DCSIMG

Not so much the Naked Pilgrim as the haughty hagiographer

What can this mean? The schedules must lie. A cultural travelogue, a provocative investigation into the medieval mindset, a quest for enlightenment with religious undertones? On Five?

Admittedly the channel’s controllers were sufficiently mindful of their core audience to sex up the title, but, no doubt to the disappointment of many, The Naked Pilgrim will feature no topless nuns (at least not in the first programme) or nudist monks. Instead, it offers an art critic’s perspective on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago De Compostela, the Christian West’s favourite holiday destination for most of the last eight centuries, and still one of the most culturally inspiring journeys anywhere in the world.

When we say art critic, we mean, of course Brian Sewell. The London Evening Standard columnist has achieved a currency well beyond the grasp of we spiritually crippled sociopaths who make a living out of criticism, and he has managed it by the simple market vendor’s trick of selling something you can’t get elsewhere.

Sewell, supposedly, is the Naked Pilgrim of the title, although the title seems a cheap steal from a popular cookery show on another channel. What we should cherish about Sewell, though, is that he is the anti-Jamie Oliver.

Whereas the Essex irritant plays up the chumminess, fakes up the estuary accent and hires actors to play his friends, Sewell is happy to be biliously elitist. He brings a hauteur to every scene, a mock patrician condescension and the sort of snobbishness that in Blair’s Britain you are surprised hasn’t become a criminal offence. Sure he may be pompous, arrogant, irredeemably snide, but in the milieu of bland matiness that prevails on British TV, he is an oasis of opinionated individualism. His accent may seem as fabricated as Oliver’s, but it can be an effective tool, the elongated vowels honed to express disgust and dismissal with just the right degree of venom.

It would be easy to accuse Sewell of being affected, but then which TV presenter worth our attention isn’t? The key to making this sort of personal perspective series watchable is to strike the balance between subject and personality. Sewell sets out his ground-rules from the start.

Not for him the traditional pilgrim’s progress on foot. He is a long-lapsed Catholic after all, and trudging the 2,500 kilometres from France to Galicia would be far too time-consuming and physically demanding. Instead, he tells us happily, he will be relying on his unspiritual Mercedes, 20 years old and as beloved as a faithful hound.

He starts by musing on the "general beastliness" of the medieval pilgrims’ route, but swiftly digresses into more recent memories. Perhaps mindful of his commissioning channel’s (soft-)core predilections, the sight of Paris sets him off on a rheumy-eyed reminiscence of how he lost his virginity in the city, at the age of 20, to a 60-year-old Parisienne. He remembers the encounter with fondness, although "getting my pubic hairs caught in her butterfly-winged glasses was a bit of a surprise". Yes, I know, I had to rewind the tape a couple of times just to confirm that is what he said.

Wince-inducing revelations aside, Sewell’s real selling point, is his gleeful willingness to spray bile. He stands outside the admittedly grotesque Sacr Coeur in Paris and launches a spitting polemic against its failings, and at the "idiot tourists" who include it in their itineraries, oblivious to the self-same idiot tourists wandering past a few feet away. He offers grudging approbation of Notre Dame, but can’t help having a dig at the French restorers who cleaned it up in recent years. He suggests the solution is to arrange for teams to hurl buckets of slurry at its pristine exterior.

Perhaps the most appealing facet of Sewell’s peculiar personality though, is his palpable self-satisfaction. We live in a TV age of disingenuous self-deprecation, where it is imperative to play down any achievement and to poke fun at yourself with every sentence, despite it being all too apparent that most small-screen "personalities" are afflicted with pathological egomania. Sewell is refreshing in that his lifelong love-affair with himself is, touchingly, still flourishing. Accosting an English tourist outside Sacre Coeur he tells her, "I love your blue eyes, they’re wonderful," allowing a pause before the punch-line, "they’re exactly like mine".

Next week Sewell heads south, and enticingly promises a journey into his own past. Whether that will include further encounters with sexy sexagenarians, we can but hope.

• The Naked Pilgrim: The Road To Santiago. Channel 5, Tuesday 1 July.

 
 
 

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