Television: How many lobsters were going to St Ives?
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 31 January 1999
There is, admittedly, an exceptional reason for the Seafood Restaurant's jam-packedness this August, namely a total eclipse of the sun best visible from the far south-west. Apparently, so many people are heading for Cornwall in August that the entire country is going to tip up, and folk from Inverness will wonder why they are suddenly piled up against Hadrian's Wall. Still, the Seafood Restaurant hardly needs an eclipse to boost business. There are no tin mines left in Cornwall, but thanks to television there's at least one goldmine, and some uncharitable locals resent it, cattily referring to Padstow as "Padstein".
The man himself does not exactly eschew the commercial possibilities afforded by Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey (BBC2). Last week he was in Maryland, where he fried up some crabcakes to make a corpse salivate, then craftily mentioned that they'd be added to the menu as soon as he got home. Once upon a time, the BBC would have considered this a sneaky form of advertising, and therefore unacceptable, but these days there seems to be more advertising on the BBC - albeit mostly plugging the BBC - than on all the commercial channels put together.
Anyway, I'm not going to knock Rick Stein, partly because I don't want to lose my precious reservation in his excellent restaurant, and partly because he is an engaging performer on TV, who somehow manages to combine professional slickness with enthusiastic, almost bumbling amateurism. He was an ebullient and informative guide to Mexico in Great Railway Journeys (BBC2), even though his script owed less to Jan Morris (great travel writer) than to Jan Molby (Danish footballer with dodgy command of English). "The car has been lovingly preserved and so has the bullet hole that apparently killed him," he said, referring to the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, apparently the first person ever to be killed by a bullet hole.
Last week, Stein, through no particular fault of his own, was all over the schedules like parsley sauce over cod. First there was the Seafood Odyssey and Great Railway Journeys double-header, then up he popped on Question Time (BBC1). Now, I applaud the idea of democratising the Question Time panel to include chefs and comedians and the like, but it also makes me anxious. The only thing more embarrassing than Stephen Fry trying to be funny about Welsh devolution is Stephen Fry trying to be serious about Welsh devolution.
As for Stein, I suppose it is only proper that a celebrated fish enthusiast should be taken seriously on a channel headed by a man named Salmon. But still I watched Thursday's programme through my fingers. Would the subject of fish be arbitrarily raised by someone in the audience, as in "does the panel think that John Dory is essential to a good bouillabaisse?". It wasn't, but Stein just as arbitrarily weaved fish into the debate himself, describing the pounds 90 levy on purveyors of food as "a red herring". I waited breathlessly for him to thunder "... and like any red herring, it should be gently fried in oatmeal!" But sadly he didn't. In fact, nobody talked much about fish at all.
There was, however, some serious fish content in Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait by John Boorman (BBC2), as we watched Marvin doing battle with his near-namesake marlin. According to his protege, William Hurt, these man-versus-fish confrontations were nothing to do with a rich man pursuing his hobby and everything to do with existentialism, as Marvin searched for the meaning of life. That took a bit of swallowing, yet, for all its occasional bursts of luvvie-babble - "his body was his instrument and he was a virtuoso," ventured Boorman - this was a delightful and enthralling memoir.
It would, in truth, be tough to make a dull programme about Lee Marvin, who was a war hero with a Purple Heart and, not entirely unconnected, a bullet-scarred bottom. By most accounts he was a nice man too, and of course a famously ferocious drinker. Michael Parkinson once told me a lovely story about an elderly lesbian who ran a pub in Soho, and promised him that if he ever dropped in with Lee Marvin or Jack Lemmon, he'd be on free drinks for life. So following Marvin's appearance on Parkinson in the Seventies, that's where they went, and when Parky finally crawled out into the night, Marvin was, at the landlady's behest, standing on the bar recreating the classic scene from Cat Ballou, in which he drew his gun and his trousers fell down.
Boorman - who directed Marvin in one of his better films, Point Blank - had some cracking stories too. The best of them, surreally enough, had a badly hungover Marvin eating a five-star general's hat at Honolulu airport. Sadly, it is way too long to relate here, so those who missed it will have to hope for a repeat airing soon. In the meantime, hats off to BBC2 - which shows every sign of being the channel of 1999 as it was the channel of 1998 - for letting Boorman do his own thing.
If it's hats off to BBC2, what is it to Channel 5? Blindfolds on, mostly. Was It Good For You? is a downmarket version of Wish You Were Here - which is actually quite an achievement, like producing an upmarket version of a Cartier necklace. Last week, the programme visited a naturist hotel in Spain, mainstream telly's hallowed way of showing naked bodies before the watershed. For our delectation, Channel 5 focused on a slim and frisky pair of holidaymakers, but the camera never lies, especially at a naturist resort, and it was soon clear that they were at least 30 years younger than the average guest and eight stone lighter. Rick Stein might disagree, but too much exposure on television can be a bad thing.
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