Anton and Giovanni’s Adventures in Sicily review – the Strictly stars’ bond is so moving it will make you weep
At first it seems as if Anton and Giovanni’s Adventures in Sicily is going to be very much more of the same thing we have seen too many times before. Two celebrities pretend to be mates and swan off on a jolly somewhere sunny, justifying the effort and their fee by flinging a few factoids about the history and culture of La Isla Foreigna at us as they eat, drink, boat-ride and five-star hotel their way around the place.
Strictly Come Dancing stars Anton Du Beke and Giovanni Pernice are taking a three-episode road trip around Pernice’s native Sicily. Things begin tiresomely with a confected set piece about Pernice having to carry all Anton “The Celebrity’s” luggage and Du Beke’s agonising efforts to order a coffee in Italian. You distract yourself from the formulaic boredom by wondering who it is Du Beke reminds you of. He is, you eventually work out, four parts Bruce Forsyth (at one point he even says “Didn’t she do well?”), one part Michael Barrymore (before, you know, Everything) and a small amount of Rob Brydon.
Once those opening scenes are out of the way, something strange starts to happen. The pair are revealed as genuine friends and genuinely charming together. The programme makers, presumably realising they have something a little better than usual, get out of the way and let them just be. Soon, the bond between them is so irresistible that at times it brings you to the brink of tears. Their relationship is partly simple friendship, partly that of two skilled professionals passionate about what they do, who slide into singing and dancing as easily as they do conversation, and partly a sweet father-son dynamic, which is the bit that really lifts it out of the commonplace.
Sometimes it is funny, such as when Du Beke is enthusing over historic sites Pernice remembers being dragged round on school trips. (“Boring then,” he mutters as Du Beke marvels at the ancient beauty around them. “Boring now.”) And sometimes it is eye-moistening. At the end of one day’s hard sightseeing, as they sit on a rock at sunset and look out at the beautiful Sicilian landscape, Pernice tells Du Beke that when he first arrived in England from Italy a decade ago, “you really were the only person to look after me from the beginning. So this is my chance to say – thank you very much. This is my home, and I will look after you.” Du Beke doesn’t bat it away with some embarrassed banter – he thanks him and is moved.
It’s not that it transforms the programme – we still have them driving badly, getting lost and all the rest of it – but it does elevate it. They are patient with each other, interested in each other, and Du Beke is unabashedly eager to learn about the places that mean so much to his pal. The baseline of cynicism we have become accustomed to in these and many other programmes is gone. They sing Tragedy in the car and O Sole Mio to test the acoustics of the Ear of Dionysius cave in Syracuse. Then they sing and dance together to Sinatra in an amphitheatre. We see the Catholic Pernice consumed with nerves before undertaking his part in carrying La Madonna del Soccorso through the streets of Sciacca to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. And we see them dance together again at the end at a local dance festival. In an age where toxic masculinity sometimes seems as if it threatens to overwhelm us all, they are a ray of hope, lighting a different, better way. I’m sorry. I think the Italian air is getting to me.
Still, I stand by the judgment that Anton and Giovanni’s Adventures in Sicily provides something a little better and a lot more charming than most of the products out of the travel series factory. I would also add that if you are still undecided, there is a discussion as they head for a swim in the sea about the translation of “budgie smugglers” (“No,” says Du Beke, “the bird is not the smuggler”) that is worth the price of admission alone.
At the end of the first leg of their journey, Pernice says: “I love this place with a big smile on my mouth.” Hardhearted be the viewer who cannot say the same.
• Anton and Giovanni’s Adventures in Sicily aired on BBC One and is on iPlayer.