TV Review: Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian Adventure, The Syndicate
If the decadent Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous was off the rails, the actress who played her is very much on the rails in Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian Adventure (Prime, 8.40pm, Thursday).
Lumley has become the go-to-girl, or rather the go-away-girl for television documentary travel/history, having done the Nile, a Greek odyssey, and a search for Noah's Ark.
In this three-part documentary series, Lumley begins in Hong Kong where she last resided when she was a little girl and "Daddy was stationed there with the Gurkha Regiment" (Lumley modestly refrains from dropping into the conversation that she has been made a national treasure by Nepal for her humanitarian efforts on their behalf).
In this first instalment, Lumley travels by train through China, stopping off at a whacko Chairman Mao-themed restaurant where excitable patrons knock back the food and beverages, wave red flags and sing songs of the revolution.
The bizarre mix of grossed-out capitalism and communism in a country with the world's biggest economy reaches a crescendo with a contrasting visit to the old Forbidden City to meet an elderly lady who knew the last Emperor's favourite concubine. But these are just the warm-up acts before a push through to Beijing.
It's hard to believe that Lumley is 70 years old, and despite the startling appearance of her black, heavily made-up eyes and white hair that reminds one of a snow monkey, the actress comes across as an engaging and easy-going traveller.
Viewers will appreciate watching her deal with the complexities of overcoming language difficulties to catch a train, change currencies and keep calm to carry on. Naturally any meltdowns and hissy fits would have been edited out and a trusty personal assistant, mindful to have the star of the show stick to the schedule, would have helped ease her passage in the background.
Train lovers will thrill at the necessity of a complete change of wheels when her journey leaves China, as the carriages are hoisted up and given a new set to cope with a different gauge of track before penetrating Mongolia.
Like all former models, Lumley's a tall "gel" and the confines of the Trans-Siberian cabins are snug, the plank beds are skinny – a warning to any fatties toying with doing the trip.
This is a pleasant watch. At times Lumley's verbal encounters with the locals borders on the fatuous, though there's a glimpse of a more real personality when a wealthy female financier takes her for a drive in her new Rolls Royce and repeatedly takes selfies while negotiating busy traffic. Eeeek!
Speaking of being stinko rich, the third series of The Syndicate (Monday, 8.30pm, Vibe) is set in a crumbling English manor and focuses on a modern-day servant class, who (and this is the premise of the show, so I'm not spoiling anything here) wins the lottery. It has an appealing cast, including a very mature blast from the big house past – Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited).
Lord and Lady Hazelwood are in debt to the tune of six million quid and are doing a Fonterra, as in delaying payment to their suppliers, while the Lady of the house treats the help shoddily.
Lord Hazelwood (Andrews) is sidelined by his second wife and shifty son-in-law and gets on better with them below stairs. One of the maids, a diabetic, which is an important point to remember, wants to run off to London to become a top model, while an Aspergery gardener-cum-handyman, who has devised a mathematical system, has lottery tickets on himself and lurks on the sidelines.
This feels like a modern take on Upstairs Downstairs, with bragging, visiting Americans arriving by helicopter to do a takeover, before the arrival of big money is set to change the natural order of things. Go the underdogs.