarkable 37 golds at the Olympics since 1972. Lumley declares grandly that she’s been a fan of the sport “ever since meeting Muhammad Ali in the 70s.” I’m not sure if that clang you can hear is the bell ringing at the boxing gym she’s visiting, or just the sound of a rather large name being dropped from a great height.

There’s also time for visits to tobacco plantations, cigar factories, spectacular roadside services (eat your heart out Newport Pagnell), purpose-built sugar-towns, rhumba-dancing troupes, hurricane-damaged mangroves, and an absurdly opulent new holiday development. The viewer is left with the sense of a place that is full of spirit, perhaps a little frayed around the edges, and long on charm and beauty. A bit like the show’s presenter.

Joanna Lumley talks to Saga

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 7th March

The Royals: A Family in Crisis, 8pm, Channel 5: Oh lawks. Harry and Meghan, Andrew and Epstein, Phillip and driving – it’s not been an easy time for the royals, as this feature-length doc reveals.

Hilary Mantel: Return to Wolf Hall, 9pm, BBC Two: Profile of author Hilary Mantel coinciding with the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the final novel in her award-winning Tudor trilogy.

Sunday 8th March

Race Across the World, 8pm, BBC Two: Five pairs race each other across the globe, with limited cash, no mobile phones or credit cards, and a no-flying rule. It’s what I like to think of as my 20s.

Tuesday 10th March

The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer, 8pm, Channel 4: Hurrah! The celeb version of the nation’s favourite baking show is back, raising money, awareness, and cake batter. Donning the aprons this week are Louis Theroux, Russell Howard, the appropriately-named Jenny Éclair, and Ovie Soko, with whom you will all be familiar thanks to his stint on Love Island.

Elizabeth I and II: Britain's Golden Queens, 9pm, Channel 5: The broadcaster’s royal obsession continues unabated, this time with a documentary examining the similarities between the two Queen’s reigns. Hmmm.

Five Guys a Week, 9:15pm, Channel 4: Dating show in which a single girl invites five men who are looking for love to move into her home and live with her for a week, all at the same time. On each day she eliminates one of them, whittling them down to the last man standing.

Wednesday 11th March

The Heat is On: Sport Relief, 8pm, BBC One: Nick Grimshaw, Frankie Bridge, Rob Rinder, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Karim Zeroual, Samantha Womack and Louise Minchin attempt to cross the world's oldest desert in Namibia, all to raise money for Sport Relief.

Location, Location, Location, 8pm, Channel 4: Phil and Kirstie return for series two-kerjillion of the property-and-bantz extravaganza.

Child of Our Time: Turning 20, 9pm, BBC Two: 20 years ago the cameras started filming a group of babies, to discover what it’s like growing up in the modern world. Now, this documentary catches up with three of them – Rhianna, Jamie and Eve.

Thursday 12th March

How to Beat – Aging, 8pm, Channel 4: Kate Quilton and Dr Javid Abdelmoneim explore small changes people can make to take care of their mental and physical health, beginning with methods of lowering the biological age. Hopefully this will involve drinking copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and eating loads of burgers. In which case, immortality awaits.

The Station: Trouble on the Tracks 1/3, 9pm, ITV: New documentary series following the staff of Network Rail based at Birmingham New Street station to let us into every thrilling aspect of their doubtless riveting lives.

Friday 13th March

Sport Relief, 7pm, BBC One: Figures from the world of sports, comedy and entertainment gather for a night of fun, frolics and fundraising. You know what to expect by now. Credit cards at the ready, everyone…

How Healthy Is Your Gut?, 8pm, Channel 4: Well, if size is indicative of robustness, than I’d say it’s in extremely good health. But of you think I’m fool enough to watch a programme about my belly on Friday 13th, you’re sorely mistaken. No good can come of it.


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.