Greatest Cities of the World

Thursday, 6 May 2010, 9:00PM – 10:00PM on ITV1

Hong Kong

In this programme we see Hong Kong through Griff’s eyes. A complex city that is a mix of the ancient and modern, East and West, and where consumerism and spiritualism live side by side.

Over a typical 24 hours in the life of Hong Kong, Griff finds the real heart of the city and the people who live there.

Griff’s curiosity leads him to an exotic fish shop that has opened in the middle of the night to cater for a wealthy businessman’s obsession, to helping out at a bird market and discovering that Britain’s influence continues in the shape of the Boy Scout Movement.

As the working day dawns and the money markets open, so do the more traditional markets. Griff is helping Mr Chan set up his stall at the Bird Market. Keeping birds has been a hobby in China for 3,000 years, but it’s not cheap. Bird fancier Kym tells Griff he feeds his birds up to 40 grasshoppers a day, and jokes that it’s more expensive than keeping a human.

The Chinese are a superstitious people and Becky Lee explains to Griff that the number four is seen as particularly unlucky. She says: “My mum is superstitious about everything. She would never have a phone number or address or live somewhere with the number four, because four in Chinese means death.”

Becky has recently returned from living in Canada and Griff asks her if, like Hong Kong, she feels herself poised between the West and the East. She explains that because of her time in Canada she is called a banana by the people in Hong Kong – yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

The majority of tourists in Hong Kong are from mainland China and Griff joins a group on their tour bus. He explains that he cannot speak Mandarin Chinese except for a song he learnt in school. Much to their initial bemusement he starts singing; however they soon start to sing along heartily, to Griff’s relief. He explains that the song is The East is Red, an old Maoist anthem from the days of China’s Cultural Revolution, so bit of a risky choice. But he says: “In the end it was like singing some old Beatles song, just a memory from a different era.”

In Hong Kong, schoolchildren are under immense pressure to do well and Griff joins a class of children who are being taught a unique method of mental arithmetic. These children are having fun while learning and are amused by Griff’s attempts to keep up with them. One young pupil tries to explain to Griff how he works out the sums. He tells him: “In your head you see your fingers and then you will have the answer in your heart.”

Griff reflects: “A bad bout of ‘Madonna �”itis’ nearly took hold. I had to repress an urge to take him home �” he’d fix my tax returns in a second.”
Hong Kong is a ‘can do’ city and no one ‘can do’ more than Hong Kong’s tailors. Griff needs a new suit so visits Raj’s shop, where he describes the sales patter as a bit more Mumbai via LA than he was expecting, but apparently it’s common for Hong Kong tailors to be run by Indians. With the material chosen, a price agreed on and a finished suit promised to be ready in a few hours, Griff heads off for a meeting with a very British institution.

The Boy Scout movement has over 100,000 members in Hong Kong. Griff joins a troop of scouts and takes part in a good old-fashioned water fight with them.

The Scout movement has its own hotel, which Griff visits. It is in the centre of Kowloon and he describes it as “the biggest, most luxurious marble clad scout hut in the world. I hope whoever built it got a special badge for business enterprise”.

Hong Kong is a consumer driven city, it has the highest percentage of millionaires per square mile in the world, the highest ownership of Rolls Royce’s per capita, and its residents are the greatest users of mobile phones on the planet.

It may be true that you can’t take your wealth with you when you die, but in Hong Kong riff visits a large store selling perfectly made paper replicas of hundreds of items, ranging from umbrellas, cakes, cognac and even Pot Noodles, that are burnt as offerings to departed loved ones.

Despite initially being amused by the concept, Griff says: “There’s something a lot deeper here, because it’s not just about consumerism. It’s about painting a picture of a character. The things they liked, their aspirations in life, and offering it to them, there’s a lot of affection and a lot of love.”

One aspect of Chinese life that is difficult to penetrate is the family, but Griff has had an invitation to join the Chans for dinner at their weekly family get together.

There are over thirty members of the family and when Griff explains that his own extended family only get together on special occasions they clearly feel sorry for him and sing him a Chinese version of Happy Birthday to You, even though it isn’t his birthday.

