Last Night's TV - Jamie's American Food Revolution, Channel 4; Him & Her, BBC3; Bouquet of Barbed Wire, ITV1
Pukka guy with a lot on his plate
Tuesday 14 September 2010
Americans think that British food, with the possible exception of fish and chips, which rather intrigues them, is awful. The French are even ruder, but that's by the by. Besides, we shouldn't get too wound up by what the Yanks think of us because on the whole they take a kind of 1950s B-movie view of the United Kingdom. Not so long ago, I read a travel article in an American newspaper, written by a woman who'd spent a long weekend in London. She concluded the piece by expressing profound regret that she hadn't been in the city long enough to experience a proper London pea-souper. And the newspaper in question wasn't the Boondocks Bugle, I might add, but the great New York Times.
Anyway, I was surprised that nobody in Huntington, West Virginia, the setting for Jamie's American Food Revolution, thought to challenge the stature of their self-appointed saviour by bringing up the feeble international reputation of British cuisine. Short of cocking shotguns, they tried every other means of showing him how very unwelcome he was, starting with a radio-show host who bluntly asked "who made you king?" Cut to Jamie, still recovering from an encounter that he'd clearly expected to be friendlier. "I thought there were only miserable bastards like that in England," he said.
It wasn't hard to see why the good but somewhat porky folk of Huntington were feeling so hostile about a gobby young Brit breezing in to tell them that – with their city having been officially ranked the most unhealthy in the United States, and almost half its population considered clinically obese – he was on a mission to save them from themselves. There is a long history in this world of messianic types riding in from out of town, whether on camels, horses or 747s, and things tend not to go too well for them. Still, Jamie at least found some support from a local pastor, who rather fed his messiah complex by saying "this is what we've been praying for". Huntington, the pastor reminded his congregation, is "the most obese city in the most obese region in the most obese country in the world".
In his bid to reverse this trend, Jamie, as he has so energetically tried to do in the UK, targeted the under-10s. He set up mission control in the kitchen of an elementary school, where the cooks, led by a redoubtable biddy called Alice, looked about as pleased to have him in their midst as they might a Mexican bird-eating spider. As Jamie grew more indignant at the "crap" they were serving the children, which included breakfast trays loaded with pizza, Alice and her gang got crosser and more defensive. Irresistible forces meeting immovable objects usually yield good telly, and so it was here, but it was uncomfortable viewing too, not least when our hero, unused to such antagonism, broke down and sobbed.
I once interviewed Jamie over a memorable lunch in a private room at Passione, the London restaurant run by his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo. I found him tremendously cocky, hugely pleased with himself, and yet immensely engaging. That's pretty much the image he projects on screen, too, but here we're seeing a less familiar vulnerable side, which I fully expect will make him even more popular, adding yet more momentum to the Jamie marketing juggernaut. Nevertheless, it was brave of him to take on the Americans and their addiction to junk food. Whatever happens in Huntington, it's an unwinnable battle. But it will be fascinating to watch him fight it.
No sooner had Jamie started spreading the healthy-eating gospel in Huntington, than Steve and Becky popped up in Him & Her eating chips in bed. I was going to review the first episode of this new comedy last week, but received the wrong DVD, so my panegyric has had to wait: it's beautifully acted (especially by Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani in the lead roles), wonderfully written (by Stefan Golaszewski), and intermittently very funny indeed. Last night, Steve refused to go to the pub to celebrate his 24th birthday, citing a nasty dose of flu when in fact he just wanted to stay at home watching porn. That was pretty much all that happened, but it happened exquisitely.
It's tempting for critics to look for the antecedents of new comedy, which is probably very annoying for those who conceive and write it. But here goes anyway. Him & Her seems to owe something to The Royle Family, in that, within the most mundane domestic setting, it gets its laughs from character rather than situation, powered of course by a terrific script. Also in common with the Royles, Steve and Becky are themselves telly addicts, working their way through the Morse box set. Those little references by television to television can sometimes look glib and self-conscious, but here they work perfectly, and last night Morse came in handy in all kinds of ways, not least as a device to have Steve caught by Becky and their friends as he vigorously played with himself. It was enough to shake the ghost of John Thaw, but only with huge guffaws of laughter.
There wasn't much to laugh about in Bouquet of Barbed Wire, in which each character is unhappier and less sympathetic than the next. That's unless you're of the view, as some seem to be, that it's a load of overwrought cobblers. In our house we're enjoying it hugely, but only once the children have gone to bed.
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