Most know her as the severely over the hill fashionista Patsy Stone in Jennifer Saunders' classic British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. A few may even remember her from her stint as John Steed's latest lady sidekick, Purdey, in the update of The Avengers (no...not with Iron Man and Hulk). What few may know is that Joanna Lumley was actually born in Srinagar, Kashmir, back when the area was still under English rule. When India won independence, the then infant moved to back to the UK with her military father and her mother. Always a bit of an adventurer, she became a model, fell into acting, and is now often referred to as a "National Treasure." Whatever the case, ITV decided she would make a good host for a travelogue style trip down (or should be say, UP) the Nile. Hoping to find the heart of the great river (and strike a similar stack of ratings gold ala Monty Python's Michael Palin and his Around the World/Pole to Pole/Full Circle efforts), they offered Lumley a chance at playing presenter. Thus, this interesting, if slightly incomplete four part miniseries arrived in 2010, to much fanfare and some critical grousing.
Some found Lumley too soft spoken and overly apologetic, as if she decided to take on the monumental mission of apologizing to the entire Middle East for their treatment by the West. While always gracious and inquisitive, she was also seen as a bit of a drag. Luckily, little of that matters with something like Joanna Lumley's Nile. We aren't hear for politics or personal agendas - we want to see the sights, and several are quite stunning. The journey begins in Egypt, where our humble host does the typical tourist thing and visits the Pyramids. While it would make sense to take a boat for the majority of the jaunt, Lumley argues that it would take "forever," so she is seen also making her way via train, private coach, and the occasional local vehicle. Her trip takes her through Khartoum, into Ethiopia, and Uganda. In all, she covers five major countries and nearly 400 miles before coming to Lake Victoria and its celebrated Falls. Finally, in Rwanda, she braves the wilderness to seek the source.
Throughout this tasteful and often uneventful journey, the glorious backdrop makes up for Lumley's limits as a presenter. Unlike Palin, who could play comedian and informer with equal panache, putting many of the more mundane aspects of his travels into endearing perspective, our aging beauty simply sits back and states the bleeding obvious. She adores the people, always friendly and pressing the flesh, when appropriate and there is very little of Patsy Stone here - VERY little. Instead, this is an intriguing look at a continent often given a very specious, sketchbook overview. Take Ethiopia for example. When you think about it, what's the first images that come to your mind? Starving children. Babies with bloated bellies surrounded by flies? Noble white workers handing out food to the hungry and helpless. Well, Joanna Lumley's Nile paints a portrait that is far different, adding a dimension to a location usually explained via an activist's agenda. In this series, we see a beautiful nation that is misunderstood, it's problems coming from things more complicated than famine and lack of resources.
It's the same throughout the show. Sure, we get the usual vistas, but there are also elements of local color that truly illuminate our understanding. Some of the religious temples are breathtaking, their simplistic approach to celebrating faith in sharp contrast to their overly ornate Western counterparts. The crowds are also compelling, perfect fodder for a notorious people watcher like yours truly. If there is one flaw here, however, it's the idea of perspective. Lumley will not politicize the region, so there is no attempt to argue oppressive governments, human suffering, or animal endangerment. She mentions a few of these sensitive subjects, by they pass by as quickly as she whispers them. And that's another thing. Over the years, Lumley has mastered the breathy come-hither voice to the point that she's often barely audible. It's as if she believes being soft spoken makes her more cultured or considerate. While it's fine for a meeting with foreign dignitaries, it doesn't work here. Well, not all the time.
Considering when it was made - 2010 - and the advances in technology since Palin first puked over the side of an Indian dhow (way back in 1989, believe it or not), one would expect Joanna Lumley's Nile to look very good indeed, and Acorn Media's DVD treatment does the visuals proud. As with many British TV series, the 1.85:1 transfer is colorful, detailed, and accented by some admirable artistic shots. The various footage formats are presented with consistency and while there's a bit too much soft focus in places (Lumley is no spring chicken, remember) the overall effect is excellent. As for the sound situation, you will have to turn up your volume a bit to catch everything the actress says. Even in pristine Dolby Digital Stereo, she can be hard to hear. Finally, the added content is a bit of a letdown. We get a text-based overview of the countries visited in the series, as well as a booklet containing a history of the Nile. Not very conducive to further consideration over what we just saw.
Falling somewhere between Michael Palin and your typical "Isn't the Third World cool!" caterwaul of some clueless Lonely Planet presenter, Joanna Lumley acquits herself admirable during this trip up the Nile. While there have been better explorations of the topic and its truths, there hasn't been one as genial and gentle as this. Set your expectations back a bit and you will be pleasantly surprised. Recommended.
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