The Real Marigold on Tour: Miriam Margolyes is a joy on tour - but Boris Johnson's dad leaves us cold in Russia

Thank heavens for Miriam Margolyes.

The English-Australian actress, star of The Age of Innocence and the Harry Potter films, may never have reached the heady heights of, say, Dame Judi Dench or Dame Maggie Smith in terms of national treasure status but she outmatches all others of her generation when it comes to an ebullient sense of fun.

As part of a quartet of celebrities of a certain age kicking off new series The Real Marigold on Tour, she is by far the most watchable.

Margolyes joins former darts player Bobby George, Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees and environmentalist Stanley Johnson, father of our former foreign secretary.

On tour: Stanley Johnson (BBC/Twofour/Amy Browning)
On tour: Stanley Johnson (BBC/Twofour/Amy Browning)

“I don’t know much about Stanley,” Margolyes muses to the camera. “But Boris Johnson is a pillock.” It establishes her as the episode’s straight-talking, no-nonsense voice of reason, even if her fuse is a little short.

This tour is a spin-off of The Real Marigold Hotel, itself inspired by the two hit films in which a group of pensioners move to India for a new life (a rather large disclaimer at the beginning of the episode establishes that it is not officially affiliated with the franchise).

Now, a rolling roster of celebrities head elsewhere to see how other countries treat their retirees. In this first episode, it’s off to Russia they fly.

Star: Miriam Margolyes (BBC/Twofour/Amy Browning)
Star: Miriam Margolyes (BBC/Twofour/Amy Browning)

The group journeys to St Petersburg, where they enjoy the local cuisine, drink copious vodka, partake in exercise classes and meet the locals to learn more about how the largest country in the world treats its 40 million senior citizens. Margolyes and George speed mobility scooters through city squares. Ferguson sings for the residents of an old people’s home for retired performers. It is charming, and perfectly pleasant to watch, but Margolyes is solely responsible for making it at all interesting. She teases - “I’m always ready for an adventure, with Marigold, or anybody else”; chastises — “Don’t go too fast,” she barks at the airport attendants pushing her wheelchair; and rejects the offer of make-up - “My face is perfect.” She is a joy.

Stanley, less so. He is keen to learn but his middle-class schtick grates somewhat. He consistently mistakes Ferguson’s band for The Bee Gees, which seems more ignorant than forgetful. He discusses a meeting with Vladimir Putin a few years ago and describes him as “superb”. And when Miriam and Sheila tell their host - a sweet sexagenarian - that they were raised to fear Russia, he shuts the conversation down. Their experience is not consistent with his way of life, so it seems he is not interested. There is, I would say, no malice on his part, but there is a certain unappealing obliviousness to others.

Some exchanges provide humour, or discomfort, depending on your taste. Margolyes, waiting for a bus, meets a woman named Olga. “Oh, Olga, The Beautiful Spy!” she says, delighted, referencing the song by Henry Hall and his Orchestra. It takes her a beat or two to realise that accusing a Russian stranger of being a spy may not go down too well. “Was Putin in the Navy?” Ferguson asks a passer-by during a military parade later on. “No,” she replies. “He was KGB.” Ah, yes. Of course he was...

The rest of the series will see other familiar faces experience similarly light adventures in Argentina, Vietnam and Mexico. No Miriam Margolyes, though. More’s the pity.