Did we like it?
Five ventures into the world of the travelogue as Paul Merton follows fellow comedians Michael Palin and Victoria Wood into paid holiday territory. And overall we were impressed, although Merton didn’t quite have the warmth of the indisputable king of the genre, Palin.
What was good about it?
• Paul getting lost in Beijing within an hour of arriving. The Chinese are gearing up for the Olympics, so extra taxi drivers have been imported from the country. Unfortunately, many of them had still to complete the Beijing version of The Knowledge, it seemed.
• Agreeably, the programme dealt with the ‘funny foreign food’ early on in the programme to get it out the way, and it was less painful than it might have been thanks to Merton’s sense of humour. Viewing a griddle of delicacies, he commented: “It was less like a barbecue and more like the insect exhibition at the Natural History Museum.”
• And as Paul went for a meal with a new friend he courageously dropped some snake into his mouth. After one chew his dinner guest commented: “That lump is where the snake stores its sperm.” Just what you want to hear.
• The group of Chinese kids performing hip-hop on the street. It is still dangerous to exhibit anything remotely radical in China (Many Western websites are unavailable to Chinese eyes, for example), so this group’s rap was all about the wonders of Chinese cooking. Cutting edge.
• Instead of visiting the Great Wall of China (“It’s just bricks and mortar,” noted Paul), they tracked down Mr Wu, a self-taught electronics whizz, who spends his time manufacturing bizarre and beautiful robots, although he did admit to once burning his house down (his long-suffering wife was not impressed). Best of all was his pair of rickshaw robots that carry Mr and Mrs Wu and their kid to the market. It was like Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man brought to life and the juxtaposition of this wonderful robot in the middle of the Chinese countryside was beautiful.
• The unbelievable Hotel Chateua Lafitte, built by Mr Ziang for $50m in an effort to bring European culture and architecture to China. Paul described his room accurately as a ‘Glamorous warehouse.’ When he met Mr Ziang he wondered in commentary, “What do you ask a man who has wasted $50m?”
• The look on Paul’s face as he studied the particularly rustic toilet in his hotel room in Hunan province.
• The fantastic, shiny, glinting, flashing, glimmering Chairman Mao clock issued to all members of a bizarre Communist commune Paul visited with his guide, Emma. He found a camel there, too.
• We liked the graphics between breaks. Nicely done.
What was bad about it?
• The graphic sound of the slicing of donkey cock in the restaurant. Painful.
• The American teacher of English, Mike, was an interesting character who lived in one of the traditional Chinese settlements that is under threat as Beijing ruthlessly bulldozes the city and re-builds in preparation for the Olympics next year. However, it was disappointing to hear Mike trotting out the same Western line of how the Chinese hate to lose face. This is such a patronising statement used by far too many Eastern ‘experts’ rooted in the misguided belief that people in the West are completely self-aware, more than happy to lose face and never sit on a lofty perch judging everyone else. What is our war but a gigantic face-saving exercise?
• There were some obvious set-ups, such as Paul apparently gatecrashing Mike’s lesson and later rushing into a karaoke party in his dressing gown in mock anger. Sometimes this attempt to portray spontaneity when it obviously isn’t spontaneous (the camera is there waiting for Paul) jars, but usually the resulting entertainment was worth it. We could have done without the glimpse of Paul’s pants, though.