Review - Lumley's absolutely fatuous odyssey is taking the myth
A tiny, leather-faced old woman in a black headscarf hands Joanna Lumley some leaves, plucked from the side of the road. Lumley takes a bite: "Mmm. Beautiful ... very strong ... aromatic."
The old woman glances at her. "They should be picked in season," she says. "This one is past it."
"How fantastic," Lumley breathes.
And there you have it. This exchange, repeated in slightly different locations and formats, is roughly all there is to Joanna Lumley's Greek Odyssey, a four-part series beginning on ITV1 on 13 October.
Lumley, for reasons best known to the producers, has been despatched to Greece, with the aim of illuminating the land of "Zeus, Socrates, Mount Olympus, Zorba the Greek".
She does not appear to know much about Greece - ancient or modern. Still, she makes up for this with generous use of breathless adjectives: "so wild"; "so mysterious"; "absolutely fascinating".
Anyway, for every fact about Greece there are at least two about Lumley. So, when she visits Evia, a community where large-bosomed old women communicate via a complex vocabulary of whistles, there is little insight into how a noise usually translated as "Here, Fido" has become "We've got guests. Bring some mountain tea". Instead, we hear about Lumley's inability to whistle: "Jennifer Saunders can do it ... I just dribble."
And, mounting scaffolding to watch restorers at work on the Parthenon, she tells a story about how, aged seven, she climbed a ladder, froze with fear, and had to be brought down by her sister. "So, coming up here, quite frankly, I was doing it for the viewers." Coy glance at the camera. "That's you."
Oh, I see. That is the point of the programme. Learning something about Greece is only a by-product. Suddenly it all makes sense. This is why we see Lumley put on lipstick (sexy!), speak French (sexier!), and explain that leaving a party at 3am constitutes an early night (wahey!).
And, when Nana Mouskouri (remember her?) sings Ave Maria from the centre of the 15,000-seat amphitheatre at Epidaurus, the camera lingers not on Mouskouri, but on Lumley. In close-up. And tears. Then: "I first saw Nana Mouskouri when I was in my teens," she says. Miaow.
Along the way, there are some interesting facts. The Parthenon, for example, was used as a gunpowder store by the Ottomans. And, apparently, so many injuries resulted from audience members throwing plates at performers that the Greek government outlawed the practice.
Still, by the end of the programme I feel a little bit more stupid than I did at the beginning. How fantastic.