For keen students of China, this week’s television provided yet more proof that Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open the country to the West has had consequences that he’s unlikely to have foreseen. He probably couldn’t have predicted, for example, that one day a former Bond girl would travel the country finding almost everything ‘thrilling’. Or that a bloke who made his name in a British makeover show would proudly explain to a group of Chinese journalists that ‘I’ve got the sunglasses, I’ve got the big hair — all [sic] of these things are what you’d expect from a celebrity.’
The Bond girl in question was Joanna Lumley, who began Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure (ITV) in Hong Kong reminiscing about her early childhood there when she had two guinea pigs called Sammy and Michael. (‘Mummy taught them how to whistle.’) But despite being ‘thrilled to be back’, she was soon ‘thrilled’ to be buying a ticket to Beijing where she picked up the train that in Sunday’s first episode took her as far as Mongolia, with regular stops to visit the sites — and to give the slightly bewildered-looking locals a full blast of her breathy charm.
‘I love poetry,’ she told a young poet whose chosen profession meant he was too poor to have a girlfriend. ‘May I wear your hat?’ she coquettishly asked a train conductor as they posed for a photograph together. Sadly, the pupils at a girls’ school weren’t enormously impressed when she revealed that she comes from ‘the country of Shakespeare’. But they perked up considerably once they realised that she also comes from the country of Harry Potter.
At the age of 69, Lumley could be forgiven for wanting to abandon her heroically long-standing commitment to girlishness. Yet, if so, there’s no sign of it here — and she remains one of the few people over ten who can convincingly use ‘gosh!’ as a sincere expression of overwhelming surprise.
On Sunday, she did have moments of sternness. Watching a cabaret that celebrated the Cultural Revolution, she wondered if there was all that much to celebrate, what with the millions who were murdered, tortured and imprisoned. A visit to Tiananmen Square allowed her to remind us briefly of the unpleasantness there in 1989. On the whole, though, she stuck firmly to being thrilled — even when it came to a lengthy border crossing into Mongolia. ‘I do rather love the bureaucracy of borders,’ she said cheerfully. ‘So many forms to fill in.’
The thrills, mind you, weren’t entirely one-way. In the Mongolian desert, a shaman possessed by the spirit of his ancestors started by sending Lumley her late mother’s good wishes — but soon moved on to more earthly matters. ‘You have nice blonde hair,’ the spirit proclaimed in a gravelly voice. ‘It’s the first time I’ve met a blonde woman.’ And with that, the shaman obligingly removed any ‘bad future’ Lumley might have by the apparently traditional practice of spanking it out of her.
This week’s other contribution to the China debate came in the form of BBC2’s Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China (Monday). The programme opened with poor Laurence in his Cotswolds mansion lamenting that the loss of a couple of British contracts for his homeware company — inevitably called The House of Laurence — had left him worried about the school fees. His solution was to take his sunglasses and big hair to China, where he felt certain the new middle classes would love a touch of his footballers’ wives chic. ‘Either this works,’ he announced grimly, ‘or I’m going to have to eat kangaroo testicles in the jungle.’
In fact, this sense of jeopardy was cranked up so relentlessly over the next hour that Laurence increasingly seemed like the interior-design equivalent of the Greek economy, with virtually every meeting he had with anybody Chinese described as ‘make or break’.
Still, one advantage Laurence felt he could always rely on was Laurence. ‘I am the brand,’ he declared more than once — sometimes while comparing himself to Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld. And, when the chips were down, he wasn’t afraid to go for the flat-out lie. ‘This is the look that Victoria Beckham, Princess Kate, everyone in the UK is very much into,’ he told the sales staff in one department store about such things as cushions decorated with silhouettes of himself — although in his defence he had the grace to give the camera an unmistakeably sheepish sideways glance.
The programme did perhaps have something vaguely useful to tell us about how to succeed in the Chinese market — apparently by a bit of shameless boasting and a lot of shameless grovelling. Even so, by the end, I’m pretty sure that the only reason you couldn’t hear Deng Xiaoping spinning in his grave is that his ashes were scattered at sea.