Television Review

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The Independent Culture
You almost need to don a sou'wester on Tuesday evenings these days. Barely has the spray dried to rime on your face after Island Race (BBC1), than you are plunged back into the briny with Rick Stein's Taste of the Sea (BBC2) and then beneath the waves with Nautilus, a sweatily compulsive account of submarine warfare. Of the three, Rick Stein's programme is easily the most romantic, breaking out of the kitchen now and then for an extended rapture on all things littoral. He even quoted poetry last night, which may be a first for a cookery programme: "Ah! Seaweed smells from sandy caves / And time and mist in whiffs. / Incoming tides, Atlantic waves/ Slapping at sunny cliffs." This piece of Betjeman apparently figures on the back of the menu at his restaurant, and it gives not a bad impression of the food he serves - simple, strong flavours without fussy detail; dishes that might be cooked over driftwood.

This isn't precious, though. Stein is one of the more engaging of the television cooks, unperturbed to be caught in a temper tantrum in the kitchen and, more importantly, unperturbed to be filmed apologising for it. He clearly isn't one of those sad bullies - caught on camera in last week's Big Story - who believe that terror in the kitchen is the only way of achieving perfect harmony on the plate. He also takes a reassuring delight in undermining the myths of culinary exactitude; to accompany fish cakes, he insisted, nothing will do but ketchup. Shop-bought ketchup. When one of his suppliers turned up outside the restaurant, he beamed with pleasure at the rustiness of the van and delivered a little panegyric to the filthy old piece of rope holding the back doors together, as though it was a rare ingredient itself. This is how it happens, he explained, not the food magazine's fantasy of bartering at dawn down on the docks.

The effect of Island Race, a little earlier in the evening, is more mixed - sometimes a little queasy, sometimes very enjoyable. Rather similar, in fact, to Sandi Toksvig's experience of sailing. Viewers who recall her trip down the Zambezi in Great Journeys will know that she doesn't exactly have nerves of steel - wet kitchen-roll would be closer to their tensile strength. And though she is over the worst of her seasickness (after a terrifying bout in the first episode, when she was too wretched even to cough up a good vomit joke), there are still moments when stress and swell combine and her face turns the variegated colour of a fresh oyster.

John McCarthy, for whom this circumnavigation of Britain was a sustaining fantasy in captivity, turns out to be a better sailor, but he is also refreshingly willing to confess to the downside of life at sea on a "classic" sailing boat ("classic" means it doesn't have a shower and you pee over the side). There is no attempt to eke the pleasure out over the entire 30 minutes, so that when exhilaration strikes, you feel pretty confident that it is the real thing. This may be merely common sense - as you watch the pair trudge round a derelict castle in Barra harbour, while the rain courses down their foul-weather gear, you realise they would have a hard job persuading you that this was the most fun they've ever had. In fact Toksvig owns up there and then: "The interesting thing about all of these historical places," she says animatedly, "is that they're not all very interesting."

It's a pity they weren't quite as relaxed about the jokes - the unforced banter between them is fine, what you might expect from two old friends who know each other's sense of humour well. But the more elaborate set pieces, worked up in the dubbing studio, have a slightly damping effect, a faint whiff of bilge in a programme that is otherwise thoroughly bracing.

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