Great Canal Journeys is the loveliest, most heartfelt show on TV right now

by Fiona Rae / 16 June, 2018
Great Canal Journeys, Sunday.

Great Canal Journeys, Sunday.

RelatedArticlesModule - Great Canal Journeys

In Great Canal Journeys, husband and wife acting legends Timothy West and Prunella Scales continue their love letter to narrowboating.

Forget the flashy, the sexed-up, the computer-generated. Forget the dystopian, the criminal, the super. The loveliest, most heartfelt show on television is one in which two octogenarian thespians pootle about in boats. The great English actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales have now made 28 episodes of Great Canal Journeys (Living, Sky 017, Sunday, 8.30pm), which is part travel, part history and part love letter to narrowboating.

The fact that they have embarked on these journeys as they “head towards the final curtain call”, as West puts it, and the fact that they’re doing it in the shadow of Scales’ advancing dementia, makes the series all the more remarkable.

“Tim and Pru” have been canal boating for more than 40 years, and have seen great changes since the days when canals were falling into disuse. They were famously instrumental in the restoration of the140km Kennet and Avon canal, which stretches from Bristol to the River Thames.

Canals are now more popular than ever in the UK, both as a leisure activity and as conservation areas. “They’ve opened up areas that could very easily be bought for development and filled in and built over,” West told the Listener. “All over the country, there are individual organisations that are reclaiming the canals, and that’s rather wonderful.”

The show acts as an archive as well as a travel series, with bits of history along the way. In season five, which begins on Sunday, they are in the Norfolk Broads, the system of waterways and lakes that once saw Viking ships and Roman settlements. There are also visits to waterways in India, Portugal and France.

Prunella Scales and Timothy West.

Prunella Scales and Timothy West.

Journeys has also become an archive of their own histories, as the pair revisit childhood places or theatres where they once trod the boards. The show wasn’t planned that way, says West, “but it was nice to find points of information or remembrance.”

He describes Scales’ dementia as “a very unfortunate situation that is inevitably getting worse”. However, she loves the trips and they both feel they have therapeutic value.

“She’s interested in what’s happening. She likes the people that we work with and the people that we meet. If you have that kind of dementia, it’s very easy to fall into a trap of sitting and watching daytime television and not doing very much else.”

And there are still canals to explore, even after 28 episodes. “Oh, yes,” West says, “we’re going off next month to the Lancaster canal.”

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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