Part travel documentary, part social experiment
The Real Marigold Hotel reviewed by Brian Slade
The Deborah Moggach book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about a small number of pensioners heading to India for potential retirement inspired a movie that captivated cinema goers. In 2016, the BBC took the next logical step, assembling a collection of aged celebrities to see if it was indeed a possibility for British citizens to retire to India in the programme The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel. What followed was an intriguing and at times captivating combination of reality tv and travel documentary that endeared some of its participants to its audience and spawned a number of subsequent specials to see how retirees adapt in various unlikely destinations.
The original octet that gathered was for a month-long visit to India to see what life in India could offer them if they retired there. To their credit, the BBC assembled an eclectic bunch from all categories of celebrity. Outspoken actress Miriam Margolyes instantly grasped the intrigue inherent in the programme as she was as intrigued about living in the same building as the other seven as she was about what India might offer. Her most unlikely chum in the group was retired darts legend Bobby George, a rough diamond for whom mobility would be an important issue as he had once broken his back celebrating a victory.
Celebrity chef Rosemarie Shrager was a bundle of energy, constantly on the go and in need of learning quieter moments of spiritual contemplation, something that equally appealed to pocket dancer Wayne Sleep. Retired newsreader Jan Leeming seemed the one in most need of escaping the life she led in the UK, while the zany comedy came from former Doctor Who actor Sylvester McCoy. The gentler humour came from former Catchphrase host Roy Walker, while completing the group and bringing the bling was singer Patti Boulaye.
The daily lives of the ordinary Indian citizen were explored as the group went shopping, bought cheap glasses in the case of Miriam Magolyes, and went about learning how to live in a foreign nation. Intertwined with how the group acclimatised were their visits to Indian landmarks and to homes of people at all levels of the caste system still prevalent in India. They were particularly perturbed by a hugely likeable tour guide who couldn’t get good money working for a more established firm simply because of the caste from which he came.
For the retirement perspective, the gang attended yoga on a daily basis, at least some of them did, visited potential properties and had health checks, discovering how much more quickly and cheaply they could get ailments seen to in the country. By the time their time in India was up, it was safe to say that almost all had been captivated by the nation and had received a good deal of food for thought.
With the success of the first series, the BBC decided to bring a new collection of well-known faces to Indian shores. This selection included another former dancer in Lionel Blair, former Goodie Bill Oddie and singer Sheila Ferguson. Most successful of all though was the pairing of an unlikely comedy duo, former World Snooker Champion Dennis Taylor, always ready with a quip or dad joke, and Paul Nicholas, the very jocular star of eighties sitcom Just Good Friends. In this series, the visits played more to the strengths of some of the individuals as they took Taylor to the origins of snooker in Jabalpur and took Oddie into his comfort zone amongst nature to the forests.
If there was a criticism of The Real Marigold Hotel it would be that as stunning as some of the locations were, the balance of veterans started to drift in the final two series. Syd Little and The Krankies were the most well-known in series 3, Duncan Bannatyne and Paul Chuckle in series 4. The two series were still enjoyable fair, but the impact seemed less on its participants and the camaraderie never quite lived up to the earlier series.
As if they picked up on that, producers did decide to expand beyond India for a number of ‘On Tour’ episodes, for which they picked four-person combinations from the earlier series to see how the elderly live in a range of other nations, including Japan, the USA and Russia. Each had its moments of intrigue, but in reality, it became more about the combinations of its celebrities than the countries they were visiting.
The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel was part travel documentary, part social experiment. One would have to assume that had lockdowns not intervened, there would have been further series. Although the latter two series struggled to live up to the earlier two, the intrigue of seeing soap stars and retired sportspersons try dating in a foreign land and adapting to life in the ever-colourful, ever-noisy India ensured healthy viewing figures and made for a wonderful bit of escapism, as well as striking a blow against ageism…and it was great fun to watch!
Published on March 28th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.