“Welcome to the City of Joy!” Sue Perkins shouts, gesticulating wildly at the madness of a Kolkata market. Too wildly, actually, as she catches a man bustling past, unperturbed by the cameras and the crazy white woman.
“I’m so sorry, I think I just punched you in the face,” she says to his rapidly receding back. In that ludicrous, helpless pose lies everything that is sweet about Kolkata with Sue Perkins.
Celebrities always profess ignorance when they’re on these TV travel shows, as if reading a Rough Guide were a crime. Michael Palin always looked like a bumbling Brit abroad, so why shouldn’t we?
That apparent lack of planning makes the show more about the celebrity ‘finding themselves’ rather than, you know, finding out about the country. This is done through off-the-cuff cultural encounters, where the trick is to absolutely never ever mention the producer behind the camera with a rucksack full of timetables who has orchestrated the whole thing.
Sue Perkins falls into the same trap; she shares a cup of chai with a man on the street who becomes her guide and guard through Kolkata’s anarchic traffic. From tea stall, she’s taken to visit a family who make the clay cups she’s just drunk tea from. TV’s Invisible Hand prodding Perkins in the right direction…
The difference is, the Bake Off presenter then does her darndest to make these arranged meetings go awry. It’s like an improv game: here’s your situation, now where are you going to take it?
“He’s Patrick Swayze to my Demi Moore,” she says, fondling the clay and klutzing her cup before realising that Ghost references aren’t quite right for someone who has to make 3000 of these little disposable drinking vessels every single day.
“This is his livelihood, it’s not just The Generation Game,” she scolds herself, before going off to help the family’s daughter with her English lessons. Quick with the one-liners, but also tactful – tactile even, feeling her way through the rights, wrongs and randomness of this Indian mega-city.
If Sue says she’s not sure what she’s doing, it’s because she’s thought long and hard about why she’s out there in the first place, the kind of questions you don’t normally find in the glossy TV backpacking brochure.
“I come here as an English person, sort of embarrassed and ashamed by appalling colonial aggression,” she says. “We don’t have an Empire anymore, we’ve just got guilt.”
Guilt, and another jewel in the crown of travel television. Watch out Palin; Perkins is our new wander-lust.
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