Griff feels privileged to be treated with such generosity by the family and comments: “I saw something that they all must have known since childhood, that this is the security that goes hand in hand with the intimacy and loyalty that is a Chinese family.”

Many of the people Griff has met have talked about the importance of fortune and luck, and nowhere do they matter more than at the horse races.

Griff, wearing his newly made suit, heads to the Happy Valley racetrack, where he meets Casper Fownes, one of Hong Kong’s champion trainers.
Gambling on the horses is a national passion and Fownes reveals that there are eight races that evening and over 100 million US dollars will be bet on each race.

Griff describes himself as a ‘lucky gambler’ as he always loses. However with a hot tip from Casper, Griff takes a chance and bets 200 dollars on the next race.

Hong Kong has brought Griff luck; his horse wins and he says: “I have changed from an unfortunate man to a fortunate one.”

Fortune is on Griff’s mind as he reflects on his 24 hours in Hong Kong.

“I’ve been fortunate to see so many sides and faces of this city. Fortune, that’s certainly been the overwhelming preoccupation of the hearts and minds of everyone I’ve encountered. Making certain they have good fortune so they make a fortune. But I’ve not met a selfish or inward looking people. I’ve met tolerance, hospitality and warmth in this glittering neon city of dreams.”


Thursday, 29 April 2010, 9:00PM – 10:00PM on ITV1


Sydney is a city where people work to live and live fabulously well in what Griff describes as ”surely one of the most beautiful locations in the world”.

Sydney came into existence as a British penal colony scarcely 200 years ago and Griff asks if this may have given the city an identity crisis.

Griff’s 24 hours in Sydney starts on one of the city’s beautiful beaches at five in the morning. He explains that before Sydneysiders put on their business suits for the day, they like to put on their bathing suits and spend quality time on the beach before work. These breakfast swims are also an opportunity for something else ��” sharks. Griff joins the team of Surf Watch in their helicopter as they scan the sea for potential danger. Last year there were five shark attacks in Sydney’s waters and Griff is told that sharks as big as four and a half metres in length have been seen in the area.

As they fly over Bondi beach they spot a shoal of fish and a great white shark swimming towards it. They also see a solitary swimmer heading that way. Griff comments: “If he cracks on he’ll end up swimming right through the shark’s brunch.” Luckily the helicopter hovering directly overhead alerts the swimmer and the shark has to make do with just fish for brunch.

Walking along the beach Griff reflects that it is all strangely familiar ��” saying it is like “Finchley by the sea”. Although it is sub-tropical and exotic birds fly overhead, the promenade is reminiscent of the British seaside ��” even down to the amenities. Griff is amused to discover a municipal British public toilet on the sea front.

Griff’s next visit of the morning is to the Iceberger’s Club. To be a member here you have to guarantee that you are going to turn up to take part in a race three Sundays out of four, for five months during the winter season, and you have to do this for five years in succession.

Griff notices that the club appears to have a swimwear dress code ��” Speedos, or ‘tight budgie smugglers’ as Griff describes them. Feeling distinctly overdressed in his gingham pantaloons, Griff takes part in the opening ceremony of the winter season. Each member has to carry a block of ice over their head and jump in the pool ��” the idea being to cool the water in the pool in preparation for winter training.

Sydney had a tough past and Griff visits a street known as Suez Alley, which had a notorious reputation in the 19th century as a haunt for gangs. One ferocious gang of women would jump on unwary sailors and pull out their gold teeth and steal their clothes.

One group with a tough reputation today are the riggers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Griff joins two of them working 100 metres above the water. Both are immigrants, Joseph Cerovav from Croatia and George Napier from London’s East End. Griff asks George if adapting to life in Australia was difficult. George says: “What would be difficult? It’s warm and sunny, good food and nice people.”

Still in the harbour area Griff visits one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Sydney Opera House, which took over 20 years to build and went 20 times over budget. But it has been an important factor in the regeneration of the harbour, which has helped make Sydney one of the richest cities in the world.

Sydney’s lifestyle attracts immigrants from around the globe. 1,000 new immigrants arrive in Sydney every week and most days nationalisation ceremonies are held. Griff attends one, where immigrants of all nations are sworn in as Australian citizens. Afterwards Griff says: “That was nice, it was as if all those people were being given the chance to start all over again ��” to wipe the slate clean and be reborn in this city. I felt oddly envious.”

