The BBC's "Pilgrimage" and "Byzantium" are holy unconvincing

New Statesman
Simon Reeve. Photo: BBC.

Pilgrimage; Byzantium
BBC2; BBC4

Is Simon Reeve the right person to present a travelogue called Pilgrimage? I’m not sure that he is. Yes, our young adventurer has the boots, the rucksack and the Gore-tex. Also, a handy flask-cum-Primus stove for brewing up tea on the road. But the King James Bible he most certainly is not. He just doesn’t . . . have ... the ... words.

Faced with the shimmering causeway to Lindisfarne, close to which St Cuthbert used to pray devotedly in the freezing sea (after which even the otters rushed to warm the saint’s feet), the best he could do was: “I’m blown away by this.” When a friendly vicar told him that the Northumbrian landscape, wild and beautiful, might lead him to examine his inner landscape, he looked bemused. “I’m not sure I’ve got one,” he said.

At Lincoln Cathedral, once the tallest building on earth, he tried his best to look awed. This viewer, however, couldn’t escape the strong feeling that he would rather have been racing through some godforsaken patch of Congolese forest, an army issue jeep shaking his bones like dried peas in an old treacle tin.

I wonder if Reeve’s new series, which begins in Britain, extends to Spain and winds up just in time for Christmas in Jerusalem, is the result of BBC budget cuts. It feels that way. In the first film, he travelled from Northumberland, via Lincoln and Walsingham, to Canterbury. Why did he miss out Durham and York? All I can think is that thetrainline.com was doing special deals on the Newcastle to Lincoln route (change at Newark North Gate, but please do not assume that the terrible muffin you’re almost certain to scoff at the Lemon Tree café can be put on your expenses).

The result, though, was a slightly dreary tour, enlivened (I use the word loosely) only by a series of pre-booked encounters with various experts and borderline lunatics. In a Norfolk transport café, for instance, Reeve met a medieval food historian who told him all about the connection between meat and sin – less juicy than it sounds, alas – and then served up a special pilgrim’s lunch for him: potage, fried perch, apple fritters.

The potage was broad bean-based. “Delicious,” said our young hero, wolfing it down. He also relished the fritters, sweetened, since this was a special occasion, with sugar rather than honey. What this added to our understanding of the pilgrim’s lot, I couldn’t fathom. Didn’t they mostly chew on old bones and stale loaves? And where the hell was the mead? But I suppose it was a good deal nicer for Reeve than yet another Little Chef all-day breakfast.

The film told me almost nothing that I haven’t known since I read The Pardoner’s Tale at school. My jaw swung only twice. First, with the revelation that Lincoln Cathedral is on English Heritage’s “at risk” list. (How can this be?) Second, at the discovery that there is a man who spends much of his free time dragging a huge cross around the south of Britain.

All right, so the cross has a little wheel attached to one end. But still. So far, this chap and his cross have covered 6,000 miles together, or so he says. Reeve, who has no faith, tried it out. But worn down by its great weight and perhaps by the fact they were strolling on what looked and sounded like the approach to the M20, he soon handed it back. The Lord alone knows what he’s going to do when he reaches the Via Dolorosa, along which some pilgrims shuffle on their knees. I hope there are skate pads in his rucksack.

More holiness and debauchery over on BBC4, where Simon Sebag Montefiore is presenting a series called Byzantium: a Tale of Three Cities. Sebag Montefiore has a panama hat, the most camply sibilant voice since Kaa in The Jungle Book and, in his pocket, a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Procopius’s The Secret History, in which the antique scholar does such a fantastic hatchet job on the empress Theodora. What a goer! In her young days, she could take on an entire dinner party, plus servants; the daughter of a bear trainer, she had a career as a burlesque dancer before falling for Justinian, heir to the Byzantine throne.

As he told us all this, sitting in an Istanbul pavement café, Sebag Montefiore sipped his red wine somewhat carefully (I wonder if his director had suggested he lick his lips lasciviously; if so, thank God he ignored him). He considers Hagia Sophia, the vast church that Theodora and Justinian commissioned as an unfathomable expression of their magnificent virtue, to be the greatest building in Europe and, unlike Reeve, his response to its glories felt unmanufactured. The wonderment was gilded with learning but the reverence was fierce and fine.