TV review: Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey

Joanna Lumley's honeyed charm wins over everyone she meets on her tour of Greece, says Gary Day

October 20, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Joanna Lumley was our guide to Greece (Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey, ITV One, Thursday 13 October, 9pm). "Like me, you probably know something and nothing about the place." Absolutely. Here was a woman who saw straight into my soul. Probably because I once stood about four feet away from her in the Old Vic. "Let us get out of here", her eyes seemed to say, "and go bell-ringing." Actually I am not quite sure about the last bit because someone passed between us at the crucial moment. After that, she was whisked away with a despairing glance over her shoulder. I tell you, the second half of King Lear had never seemed so bereft of cheer.

First stop on the journey was the Parthenon, where the lovely Ms Lumley nearly caused several builders to plunge to their deaths as they turned to catch sight of her. It took 10 years to build the temple, but it's going to take much longer to restore it, an observation that applies to many more things than ruins. The return of the Elgin Marbles is integral to the project, but the British Museum is determined to keep them. For a moment, it looked as if Ms Lumley was going to be held hostage until it capitulated. She was taken to the top of the Acropolis and shown various sharp instruments that were supposedly used to clean the ridges on the columns. "They look like dentists' instruments," she exclaimed. "Yes, that's right," said the women crowding round her. "Dentists' instruments." They repeated the phrase several times, glancing at each other and laughing in that sinister way villains have.

No longer able to high-kick her way out of tight spots like she did when she was Purdey, a jeune fille in The New Avengers, Ms Lumley extricated herself by being enchanting. "We don't know enough about ancient Greece," she sighed. Her hosts, guards or whatever, were instantly won over. You can see why she was invited to write the introduction to the new edition of The Magic Key to Charm (originally published in 1938) by Eileen Ascroft. She also had a suggestion for the secretary of state for education. "How nice it would be", she mused, "if we could teach Latin and Greek in schools." I agree. As Oscar Wilde once said, "It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information." Especially when you consider all the damage the practical sort has caused.

One of the inhabitants of the village of Antia on the small island of Evia proved that she could be just as gracious as Ms Lumley. "Welcome to our village," she said. "Are you OK?" Well, I say "said", but in fact this greeting was in the form of a whistle, as was the invitation to "sit down wherever you like". Ms Lumley is no doubt used to being whistled at by the more uncouth members of my sex and has a pretty good idea of what is signified by the sound, but not here. It was like being in a human aviary. Apparently whistling was a code to be used whenever intruders were in the valley. It dates back to the invasion of the Persians but is now in danger of dying out. "This is the closest thing to Doctor Dolittle I've ever seen," said Ms Lumley as her hostess whistled at an assortment of animals, all of whom seemed to know exactly what she meant.

Ms Lumley was treated to another musical performance, this time at the theatre of Epidaurus, where she just happened to run into Greek singing legend Nana Mouskouri, who demonstrated the perfect acoustics of the place by singing Ave Maria while Ms Lumley stood 200 feet away at the back, shedding a tear as evening fell. "I first saw Nana when I was a teenager," she confessed. "How odd life is that you get to meet some of these great gods." What, Nana dwells on Olympus? With Zeus? Strewth.

A trip to Vathia brought us back to earth. It is famous for its houses, which look like towers. And its blood feuds. The inhabitants would take potshots at each other, nailing their enemy's head to the door. The place was deserted apart from an old woman who lived on wild asparagus. Because of health and safety legislation, the oracle at Delphi will no longer be delivered by a woman intoxicated by ethylene. This also ensures greater transparency and accountability on the part of Apollo, who informed Ms Lumley that in the next episode she will be exploring Northern Greece. I will be watching.

On Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One, Saturday 15 October, 6.25pm), Russell Grant said he had no idea what would happen to him. I thought he was an astrologer.

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