Review: Savour a crisp plot; gag on a half-baked one

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The Independent Culture
'WE DON'T accept the concept staleness', said a luckless salesman in Pie in the Sky (BBC 1). He was trying to sell food restoration equipment to Henry Crabbe, a policeman turned restaurateur whose obsession with culinary excellence is the series' chief gimmick. 'We prefer to talk about food fatigue,' the salesman continued, explaining how The Baker's Chum would inject steam into exhausted bread rolls through an undetectable incision. Henry kicked him out.

Last week I implied that Pie in the Sky came out of the same basket as Anna Lee, ITV's current Sunday evening detective show. Having watched both programmes again I realise this is a grave injustice. Anna Lee is undoubtedly a product of the Baker's Chum, deceptively appealing and crispy on the outside but cardboard on the tongue. Pie in the Sky, whatever you think of the recipe, is at least freshly baked.

It may simply be that I've been seduced by Richard Griffiths, an actor with a cunning loftiness of style. He always seems slightly detached from his lines but never in a way that would suggest disloyalty or breach of contract. Indeed, his slightly ornate pronunciation can make even rotten material seem sophisticated and Andrew Payne's script certainly isn't rotten. Last week some of its local colour seemed a little laboriously acquired and its plot a touch desultory, but after two episodes you can see that Henry's obsession with cooking has a real point. He likes good, honest food and good, honest policeman but both are difficult to find in the world represented here, a plastic society of over- promise and under-delivery. This is commercial Britain, a Potemkin village with a Happy Eater on the slip-road.

The point is brilliantly reinforced by the locations (which I guess are to the credit of the production designer Martyn Hebert). Much of last night's episode, in which Henry tracked down a wayward policeman, took place in one of those dislocated by-pass hotels, an oversized ski- lodge with full conference facilities, high- rise fish tanks and no visible customers. It was the perfect setting for a story of deception and false fronts and it was matched in its ugly, glum eloquence by later finds - a 'rural' estate yards from an InterCity line, a caravan marooned in a field filled with electricity pylons. Yes, Pie in the Sky is implausible - opening a new restaurant is incompatible with sleep, let alone taking time off to detect - but the bee in Henry's bonnet has a real sting.

Anna Lee, on the other hand, is so chirpily vacant that it was a relief when she got toothache in last night's episode. This allowed Imogen Stubbs to mug and wince a lot, instead of just being perky. Indeed she prodded and poked so persistantly at her cavity that you became convinced that it had something to do with the plot. Was she going to reach in there and pull out the missing piece of evidence, a lost letter on which the plot swung? It would have been marginally more believable than what actually happened - which was that one of her fellow detectives just happened across the letter in the street. At that point this reviewer let out the groan of someone undergoing root canal work without an anaesthetic.

Like Pie in the Sky, Anna Lee has a lot of formula ingredients - in this case a difficult boss, an aimiably eccentric sidekick (Brian Glover), and one of those magic cars which can always find a place to park. But it makes up the mixture with a very leaden touch. Last night's episode, for example, included a race against time in Anna's car which went on for so long that you felt like you'd got stuck in traffic on the M25. For a brief shining moment I thought they were going to deliver the gratification of a Tory wife who shoots her philandering husband rather than standing by him, but that would have departed from expectations. So they didn't.

Imogen Stubbs is a fine actress and deserves better than this. I assume she wasn't forced into it at gunpoint, so I won't lose too much sleep, but when she's on screen I feel like calling for a UN intervention to evacuate her.

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