It is an odd throuple, as Ruby Wax admits early on in her new three-part travel series, Trailblazers: A Rocky Mountain Road Trip (BBC One). “You might be thinking, what am I doing in the middle of the wild west with a Spice Girl and an actress?” she asks; presumably Wax, Melanie Brown and Emily Atack aren’t usual holiday mates. The answer is, of course, to pay tribute to a near-forgotten 19th-century female explorer named Isabella Bird, who made her way, on her own, across the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Bird is a personal hero of Wax’s, although why Brown and Atack are here is glossed over. They are trailblazers, too? That’ll do.
It doesn’t really matter, because together they make for entertaining company. Wax reminded viewers of her calibre as a TV host with last year’s When Ruby Met ... retrospective, and she does have an uncanny ability to harness chaos at the same time as cause it. This makes her very watchable. Atack says she needs to get off Instagram and see the world, while Brown is there seemingly to keep an eye on Wax’s driving skills. If anyone remembers Maureen from Driving School, the comparison is not unfounded. They bicker like an old married couple (“Piss off, Ruby!”) and there is a familial dynamic here. It’s not unexpected when Atack calls one of them “mum”.
The plan is that the women will take the same path Bird did, before veering off into other bits of Colorado to do a travelogue tinged with adventure, self-discovery and even self-care. I say self-care tentatively, because I know it has Gwyneth Paltrow connotations, and this isn’t as woo-woo or self-indulgent as that. But Bird was 41 and in ill health when she left Britain for an adventure in the hope that it would cure her maladies. Her health was much restored by her travels and she became famous in Colorado as “the Englishwoman who rode as well as a man”. This programme doesn’t make a song and dance of it, but Wax, 69, Brown, 47 and Atack, 32, have a number of conversations that suggest they are trying to make sense of how women should and could live today.
This is intriguing for a number of reasons. One is that they come at it from different generations. Atack worries that her eggs are “dying”; Wax wonders what her life would have been like if she hadn’t felt the obligation to have children. The other is that they are entering into a traditionally macho, male world, although they do meet a number of female ranchers, who now make up one-third of all ranchers in the region. They wrangle cattle, climb mountains, visit bars and eat prairie oysters – which are emphatically not from the sea. More accurately, Atack eats them, and doesn’t much recoil when she’s told what they are. “The bollocks of an oyster?” she replies, which can be added to Jessica Simpson’s buffalo wings in TV’s history of unlikely cuts of meat.
There’s a stagey scene in which the trio enter a small-town shop/bar, and the locals stop and stare, though I suspect the presence of a camera crew might have gone some way to grabbing their attention. Once they stop making Deliverance jokes, it gets much better. There are two standout sections, both of which involve less of the celebrity stuff, and more of them getting the stories of ordinary people. The first is Linda, who used her downtime during the pandemic to write a romantic fan-fiction style novel about Bird and her rumoured amour Mountain Jim, a “one-eyed desperado”. She seems delighted by how fantastically racy her own work is, as Wax reads selected parts, then goes on to describe the mountains as “like the kiss of a lover”. I want her to join the Trailblazers for the rest of their trip.
The other highlight sees them spending time with Tim, a self-declared “mountain man”, who lives in a remote cabin only accessible by snowmobile for six months of the year. He talks about running it on solar power and spring water, the bears that have appeared on his porch, and taking from the land only what you need to survive. His personal history is moving and Wax teases it out of him beautifully. Then she hides in his wardrobe while Mel B breaks his desk. Atack, somehow ending up in a Saffy-from-Ab-Fab role, is dutifully collecting firewood and kindling outdoors. The mix of chaos and calm is entertaining and soothing. They gather round the fire and peace settles upon them. Judging by the teaser for next week, it doesn’t last long.