Last Night's Television - Who Do You Think You Are? BBC1; Wine, BBC4
Message in a bottle
Tuesday 17 February 2009
On the two or three occasions I have ventured into Berry Bros & Rudd, the posh wine merchants merely a thump of a croquet ball away from St James's Palace, I have always had the vague feeling while talking to the sales staff that I went to entirely the wrong school, which is not, frankly, a feeling that ever comes over me in Threshers.
Wine, a three-part documentary series that began last night, reinforces that elitist image. Berry Bros even produces an annual price list that is still designed to fit into "a gentleman's waistcoat pocket".
Still, we won't hold that against them, and in fact the chairman, Simon Berry, seemed like a decent sort of cove. His forbears got the show on the road as long ago as the 18th century, but family businesses, he insisted, should not be for otherwise unemployable members of the family. That the company still thrives after 308 years suggests that this has been grasped by successive generations of what I suppose might be termed elder Berries.
Not all of them, however, have had to deal with the "first gusts of a chill economic wind," as the rather flowery script put it. Simon Berry has heard it said that wine is a recession-proof indulgence on the basis that people drink to forget when times are bad, just as they drink to celebrate when times are good. Nonetheless, with City bonuses somewhat watered down, it's hard to imagine how many of his customers will be forking out, even as an investment, £35,000 for a case of 2005 Chateau Petrus that won't be ready for drinking for another 20 years. Yet those people still exist, apparently.
The programme focused on some of the Berry Bros suppliers, among them an effete, nervy Scotsman called David Clark, who gave up a career as an engineer in Formula 1 racing to tend Burgundian vines, and has rather marvellously combined his old with his new expertise by developing a kind of electric buggy in which he whizzes though his vineyard. Wine also featured a more orthodox vintner, the splendidly named Jean-Guillaume Prats of the Bordeaux chateau Cos d'Estournel, who also, strangely enough, cited Formula 1. Just as Lewis Hamilton might win the Monaco Grand Prix by half a second as the fruit of massive investment and tireless technical work, he said, so the old chateau, by spending hundreds of thousands of euros on better machinery (concealing, in the words of that flowery script, the "iron fist of innovation in the velvet glove of tradition"), hopes to steal a slight but telling lead over the opposition.
I doubt whether any of this would have engaged for more than five minutes those viewers not greatly interested in wine, but for those of us who are, it was engrossing stuff. I particularly enjoyed a sequence towards the end in which Berry's Bordeaux specialist uncorked a dusty bottle from the company's cellar and invited a table of favoured customers and suppliers to guess the vintage. One or two reckoned 1989. Monsieur Prats got closest, guessing 1928. But even he was 58 years out. It was an 1870 Cos d'Estournel, still in fabulous nick. Not since I was about seven years old watching Dr Who tumbling through time have I so wanted to climb into a television set and taste the experiences of the people on screen.
Speaking of taste, Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow remains one of my favourite restaurants on earth, which duly whetted my appetite for Who Do You Think You Are?, in which Stein was the subject. Unlike many subjects of this excellent series, he remained resolutely dry-eyed despite being given more reason than most to blub.
Stein's father, Eric, who had bipolar disorder, committed suicide in the mid-1960s, and the programme looked into the possible reasons for his suicidal tendencies. It explored a family theory that the foundations were laid when as a child during the First World War, with feelings running particularly high after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Eric Stein was bullied for having a German name and antecedents. Another possible explanation was that for years he felt as if he'd been denied his vocation, having won a place at Oxford to read medicine, only to be told he couldn't go, and forced into the family chemicals business. To paraphrase Simon Berry, family businesses should not be the destiny of those who would rather find employment elsewhere, and yet they so often are.
All of which brings me to another family business, Trotters Independent Traders. Last week, in my review of the increasingly overwrought murder drama Whitechapel, I suggested that the third victim of the Jack the Ripper-style killer was played by Tessa Peake-Jones, late of Only Fools and Horses. In fact, the actress was Sophie Stanton, whose resemblance to Ms Peake-Jones is such that there was once a GMTV phone-in on that very subject, but as Ms Stanton herself emailed me to say, I should still have checked the cast list. What a plonker!
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