And the award for most gratuitous factual programme goes to . . . Sue Johnston’s Shangri La.
According to Wikipedia, ‘Shangri La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.’ Ok, so to start with it isn’t an actual place. It continues, ‘Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise . . .’ Right, so it’s a blanket term for any concept of paradise. And finally, ‘. . . but particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.’ With the Chinese occupation of Tibet I find it extremely unlikely that such a place would exist in this area.
In summary then, this was a quest to find a place that was concocted in a work of fiction nearly 80 years ago, is unique and individual to each and every one of us and – if it ever did exist – has probably been plundered and destroyed by Chinese imperialism. What’s more, this isn’t my Shangri La or your Shangri La, or even a whistle stop tour of achingly beautiful places on earth that could be considered Shangri La. No, it is Sue Johnston’s Shangri La.
Now, I don’t know Sue Johnston, but even if I did, I wouldn’t want to sit down for an hour while she talks me through her personal idea of paradise and I certainly wouldn’t want to fund her trip to attempt to find it, but unfortunately that is exactly what you and I have unwittingly done.
The target audience for this factual programme was very niche. It would have perhaps been enjoyed by Sue’s close family, or aside from that, any women born between 1941 and 1945 who had a working class upbringing in Merseyside and happened to read Lost Horizons at a young impressionable age. In fact, I hesitate when writing the term ‘factual programme,’ as it contained very little in the way of factual content, unless you consider the facts and information about Sue Johnston to be content. Because if there is one thing Sue did well it was talk about herself. I’m now an expert of Mastermind standard on ‘The life of Sue Johnston.’ I know all about her childhood, her mother dying, her divorce, how many children she has, who they are marrying even! But when it comes to the Tibetan people, or Shangri La I am none the wiser.
When introducing a foreign culture, country or indeed anything alien and intriguing to us, the best presenters in this realm are those who don’t try and force too much of themselves on to the viewer. They recognise that the life of a remote Tibetan tribe is far more interesting to us than the life of a former Brookside actress in her mid sixties. We don’t really want to see or know who the presenter is, we want them to be a faceless medium through which the people and places can be distilled and conveyed back to us as accurately as possible. Needless to say, Sue didn’t master this, but in fairness to her, I don’t think the format of the show even allowed her to try . . .
What is paradise? Paradise is unique for all of us. It exists inside our head and, even if we travelled to every nook and cranny on earth, it probably wouldn’t be realised in any actual location. It is a dream, a myth, an enigma that no presenter no matter how accomplished could deliver, because it wouldn’t be our paradise. So in this respect an actor is the perfect choice, because they can plumb the depths of the soul and emote to us the beauty and the splendour along with tears and gesticulation, which is exactly what Sue Johnston did. And whether or not she honestly felt that the mountain of Kawarkapo and the village of Yipung were her long imagined Shangri La, we will never know.
What we do know though, is that the BBC should be more judicious when commissioning a programme that is obviously destined to be nothing but a worthless, self-absorbed, introspective journey at our expense.