Last Night's Television: Ladies of Letters, ITV3, Joanna Lumley's Nile, ITV1

She made the desert bloom
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The British obsession with the Nile has long run deep, from Thomas Cook, who organised the first river cruise there in 1869, through Agatha Christie, who used the cruise as the backdrop to one of her better Poirot stories, to Joanna Lumley, who referenced both Cook and Christie as she made her fragrant way from Alexandria to Aswan on the opening, Egyptian leg of her latest travelogue, the four-part Joanna Lumley's Nile.

I am loath to use those words beginning with N and T (and I don't mean natterjack toad) about Lumley, for fear that the cliché police will swoop. But heck, let 'em. She really is a national treasure, and she makes the very best kind of guide to the world's longest river: properly wide-eyed and reverential, but humorous with it; indeed, she is accompanied on her 4,000-mile journey by the gargoyle-like ghost of Ab Fab's Patsy Stone, who made the most fleeting of appearances when a train hissed into the station in Cairo, stepping back from the edge of the platform as if she'd spotted a teetotaller. Lumley, it turns out, has a fear of trains arriving in stations. She also thinks she has "a huge face and a huge mouth". One can only imagine the indignant protests fired like howitzers from the nation's living-room sofas.

The railway element was necessary because the trip up the Nile (the only major river in the world that flows from south to north, apparently, hence the journey from mouth to source is "up" rather than "down") would take far too long by boat, and even with Lumley at the helm, a 40-part series might have been stretching it.

I had lunch with her once, by the way. I was interviewing her for a magazine and she had her photograph taken beforehand, by her old friend Lord Lichfield, to whom she introduced me as if I were Graham Greene or Norman Mailer or some other truly great writer, and of course it was just to make me feel as if I belonged in such celestial company. As for the actual lunch, to sit opposite Lumley eating, with those exquisite manners and that silken voice, is to feel as if you have a piece of spinach permanently lodged in your teeth.

So, if the hard cutting edge of criticism seems a little absent from this review, I hope you'll understand why. But really, there wasn't much to criticise, except that I could have done without the commercial breaks. Lumley charmed every Egyptian she met. She has a way of saying "what is your name?" that makes people want to tell her their life stories, and possibly give her their life savings; in fact, she'd have made a great conwoman. But the only native to win her heart was a seven-year-old camel called Charlie Brown. Camels are curiously light on their feet, and Charlie was lighter than most. As he followed her into the street, she remarked that it was "like leading a cloud behind me". Effortlessly lovely, she has a turn of phrase to match.

Incidentally, a friend of mine, who makes Mrs Malaprop sound like Moira Stuart, told me recently that she admires Lumley enormously for all that wonderful work on behalf of the Sherpas. So I thought of her while watching the first in a new series of Ladies of Letters, in which Maureen Lipman (as Irene) and Anne Reid (as Vera) trip their way through the English language, finding out what happens when you burn both your candles at one end. It is a cheap comedic trick, actually, and the late Hylda Baker got there first, but Lipman and Reid pull it off beautifully. National treasures? Unfortunately, I don't think we can have three in one column.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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