Television: Guess what's coming for dinner

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The Independent Culture
COOKERY PROGRAMMES have become ever more exotic. The Galloping Gourmet has been transformed into Ken Hom Travels with a Hot Wok as TV journeys further and further afield in search of culinary sensation. And yet, all the time, the most controversial dish ever was - in a sense - the closest to home.

In TV Dinners (C4, Wed) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the mild nob with the exploding hairstyle, took us once again to two meals prepared by ordinary folk in the comfort of their own homes. Meal 2 was, I think, a Balti party in Birmingham. I say, "I think" because I never got that far. Meal 1, featuring the now-notorious "placenta pate", ensured that I had had more than enough cooking by the time we heaved into the commercial break.

The kitchen in question belonged to a family of roly-poly hippies, the Clears. Mary (a social worker) and her friend Sue (a social worker) were helping daughter Rosie and son-not-in-law Lee to a very special celebration. The type of people who wrap spurting arteries in comfrey compresses, consult crystals about the weather, and use the word "holistic" to replace the word "revolting", they had decided to have a special sort of a party to mark the birth of baby Indie Moe. The umbilical cord had already been buried under a rowan tree (as prescribed, presumably, in some druidical manual), which naturally left only the placenta to eat.

Mary was enthused by the whole idea. The partygoers would, she said, be "sharing our genes". Which is a pretty holistic idea. In fact mother, daughter and cook were all large enough to suggest that several large banquets could be prepared using their extraneous body parts, without any ill-effects. There was womb for plenty more. Then came the difficult part. Uncooked, the afterbirth looked like the results of an autopsy. The words "fresh from the slab" came to mind, as a livery mass was unfrozen, chopped, minced, sauteed, pureed and ladled out on to bits of foccacia. Guests were then offered it with the menacing implacability which always seems to characterise those who believe themselves to be close to nature. One skeletal vegetarian found herself persuaded to take a bite. Well it didn't come from a dead animal, did it?

But perhaps I was the one with the problem. The presenter certainly took it in his stride. Fearnley-Whittingstall's matter-of-factness throughout was marvellous: no stagey turns to the camera, no wry twists of the mouth, no ironic snideries. Today placenta, tomorrow making a jhalfrezi, the day after that, cooking a priest's head. It was all the same to him. It was all food. Chacun a son gout.

This optimistic message of tolerance also suffused Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends: Head For The Hills (BBC2, Thurs), in which Theroux went among the survivalists, eco-freaks and Nazis of hilly, chilly Idaho. At one point, he found himself in the underground snow hole of an ancient bearded hippie who played guitar first thing in the morning before serving up a breakfast of bear steaks and blueberry pancakes. This guy was anti-racist and anti-government. But just as nice was the Perot-supporting storekeeper, who turned out to be a Holocaust-denier. He and Theroux went skating together. Only at the Nazi "Aryan Nation" was true evil to be discovered. And even this featured a vile white supremacist who liked Are You Being Served, but closed his eyes every time the "fairy" John Inman was on screen.

In this, as in last week's edition on the porn industry, Theroux's technique of knowing innocence really came into its own, allowing him to discover things that more conventional documentaries sometimes fail to uncover. As with Nick Broomfield's film about Eugene Terre Blanche, the televisual subversion of a public facade is often best achieved by undermining it, not confronting it. In the end, I understood that many of those in the Idaho hills are really just the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in their rebellious middle age - early down-shifters, that's all.

Down-shifting is also what Mortimer's Law (BBC1, Fri) is about. A high- flying, lonely woman defence lawyer, disgusted by the lack of values of her present life, is persuaded by death, sentiment and circumstance to throw it all in and go off to rural Wales, there to become a ... coroner! Now we know where we are. The opening titles pan over a lovely reservoir, catch a car on a winding lane, close up on an old lady shooing geese and float over a beautiful valley. Welcome to Peak Pathology, to All Corpses Great and Small, to No Heartbeat. Sod vets. Animals are passe. Just keep the countryside, and import some of those fashionable cadavers.

Well, it looks good to me as a Friday-night comfort watch. Amanda Root is clever, beautiful and vulnerable, and she has an interesting Welsh police-officer sidekick with whom to have continual rows. So this promises well. I expect shows on BSE, nationalist cottage burning, and other trendy Welsh topics.

But could Mortimer's Law make it in the States? Cracker has, and in Fitz (ITV, Sun-Mon) we have a very faithful translation into clever American of Jimmy McGovern's award-winning series.

This first week was the one about the mad woman student serial killer who bumps off her male victims by handcuffing them naked in bed (they think it's all part of the foreplay) and then attaching them to a zillion- volt generator. Strangely, though this kills them, it doesn't damage the bed, nor leave any unpleasant odour to alert the next victim.

Of course, she is only doing it to impress Fitz, and ends up kidnapping his son, giving the boy the full treatment, neglecting only to turn the dial up before craggy, shaggy, charismatic, troubled, bad-mouthed, academic Fitz gets there in the nick of time.

As does Michael Hayes (C4, Mon), in a series which reminds one that an awful lot of American TV is deeply conventional. Hayes, a dick with a quirk (he's an ardent Catholic), unravels a plot based on two age-old themes: the "we can only hold the dangerous murderer for 24 hours" one, and the "I cannot violate the sanctity of the confessional" one. Neither is very interesting, and the ending is inevitable. It is partly because real life is so much more dramatically authentic than much drama that we now have this incontinent splurge of docusoaps, the latest of which, Pleasure Beach (BBC1, Mon), set in Blackpool's seaside theme-park, started this week.

It was mostly concerned with the rides going wrong. Which they seemed to do all the time, injuring the occasional innocent child. Evidently aware of the potential commercial damage being done to their hosts, the producers tacked a weedy codicil on the end of the show, telling us that it was "seven times more risky to drive to the park than to ride in it."

In view of some of those who must have driven to the park, this was not comforting. There were the young thugs who had set upon a girl dressed up as a beaver and were caught by security. Her boss identified them. "You assaulted one of my beavers," she said indignantly, in one of those never-to-be-forgotten lines worthy of Jimmy Perry. And then there were the trippers: grown men walking around wearing yellow curly wigs and plastic breasts. I daresay that they had all driven there. And none of them looked as though they were civilised enough to have had placenta for lunch.

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