Television: The importance of being Esther

The title, Joanna Lumley in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon (BBC1, Tues), does not exactly trip off the tongue, but you can see the BBC's problem. In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon is more exciting than Holiday in Bhutan, and it is virtually a rule these days that when you have a star, their name gets into the title. Lumley is unquestionably a star: brave, funny and very English. So there was this monster bit of nomenclature, taking up three whole lines in the Radio Times.

This is an irresistible trend. Many shows already bear their host's moniker, and (mark my words) many more soon will. We cannot be far from Des Lynam's Match of the Day, Michael Fish's Weather Forecast, Jill Dando's Crimewatch, Jeremy Clarkson's Throbbing Engine and Old McDonald Has Some News.

But at least, one imagines, these programmes would feature their eponymous presenters. Alas, this is not always the case. Consider, for example, the strange phenomenon of Esther. If you look at the schedules for next week you will discover that Esther is transmitted every weekday on BBC2 in the mid-afternoon. But for four of those days there is no Esther in Esther. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Kaye Adams is the presenter of, er, Esther. Only on Wednesday is Esther Esther.

This raises the question of how much Esther there must be for a programme credibly to be called Esther. How many years of Estherlessness would have to pass before the show was renamed the Kaye Adams Show? Or perhaps only the memory of Esther would suffice, as long as the residual scent of her cologne still clung to the draperies in the dressing-room.

Naturally, the BBC are reluctant to let go of the name. But there may be a deeper truth here; it could be that Esther is no longer a person, but has become a TV show. She does not go to bed or awake; she is switched on and off. Corporeally she is a studio, a studio audience, a garish set, a pair of high-heeled shoes and a high-pitched question-mark. She has made a metonymic shift from Esther to Estherness.

As yet, others have not made this journey. Michael Palin still takes the reluctant viewer by the hand and leads him or her personally through countries that otherwise would interest them not at all (though I am willing to stand in, Adams-style, as a substitute Palin in such future blockbusters as Palin's Beaches, Palin's Paris and Palin's Women of the World). For the time being, however, you need the Real McCoy to sell abroad to a mass audience. Janet Scoggins in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon would not be much of a runner.

In fact, the Thunder Dragon kingdom needed all the help that Lumley could give it. The film consisted of 75 minutes of mules, tracks, prayer flags and mountains, gently and evenly narrated by our sweet-talking heroine. It was like one of those relaxation videos consisting of soothing music and alpine landscapes. A quarter of the way through I was in state of intense relaxation. With an hour gone (and Joanna entering the Bhutanese metropolis of Bumthang) I was experiencing Tantric calm. Near the end, before the credits rolled, my soul left my body, and entered Nirvana. Where it encountered Esther.

Incidentally, like most of my critic colleagues, I received this week an immensely courteous note from the Bhutanese Refugee Support Group to accompany the film, pointing out that while they love Ms Lumley, life is not quite so Ooh Shangri-la-la for non-Buddhist minorities inside the Himalayan monarchy. I have no idea whether they are right or wrong, but I just thought I'd mention it.

Now, while Britain loves six-foot statuesque blondes with small skirts and nice breasts, it does not narrowmindedly insist that they need be women. The Lily Savage Show (BBC1, Sun) is just another of those occasions when Englishmen get to put on wigs and makeup and say things that - were they wearing cardies and moustaches - they would be arrested for. It's like uttering something embarrassing, and covering yourself by doing it in a funny voice or an Australian accent.

Take for instance the fashionable and popular anal-sex jokes, represented this week in: "Julian Clary was a wrestler. Then he got punched in the ring, and was never the same." I loved seeing grannies of 65 in the studio audience laughing at this one. But did they really get it? I do hope so.

The original thing about Lily Savage is not the cross-dressing, of course. Edna Everage, Danny La Rue and Esther all got there first. But she is one of the first underclass heroines, her son a criminal and her own sexual experiences usually conducted in cars or at bus-stops. We are all too ready to believe that this is indeed how life is in Birkenhead.

The show was funny and pointed, and in the reverie that came over me as Joanna Lumley slowly spun a prayer wheel in Bhutan, I began to think about whether she and Lily Savage could be usefully transposed. Lily Savage in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon might have asked questions in the Bhutanese monasteries that Joanna was far too polite to essay. You know, about whether you call the Lama "Dalai".

There was more camp in Pantoland (C4, Mon) than in 20 tented expeditions to mountain kingdoms, kicking off with a Widow Twanky bigger than Lily and Joanna combined. This is the series that follows "the Sam Goldwyn of Pantomime", a silver-haired monster of an impresario called Paul Elliott as he casts and produces his 20 pantos round the country.

Mr Elliott adores his job, but those who work for him - judging from actor Matthew Kelly's comments - hate him. His is a hard, seasonal business, much of which consists of telling Danny La Rue to go to Sheffield, when La Rue would rather be baring his legs in southern climes, and dealing with the competing demands from actors for time off or larger dressing- rooms.

The most disillusioning moment came when the cast of Mother Goose (Birmingham) rehearsed yelling "Goodbye everybody!" at the end of the performance. And suddenly I realised that this too was an act, not (as I had previously thought) a spontaneous expression of the temporary bond of human fellowship formed between actor and audience. You could yell "Sod off!" at the top of your voice, and still get the same kind of teary blown kisses as you would have done had you worn your poor palms out applauding.

One moment it's all make-up and lights, the next it's failure. That's why I'm Alan Partridge (BBC2, Mon) is so unbearable. American monsters, like Larry Sanders, are allowed to be successful. But British ones, having tasted the high life, must be brought low and lower. Now the former chat- show host is exiled doing the night DJ's shift at Radio Norwich, his company has collapsed, his wife has left him, and he lives in a Travel Lodge where the staff hold him in increasing contempt.

Even with an egotistic, bullying swine like Partridge, there comes a point (as the writers know) when you want him to succeed once more. But I have a feeling that they will not let us off the hook. This week Partridge was reduced to stealing a traffic cone for fun, and driving round the ringroad, thinking up yet more terrible ideas for TV shows. Such as, "a programme entitled Yachting Mishaps, some funny, some tragic".

Sinking further into the depths, he asks the Geordie bellboy, "Have you ever thought that suicide might be an answer?" "Sometimes, aye." "When?" "When I've seen you looking all depressed an' that." At the moment it is hard to see how Alan - having pulled his Corby trouser press apart to see how it works - can avoid trying to top himself. He cannot understand why things have fallen apart for him.

The truth is (as Steve Coogan and Armando Ianucci know) that TV is a fashion business, and most of those whom the medium makes temporarily famous will soon return to obscurity. Except, of course, for Esther.

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