December 8-14: Including Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey and Van Gogh: Painted with Words

by Fiona Rae / 29 November, 2012
A British national treasure, Greek gods, and a Dutch painter.
River Cottage Christmas Fayre
River Cottage Christmas Fayre


Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey (TV1, Sunday, 7.30pm). The Greeks could do with some good PR after the year they’ve had and a British national treasure is here to help. Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey is a charming travelogue around some lovely bits of a country that once ruled the world. When it comes to the celebrity travel show, we viewers are often badly let down, but thankfully Lumley’s powers of description are superior to many who have come before. With her pluty, breathy voice – described in the Telegraph as “one part cut crystal, one part purr” – she invites the viewer into her imagined scenes (that’s actors for you) even as she is sharing her own response. Like many tourists, she begins at the Acropolis in Athens, “the beating heart of their civilisation, a symbol of their democracy, wealth and artistic philosophy”. Unlike many tourists, however, Lumley is shown up-close some of the terrifically careful restoration work that is being done, including of friezes that are being uncovered using dentists’ tools. The programme was made before the Olympic Games in the UK and before the real economic collapse that Greece is suffering right now, but there is reference to the country’s financial woes when Lumley goes out on the town to a nightclub in which patrons throw flowers costing around $95 a tray at the performers. “We live for today,” the nightclub owner tells her. “We don’t care for tomorrow.” Better to stick with the ancient world, then. Her next stop is a hill community on Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, where a tradition of whistled communication is said to have started 1500 years ago with the Persians. Then it’s on to Epidaurus and its famous amphitheatre, and another treat: Lumley brings along Nana Mouskouri and gently invites her to sing. A small group of tourists and Lumley, who stands at the top of steps, hear Mouskouri singing Ave Maria in the amphitheatre. Lumley wipes a tear from her eye: “That was something, to be in Epidaurus and to hear Nana Mouskouri – for a tiny house on a Monday evening – but in the lap of the gods.” It was – she had to say it once – “fabulous”. The journey continues to the Gates of Hades, which are in an “unexpectedly modest little cave” only accessible by boat, then Olympia, where tourists run laps of the track. Finally in this episode (the first of four), Delphi, where an oracle in the Temple of Apollo, high on gases coming from the earth, would spout gibberish. Thank the gods and ITV that Lumley is not an oracle.

Attitude Awards 2012 (TV1, 8.35am). The year’s biggest celebration for the TV series that is already the disabled community’s biggest cheerleader. There are 22 finalists in seven categories, including sport performer, artistic achievement, youth, making a difference, and employer.

Christmas in the Park 2012 (TV3, 7.00pm). Gosh, that time of the year again. Mike McRoberts and Carly Flynn do the honours, and performers include Guy Sebastian, boy band Titanium and some guy in a red suit.


How We Invented the World (Discovery, Sky 070, 8.30pm). There are four inventions that define the modern world, according to this new Discovery Channel series: cellphones, cars, planes and skyscrapers. The stories of how they came to be, and the often random events that led to their creation are, somewhat randomly, told by Australian rugby legend John Eales.

Van Gogh: Painted with Words (Arts Channel, Sky 079, 8.30pm). Superb BBC docudrama from 2010 in which Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) plays the Dutch artist to devastating effect, and all words spoken by the actors are taken from Van Gogh’s letters. Alan Yentob narrates the story of Van Gogh’s life, beginning with his first hospitalisation in 1888 and then looking back to his childhood, his apprenticeship at an art firm and his time in London, where he was influenced by Turner, Keats, Millet and English graphic artists. Later, in Paris, he was fascinated by Japanese prints, which informed his most well known work at Arles. All the stages of his life are accompanied by his drawings and paintings, and the programme could not have been made without the 902 letters held in the Van Gogh Museum, most of them written to his brother Theo.

Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder (TV1, 9.30pm). Sometimes TV does some good: excessive hoarding is now widely recognised as a mental health issue, thanks in part to programmes like this one and the US series Hoarders. This British documentary focuses on a man who has so much rubbish in his back yard that, as the Daily Mail pointed out, it could be seen on Google Earth. Worse, Richard Wallace’s house is a health hazard, as he can barely move around between the stacks of newspapers and rubbish. The council in his picturesque village in Surrey has tried and failed to get him to clear his backyard, and at the time of the documentary, things are again coming to a head as the village is competing in the Britain in Bloom competition.


RPA (TV1, 7.30pm). Back to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, one of the oldest hospitals in the land of Oz. Cameras capture the misery of the emergency department, wards and operating theatres. And that is why we prefer drama.

