Television Review

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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN only repeat the old shows so many times, so at last Delia Smith has made a new series, How to Cook (BBC2). Delia is always at pains to drag television back into the no-nonsense world of the Fifties, where cookery programmes were adult education rather than light entertainment. This is truer than ever of the new series, which is aimed at a far lower form of life than is usually addressed: she is talking to people who do not know how to boil an egg. What's more, she's talking to people who would like to learn how. V-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. She tells us what boiling water looks like. She explains exactly what a draining spoon is. Then suddenly the camera goes off by itself in a little Sainsbury-style demonstration and rustles up a fantastically fiddly boiled egg and lentil curry: "simply dry roast the coriander seeds and cardamom pods and add the grated zest of half a lime". I nearly got the bends. After a leisurely egg-scrambling demonstration in which Delia makes some very soupy eggs indeed, she then alludes airily to quails egg tartlets before making the disgusting suggestion of serving poached eggs "atop organic baked beans".

Delia's been doing this for 29 years and she is the best in the business, in a super-league with Desmond Lynam and the late Geoff Hamilton. She appears to speak off the cuff, she doesn't show off and she gets her information across (I shall never forget what a draining spoon is for). But in this series she seems to be trying to appeal to both the ignoramus and the recipe-vulture, greedily going for two markets simultaneously, and I think her eyes may have been bigger than her tummy.

Greed is the besetting sin in the second of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads (BBC2). "The Hand of God" was a morality fable starring Eileen Atkins as a predatory antiques-dealer who befriends a dying woman in the hope of getting her hands on her treasures. Bennett has got the measure of this grubby sector of the black economy in which a fair price is purely a matter of what you can get, and Eileen Atkins gives her shopkeeper the pinched lips and beady eyes of a merciless bargain-hunter. You can hear Bennett's voice loud and clear in her delivery which, although mannered, rather suits the stylised nature of the monologue. It's not that people don't talk in those telegrammatic non-sequiturs ("Independent reader. Sister lived in Kettering", that sort of thing), they do, but never quite so consistently. The effect is a little too strongly flavoured - like neat lemon barley water. This consciously contrived writing, combined with the formulaic editing and camerawork heightens the artificiality of the piece, but it still works like a good detective story, and one is reasonably happy to be spoon-fed clues until this selfish, worldly woman gets her comeuppance.

I blame the parents. In Victor Schonfeld's Loving Smacks (C4) we looked at the pros and cons of hitting small children to make them behave better. Actually, we mostly looked at the cons, the pros being chiefly represented by a man from a dubious outfit called Families for Discipline and a rather unforgiving Scotsman. This supposedly representative smacker demonstrated his idea of a light tap, which would definitely qualify as assault if he tried it on someone his own size. Anyway, even gentle smacking is a Very Bad Thing because 25 per cent of people who do it go on to beat their children with a hairbrush or a cane. I know this because Penelope Leach told me. How reliable this helpful statistic can possibly be was never discussed - one imagines a questionnaire beginning "Have you stopped beating your children?" In his anxiety to demonstrate the wickedness and futility of smacking, Schonfeld resorted to scare tactics in which he juxtaposed everyday tales of slapped bottoms with horror stories of children whose parents had beaten their siblings to death. The alarmist suggestion that routine parental exasperation automatically leads to a cycle of abuse was unhelpful to the cause. If anything, the subject would be better handled in one of those glossy programmes in which full-time celebrities like Emma Forbes and Fiona Fullerton offer chatty soundbites on their own experience. It would get the subject out in the open, but there'd be enough sugar on it to make sure people actually swallowed the message. Let that be a lesson to them.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away