It’s late afternoon and Griff takes a flight to the national parks ��” the ‘real Australia’. As he looks down from the light aircraft he says: “The edge of the city comes with a suddenness that takes your breath away.”

The parks make up 30 per cent of the metropolitan area. They are a reminder of what Australia was like when the ancestors of the man Griff is about to meet arrived more than 70,000 years ago.

Allen is an aboriginal cultural leader who takes Griff to a sacred site of aboriginal art that is more than 7,000 years old. Griff describes the park as an indigenous art gallery and says meeting Allen Madden and seeing the art is a reminder that Sydney is “like a ship in the sea ��” it’s a capsule of modernity afloat in a wild place”.

As the day turns to evening Griff takes the helm of a ferry taking workers back to the western suburbs where he is told he will find the real heart of the city.

In the evening the suburbs are quiet, and many of the inhabitants head for the Returned and Service League Clubs, which are very similar to British Legion clubs but with a hint of Las Vegas,

These clubs, of which there are hundreds across Sydney, cater to Sydneysiders’ main obsession ��” gambling. The club Griff visits made a million dollars last year, from the slot machines and gambling tables, and raffles.

Griff is to host this evening’s and has 28 food hampers to give away ��” the main prize being a tray of meat. He thinks this will be a simple task, saying: “All I have to do is read out the numbers. All the punters have to do is check the numbers and pick up their groceries.”

It may sound simple but with so many prizes and a tough crowd, it’s a long evening for Griff.

Escaping from the raffle, Griff visits one of Sydney’s other obsessions ��” Rugby League. He visits the Manly Sea Eagles Stadium, where he meets the Eagles Angels, an all female supporters club with a difference. The women are all ex-athletes and have 15 Olympic medals and 300 world titles and records between them.

Leaving the Eagles, Griff’s final Sydney experience is with a bird of a different kind. He joins a wildlife rescue unit who have been called out to a girls’ boarding college where an owl is trapped in one of the student’s bedrooms, causing great consternation amongst both staff and students.

Armed with a large net Griff attempts to catch the bird but his netting skills need improvement. Worried that he may injure the owl, he hands over to an expert who gets the bird in the bag.

Finally, Griff takes a last look over the city from the Macquarie lighthouse and says: “I can see the dawn coming up now on Brighton down there, Putney over there and Mortlake. Epping over there, and right over there Liverpool. But if I turn the other way the nearest land is 7,000 miles away. Sydney was incredibly isolated for 200 years and perhaps that’s the reason people who were living here wanted to make themselves at home. They wanted these things to be cosy and homely and perhaps it’s only in the past twenty years they’ve allowed themselves to be a little bit more exotic.”

Thursday, 22 April 2010, 9:00PM on ITV1

Griff Rhys Jones gets under the skin of another three cities in the second series of Greatest Cities of the World.

Following the success of the first series Griff will be exploring a typical 24 hours in the life of Rome, Sydney and Hong Kong. Griff paints a landmark portrait of each metropolis revealing what gives each city its unique identity.

Griff takes viewers off the usual tourist trail and discovers the interesting, quirky and sometimes eccentric secrets and traditions that form the heart and soul of each city.

Rome is a city with a real sense of history; it was already a teeming metropolis of a million people when London and Paris were mere villages.

In this episode of The World’s Greatest Cities, Griff will discover how today’s Romans live with 3,000 years of history on their doorsteps.

Griff will experience twenty four hours in the life of Rome and its people, discovering the traditions, history and secrets of this fascinating city.

As dawn breaks over the city, Griff hitches a ride in the back of a van carrying fresh fruit to the centre of a city Griff describes as: “The most complicated, confusing and fascinating city that I’ve ever been in.”

It’s rush hour and the streets are full of the sounds of car horns and the screech of brakes. Rome’s roads are notoriously dangerous, with an average of 60 serious collisions every day. The Piazza Venezia is the hub of the city and in this chaotic whirlpool of crazed motorists and kamikaze pedestrians Griff witnesses a very Roman solution to the mess – the sublimely imperious figure of traffic policeman, Gianluco Fabi. With authority and grace – and a whistle – Fabi controls the traffic using elegant hand signals that halt even the most impatient drivers.