The Mentalist (TV2, 8.30pm). ’Tis the season for season finales: The Mentalist, Body of Proof (which follows at 9.30pm) and Revolution (TV2, Wednesday, 9.30pm) are all saying bye-bye until next year. In The Mentalist, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) is having an alcoholic breakdown in Las Vegas, and you know that it won’t be long before Red John comes calling. Perhaps this time he’ll capture his nemesis, although the series has been renewed for a fifth season, if that’s any indication.

River Cottage Christmas Fayre (Prime, 8.30pm). Of all the TV cooks, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is the one we’d watch, although whoever thought of that pseudo-archaic spelling of “fare” in the title should be shot. Or do they mean Hugh is setting up a fair? Confusing. On the menu are roast goose, chutney, Christmas bread and possibly most important of all, hangover cures.

A Drunken State (TV3, 9.30pm). The “encore” screenings of TV3’s Inside New Zealand docos continue with this one, just in time for the Christmas party season, about our drinking culture. Pam Corkery opens up about her addiction, and cameras follow twenty-somethings Luke and Kerri and their friends as they preload before a night out.


Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC Knowledge, Sky 074, 7.30pm). Season nine of the genealogy series begins with actress Samantha Womack (née Janus), the former EastEnders star who this year got great reviews for playing Nellie in South Pacific. Like a lot of people with fractured families – her parents split when she was six – she has almost no information about her ancestry. After a visit to her father’s mother, she begins the search for her great-grandfather, who was said to have been gassed in World War I. The series also features Patrick Stewart, Annie Lennox, Alex Kingston, Celia Imrie and William Roache.

Secrets of the Manor House
Secrets of the Manor House

Secrets of the Manor House (Prime, 8.30pm). Without Julian Fellowes, there’d be no Downton Abbey, and without Downton Abbey, there’d be no Secrets of the Manor House, an educational gallop through what really happened upstairs and downstairs in a British manor house, and the workings of the English aristocracy. The programme is a handy primer on an aristocratic system that prevailed in England for 1000 years and was at its height 100 years ago, the period that Fellowes is depicting in Downton. Perhaps it says something about how times have changed that we’re fascinated with a time when a class of people could serve another class of people all their lives. The manor houses were “dripping with opulence, bursting with grace, dignity, power”, intones narrator Samuel West. “By 1912, the British aristocracy was the most successful power elite the world had ever known.” Behind the scenes, nearly 1.5 million servants were looking after the lords and ladies and it was a time of huge wealth and extravagance. At stately homes that are now tourist attractions, experts explain the inner workings of the servant system, which was a hierarchy as strict as the one upstairs. The big houses had separate staircases and tunnels so that servants might scoot around unnoticed. The system is still intact to a certain extent today: the programme visits Manderston House in Berwickshire, home to the Fourth Baron of Reading, Lord Palmer, and Geoffrey Dymond, a butler who has been there for 25 years. The doco also outlines the decline of the aristocracy as wealth moved from land into industry and banking. Heirs weren’t allowed to sell their holdings and new money from the colonies helped to prop up estates, for a while anyway. Castle Leslie in County Monaghan was saved by a rich American heiress who married the Second Baronet of Glaslough. Another rich heiress from across the pond who helped save a manor house was Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874.

Threesome (TV1, 9.30pm). Sitcoms are wacky these days, aren’t they? Think of New Girl, Happy Endings, Cougar Town, Suburgatory. All a bit surreal – the American ones, anyway. So here’s a British one to give them a run for their money. It’s a bit risqué (it was the first original scripted comedy to be commissioned by Comedy Central UK) and a bit madcap and it stars the missus of Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll, Amy Huberman, as a thirty-something who falls pregnant after a threesome with her boyfriend and their gay flatmate. (When the sitcom debuted last year in the UK, the NZ Herald headline read, “Pregnant O’Driscoll wife: Who’s the dad?”) Huberman’s co-stars are Stephen Wight and Colin Farrell’s long-lost brother (not really, he just looks as if he might be), Emun Elliott. A “rambunctious comedy that manages to get hearty, and frequently filthy, laughs from its unlikely situation,” said Radio Times.

Deadliest Volcanoes (History, Sky 073, 9.30pm). The frontlines of volcano research, according to publicity, with a global tour of volcanoes in Iceland, Italy and Yellowstone Park. Could be useful.


Alan Carr Chatty Man (TV1, 11.05pm). He’s no Graham Norton and his set is rubbish compared to Graham’s, but Alan Carr has a daft charm nonetheless. This season features, among assorted actors and musical performers, Kylie Minogue and Kim Kardashian.

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