Who would have thought that Alan Partridge would turn out to be a prophet? When, in all his tragic desperation, he pitched “Youth hostelling with Chris Eubank” to the director of programming at the BBC, little did we know that this ludicrous little joke would turn out to be an accurate prediction of the kind of celebrity-led dross that would soon be flooding our screens. From dating and dancing to cooking and farming, there’s hardly been a profession or pastime that hasn’t been given the “celebs doing stuff” treatment.
The latest in this long line of shows is Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago, a three-part BBC Two documentary (Fridays, 9pm) that follows a selection of celebrities along the Way of St James. The assembled walkers include actor Neil Morrissey, Anglican vicar and Goggleboxer Rev Kate Bottley and Debbie McGee, widow of the late Paul Daniels. It’s a mix of breezy travelogue and theological debate – and, to my surprise, it is far less horrific than that summary sounds.
Much of the focus in the early section of the show is on the difficulty of the expedition, with Bottley casting herself as moaner-in-chief. She reveals that she had expected only to have to walk a few hundred yards at a time for the benefit of the cameras, while being driven along the rest of the route. The whining particularly irks Irish comedian Ed Byrne, a seasoned walker, who suggests that not only were his fellow celebs being highly irritating, but also rather idiotic for not expecting the pilgrimage to be an arduous challenge.
When it comes to the religious aspect of the Way, a clear divide emerges between those who believe and those who most certainly do not. Plenty of screen time is given to the atheists and anti-religious members of the group, with Byrne declaring early on that he “firmly believe[s] God doesn’t exist” and investigative journalist Raphael Rowe refusing even to step inside a church.
Some Catholic viewers may find this a little tiresome. Yet the programme proves to be more than just a one-sided bashing of Christianity, and it is worth persevering to see how Rowe and Bottley discuss their differences, or for the conversation between Debbie McGee and a young pilgrim who is mourning his father’s death.
The diversity of opinion on religion may not be in the original spirit of this famous pilgrimage, but the Way now attracts people from across the world of all faiths and none – and this programme does an entertaining job of reflecting that.