Thanks to Covid, the days are gone — or at least suspended — when a TV travel programme meant a thespian in a Panama hat wandering around souks and bravely trying some funny foreign food. Instead, we now have shows in which the presenters, often operating in pairs, drive around picturesque parts of Britain cranking up the bantz, with plenty of aerial shots of their car bowling along an abnormally empty road.
Take Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland — by my reckoning approximately Exhibit P. The premise here is that Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes are seeking to reconnect with their proud Caledonian roots, which is why the first stop was a Glasgow front door behind which Miriam’s father lived as a boy in 1901. And with that, her reconnection was pretty much complete, leaving her free to do what she does best — or anyway, most habitually: demonstrating how outrageous she is.
To this end, she recalled how her ‘knickers fell off’ just before her driving test, kept us fully up to speed on her defecatory activities and gave a rare 21-century outing to the phrase ‘as the actress said to the bishop’. At times, mind you, it did seem as if she was having some help from set-ups the producer had prepared earlier. During the inevitable visit to a tartan factory, the only piece of machinery she asked about turned out be called a ‘vibrator’. Walking round a castle garden, the only plant of which she wanted to know more was immediately described by the host as ‘a wild rose with massive hips’. (And Miriam, of course, was never going to miss from there.)
Luckily, Alan’s Scottish roots proved somewhat deeper — what with him actually being Scottish (even if he’s now unaccountably chosen to live in New York). In by far the programme’s most affecting scene, he revisited his boyhood home on the Panmure estate, where his father had been the head forester. ‘Everybody was scared of him,’ Alan remembered. ‘He was a tyrant.’ And the worst of his tyranny was apparently reserved for his fashion-conscious son, whose appearance and demeanour came under constant attack and whose hair was cut with dad’s sheep shears.
‘This is freaking me out,’ said Alan convincingly after he’d poked his head into the shed where the shearing took place — and, although he had permission to go into the house itself, in the end he just couldn’t face it. The most awful thing, he explained in a still bewildered tone, is that ‘the person who’s meant to protect you is the one who’s hurting you’. Amid the surrounding TV artifice — some of it admittedly quite jolly — this felt like a rare moment of authenticity.
Over on BBC2, Simon Reeve — who unusually for a travel presenter is a proper journalist — was confined to Britain too. Alarmingly for those of us who’ve admired his previous series of globetrotting reportage, The Lakes with Simon Reevebegan like any old travel show, with our man marvelling theatrically at the scenery and talking of the region’s ‘iconic lakes’, ‘iconic landscape’ and ‘iconic animals’. Before long, though, he’d reverted to type — which, in contrast to the Alan and Miriam school, means a thoughtful exploration of what his trip reveals about the place he’s visiting rather than about himself.
His findings so far haven’t had much to offer in the way of good cheer. Not only is Cumbria facing all manner of environmental problems, but they’re also extremely knotty ones. At the moment, for example, hundreds of Lake District trees are being cut down. Yet, as Reeve sternly pointed out, this is not deforestation. Instead, it’s being done in the all-conquering name of biodiversity. After the war, the government planted huge numbers of imported Sitka spruce for much-needed timber. The trouble is that these trees have obstructed the growth of native species — and so have to go. In the animal world, the same goes for grey squirrels, now being shot in their thousands to protect the more ‘natural’ (and cuter) red kind. Then there’s the whole matter of rewilding: i.e. planting forests where already struggling sheep farmers are currently grazing their flocks. One such farmer we met wept with anxiety as he explained what this plan would do to his livelihood.
Reeve tried hard to make the claim that farming and rewilding can co-exist, even flourish together. Unfortunately, that proper journalism of his meant that a lot of what he showed us manifestly failed to back it up. It was also hard to miss the irony that by now a rewilded ‘natural’ Lake District would be just as man-made as the one that’s been in place for centuries.
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