In an effort to lessen the traffic congestion a third Metro line is in the process of being built, but in a city steeped in history the construction process is constantly delayed. As Griff discovers, the problem is that whenever they excavate, buried layers of ancient Roman streets are found, and as far as the archaeologists are concerned the Metro will just have to wait.

Searching out breakfast, Griff heads for a popular coffee shop. Griff says: “This is an essential pit stop in the Roman day, you drink your coffee standing up, it’s not a lingering drink, and there are absolutely no seats whatsoever.” Coffee was originally seen as Satan’s drink; the Pope frowned on it – until he tried it – but now it’s one of the essential pillars of the city.

Rome was born on a river, the Tiber, which once provided all the water that was needed until the river became too polluted to use. The solution was to pipe in water from distant sources and its abundance is celebrated with over a thousand public fountains.

Griff meets up with underground explorer Adriano Morabito who takes him to an underground aqueduct which was built in 19BC. All the great aqueducts end their journey with a ‘Mostra’, which is a show of some kind, and in this case it’s the Trevi fountain, made famous by the film and song: ‘Three Coins in the Fountain.’ Tourists and locals nowadays throw a lot more than three coins – 80,000 Euros worth of coins are gathered from the fountain every month and donated to the Red Cross.

Griff then pays a visit to Santi Quattro Coronati, the home of a contemplative order of Augustinian nuns who spend their lives in complete and utter silence apart from when they are in prayer. A special dispensation has been granted to Sister Maralena, to talk to Griff about the history of the convent. Griff is honoured but admits that he doesn’t really understand much of what she is saying, but this doesn’t deter her. Griff comments: “For someone who spends her life in silence, she certainly enjoys talking.”

It is lunchtime and Griff visits a local market with cook Daniela Del Balzo, to buy ingredients for a typical Roman lunch which he is going to help cook. Centerpiece of the meal is offal which is highly regarded in Rome. With baby veal’s intestines and lamb’s heart, lungs and liver in the bag, they head for the home of Daniella’s friend Marcella Starace, whose family has run a trattoria in the city for many generations.

After a lesson in how to cook offal the Roman way, and full from a delicious lunch, Griff turns his hand to more physical labour.

Rome is a city of craftsmen and Griff visits Daniele De Tomassi marble workshop which has been in their family for generations. Griff is allowed to try his hand at carving an intricate design on a marble frieze but soon realises that it is a skill that takes years to learn.

Rosalina Dallago runs the only female shoe shine in the city. She claims to polish the shoes of the most powerful men in Italy and know many of their secrets, and, as her shop is next door to the Presidential Palace, Griff thinks that is probably true. Despite Griff’s attempts Rosalina stays tight lipped and will not be drawn into gossiping about her famous clients.

The annual festival of the Madonna de Nianthre celebrates the date 500 years ago when the statue of the Madonna was found in a box on the banks of the River Tiber. Every year there is a ritual river procession to honour the statue, and Griff has been invited to take part. He has to become a temporary member of the Order of Masons and wear their traditional robes in order to accompany the Madonna.

It seems as though the whole of Rome has turned out to witness the procession, with crowds lining the shore and bridges as the sun sets. When they reach the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere the Madonna is carried through the streets. Griff is one of the bearers and says of the experience: “Even more striking than the spectacle of it all is the emotion on people’s faces as the Madonna passes.” He describes the ritual as: “Extraordinary because of the strength of belief that you find here amongst the people that take part in it.”

It’s the middle of the night and Rome is still wide awake. The Romans start their nights out late and the city doesn’t start to quieten down until about two in the morning, and that is when Griff experiences one of the most quintessential Roman pastimes – a late night scooter ride with the Vespa Club of Rome. As the night draws to a close Griff takes a final ride past the city’s great landmarks and as his 24 hours in Rome ends he reflects on his experience: “Other Italians say Romans are arrogant, aloof, that they moan a lot … but I love the way they talk, the way they care about their city and their traditions . . I love Rome. I think you could live here for ten years and still only scratch the surface of this eternally fascinating town.”

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