The actor is as eccentrically enthusiastic as ever. But do we really want her to visit former colonies riven by genocide to look at the tasty ingredients they produce?
‘Lovely! Bracing! Soaking!’ … Joanna Lumley sets sail. Photograph: ITV
While we all wish the sun never to set on Joanna Lumley, there is a mounting sense that the sort of travelogue in which she specialises has had its day. This sense mounts further over the course of the opening episode of Joanna Lumley’s Spice Trail Adventure, ITV’s latest deployment of its gamest gel.
Our heroine jams on her metaphorical school hat, hitches up her metaphorical stockings and sets off from the port of Ambon, Indonesia, for the Banda Islands – for centuries the source of all nutmeg and mace for an insanely lucrative European trade. The lushly forested slopes of Banda Neira rise breathtakingly out of the water as Lumley crosses an azure sea in a tiny boat. “I don’t know why people go to the moon,” she says, gazing at the vision before her. “It’s sensationally boring, I can tell you that.” This had me Googling “Has Joanna Lumley been to the moon?” (it seemed the sort of thing Richard Branson could have talked her into). She hasn’t, making this exactly the kind of eccentric schoolmarm moment she is there to provide.
These lubricate the parts of the show that don’t slip down so easily. Generally, the story of a lucrative trade established centuries ago is one of brutal colonisation of the unlucky occupants of a suddenly valuable land – and a rising tide of misery thereafter. Our greater consciousness of this fact makes a visit to such a land by a posh, white lady born in India under the Raj inherently, unavoidably tricky.
The programme-makers do their best to ameliorate the problem by, for example, mentioning how awful the Dutch East India Company could be as Lumley is shown various examples of its architectural legacy. At one stage, she stands in front of a painting of the 1621 Banda massacre to talk about the death or enslavement of 90% of the islands’ population at the hands of Jan Pieterszoon Coen and his 1,700 men in order to enforce the Dutch monopoly over the precious spices. Such acknowledgment is a good thing. Her describing this “genocide” with a lukewarm “ghastly” lands less well.
She does do some nice nutmeg stuff. She pops to Banda Besar, where the plantations are, and is shown how to harvest the ripe goods. Did you know they start off as little golden globes hanging from trees? Then they start to split and you see a splash of vivid red; that is mace. Within it is the nutmeg – a brown ball that needs to be dried for three days over a hot fire. Lumley recommends grating it over your green beans with lots of butter. But first she eats a fresh one. “Honestly, it’s divine.” This is what things are when they aren’t “sensational”, “stunning”, “extraordinary”, “ravishing” or – in the case of the bum-cleaning bucket-and-hose set up on the ferry from Ambon – “enchanting”. Empires were built on exploitation – and adjectives.
She exclaims about the wonders of a homemade machine for nutmeg oil, knocks back a traditional non-alcoholic cocktail with alcohol added (“That’s fabulous!”), smiles unstoppably through some truly terrible street music (“As warm and eclectic as this intoxicating country”), smokes a “relaxing” kretek (tobacco and cloves) cigarette and generally – possibly literally, in the final case – has a high old time of it.
Historical matters are occasionally briefly expanded on, too, like the 1667 Manhattan transfer, in which Britain traded its colony, the lavishly fertile, nutmeg-heavy island of Run, for a piece of rocky nothing called New Amsterdam. Because these were the days in which the British knew what they were doing, even if most of what they were doing was awful, they ended up with New York. Lumley visits Run by canoe and sings along valiantly with the local rowers. “Lovely! Bracing! Soaking!”
Does it matter that Lumley’s interactions with the locals often come across (wholly unintentionally, I am sure) as patronising, or that the set-up of the enterprise looks increasingly unsound? Yes, it does. But how much it matters depends on the amount of goodwill that resides with her and whether people are willing to let the format die a natural death or want to kill it off now.
She is off to India next week, then on to Madagascar and its vanilla traders, Zanzibar in Tanzania (cloves, nutmeg again, cinnamon and black pepper) and Petra in Jordan, the ancient global distribution centre for every luxury mankind has coveted for the past 2,000 years. Will it be absolutely fabulous or sound a death knell? Jam on your hat, hitch up your stockings and let’s find out.