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TV review: Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Ad­­ven­­ture, Michael Palin in North Korea, and The Flu That Killed 50 Million

05 October 2018

BBC/State Library of Queensland

The Flu That Killed 50 Million, on BBC2

The Flu That Killed 50 Million, on BBC2

IN THESE darkening days when na­­­­tional boundaries are being drawn ever more tightly, and gates are clanging shut around the world, it is good to report that British TV seems to be mounting a surreptitious counter-move­­ment: our nicest people are being sent to far-flung corners of the globe on a successful charm offens­ive.

What regime could resist the star of Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Ad­­ven­­ture (ITV, Wednesdays)? I would make her Foreign Secretary, to usher in a new era of open friend­­ship. Ruthless competition and war would feel rather silly, her shtick of treating upsets and reversals as unfortunate episodes on the lacrosse field, best forgotten and mended by sharing a bun from the tuckshop, would speed­­­ily create quite different kinds of international relationship.

In last week’s episode, she was travelling through Iran, telling her personal story of how she had nearly been born there, and showing us the jewelled star awarded by the Shah to her diplomat father. The Islamic state is now a very different kind of place, but she found — despite the strictures imposed by the Muslim regime — nothing but a people “kind, welcoming, and friendly”.

We saw plenty of religion: the sacred fire of Zoroaster; the glorious mosques of Isfahan; and a group of schoolchildren enjoying a Ramadan Iftar. More than a travelogue — although footage of Yazd’s exquisite mudbuilt desert city, or the stupen­dous remains of Perse­­polis drove me to travel agents’ websites — it is an account of rela­­tion­­ships made with enthusiastic respect and (our most precious na­­­tional characteristic) amused self-deprecation.

Dubbed by some as “the nicest man in the world”, Michael Palin in North Korea repre­­sented a real coup for Channel 5, not normally con­sidered the home of cutting-edge documentaries. On Thursday of last week, he travelled out from Pyong­yang’s candy-coloured marvels to explore the country. His niceness does not make him a fool: he is per­fectly aware that the beauti­­ful and surprising places he sees, and the people he meets, have been carefully chosen, and even the gentlest at­­tempt to probe what any­­­one actually feels, or question the official national history, won’t get him very far; but his transparent friendliness creates surprisingly warm bonds.

The Flu That Killed 50 Million (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) unfor­­tunately chose to engage our atten­tion by running it as a horror film. Constant re-enactment of people dribbling their lungs out as they choked to death had the op­­­posite effect on me. Archive footage from the United States of rows of beds in an isolation ward whose occupants were all dying was far more effective.

The story of the 1918 epidemic that killed more people than the First World War must be told — with its wake-up to the certainty of more such plagues — but less sensation would be far more effective.

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