One of the most uplifting TV series is back on the box for an autumn season: Timothy West and Prunella Scales’s Great Canal Journeys (Channel 4). This sprightly pair of married thespians in their 80s – Tim is 83, Pru 86 – have had a late career development, gliding through the canals of Britain, Ireland and continental Europe, opening up the beauty of the waterways with the wit and charm of their commentary (aided by fabulous camerawork).
Prunella suffers from the onset of dementia, but you would never guess it: she can draw on the mental discipline and long-term memory of a lifetime’s work in the theatre and on screen (she was the unforgettable Sybil in Fawlty Towers).
So, when sailing down the Nile in a splendid traditional Egyptian sailboat, a Dahabiya, Pru quoted faultlessly from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and from Lewis Carroll’s sardonic “How Doth the Little Crocodile” (when encountering crocs preserved by the Egyptians).
The series focuses on beauty, on peacefulness, on landscape, all with gentle drolleries. Appropriately, the commentary is not controversial: ancient Egyptian religion is referenced, but contemporary conflicts, or the plight of the Copts, are not part of the remit. But inevitably, we get a sense of awe at the antiquity of Egypt’s civilisation.
Next Sunday night, they arrive by canal in Milan, and that, too, looks breathtaking.
Tim West is my late husband’s cousin, and in life, Tim is exactly as he seems on his canal journeys – wry, observant, self-deprecatingly intelligent. His parents were struggling actors, and I think if you have grown up knowing the price of bread, it leaves you with a legacy of thankfulness and good cheer.
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