Linda Herrick: Witty Brits head off the beaten path

By Linda Herrick

What is it about middle-aged British comedians that makes producers think it's a good idea to pack them off to a foreign land to make what they hope will be a marvellously witty television series?

Michael Palin started this industry years ago, setting a template few have been able to match. Not even Palin, sometimes. Last weekend, Paul Merton and Stephen Fry set out on journeys, the first around India, the latter bumbling around the United States in a London cab.

Paul Merton in India (TV One, Saturdays) is the better of the two because he has such fabulous material to work with. Not for him the temples or the icons.

Moaning about jetlag and a queasy tummy, Merton visited an elegant lady who ran a school of etiquette. She scolded his Cockney accent and made him try to speak posh with a mouth filled with marbles, plus burp after meals.

Accompanied by an ever-smiling journalist, Merton confronted his fear of flying in a jolly adventure which surely could only happen in India: a simulated flight in an ancient jet installed in a backyard.

People who could never afford the real thing lined up with their boarding passes, listened carefully to the safety instructions, had lift-off, then rolled down the emergency slide when the plane "crashed" into water.

Merton botched his roll - the Indians laughed like mad. There was something sweet about the whole thing.

At every turn, you got the impression that India is rich in all things mad. There was the Monkey Squad, two large monkeys actually in the employ of the civil service, trained to scare off smaller monkeys bothering the neighbourhood. Merton met a man called Bubbles, a superhero who had saved a city from a missile disaster. Bubbles worshipped rats in a temple dedicated to the rodents - he even drank from their milk bowl. Merton looked ill. Then he

got stoned at a Shiva festival where naked holy men did weird things with their willies. Merton claimed he didn't inhale but his eyes said otherwise. As he observed, a day in the life of India was spectacular, bizarre and mind-blowing. And lots of fun. So is his show.
Stephen Fry In America (Prime, Sunday), on the other hand, seems far more muted. I know it's a big place but the pace he sets - cracking - means all we see is Fry popping up all over the place, making trite observations, then moving on. Quite what the point was of him going on a lobster boat, joining deer hunters, or visiting an icecream factory was hard to see. Fry, an articulate and intelligent man, could try slowing down to get more out of his experiences.

There were some better moments, like when he visited the Italian wiseguy social club in Queens and the aged socialite in the Hamptons. She used to know Joseph Kennedy, a man she described as not nice but very attractive. "I'm nice but not very attractive," said Fry dolefully. The show could be both, if he'd just put the brakes on.

- NZ Herald

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