Last Night's TV: Mad Men/BBC4
The North on a Plate/BBC4
Thursday 09 September 2010
Who is Don Draper?" That question – with a few supplementaries thrown in – has already sustained three fine series of Mad Men and it was the very first thing you heard in episode one of series four, as if to bring fans back to basics after the recess. The question was asked, in this instance, by a reporter for Advertising Age, prompted to do a small feature on Don and his new agency by a Glo-Coat Floor Wax commercial that has "caused a bit of a squeal". Don, though, was not in any mood to sell himself. "I'm from the Midwest," he replied. "We were taught that it's not polite to talk about ourselves." To give him his due – he has a lot on his mind right now. His new agency is up and running, but the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are having to lie about the scale of their operation, referring offhandedly to a "second floor" that doesn't actually exist. There's no guarantee that they'll get enough new accounts to keep the firm going, and some of the accounts they do have are proving tricky. With Thanksgiving looming, Sugarberry Ham has sent just one tin of the product into the office – a slight that Pete reads as a sign of imminent defection to another agency – and Don is struggling with the Jantzen account, a self-styled "family-firm", which is attempting to hold back the advancing tide of bikini miniaturisation.
When the Advertising Age piece appears it is not flattering, something of a blow to Don's colleagues, who were hoping he might unbend and try a bit of ingratiation, given the fledgling company's need for good publicity. Ingratiation isn't something that Don does, though, nor Mad Men come to that, a series that often seems preoccupied with its own concerns and to only occasionally remember that we're sitting at home paying the bills. That isn't a criticism, incidentally. It's praise, because one of the things that makes Mad Men distinctive as television is the unhurried pace of its storylines, and the fact that some episodes pass without a great deal happening at all. A less confident drama might also have fretted about the fact that we hadn't seen the ground-breaking Glo-Coat Floor Wax commercial, and so wouldn't be aware of how Don had advanced the art of advertising. Mad Men moved on to something else as if it wasn't intending to enlighten us, and then dropped it in later almost as an afterthought.
A year on from where the last series left us finds Don divorced and living in a bachelor apartment, where the only female visitors appear to be his maid and a brusque hooker, who he pays to slap him about a bit. Betty is now living with her new husband, enduring the open contempt of her new mother-in-law, for whom a divorcée counts as another man's dirt. This is, we are reminded elsewhere, a time when chicken kiev is still a fashionable novelty and divorce carries a moral stain. The young actress who Don meets on a blind date isn't entirely sure she should be seeing him at all, and she certainly isn't going to invite him in for coffee. Frustrations of various kinds fed into the explosion that concluded the episode, when Don threw the Jantzen executives out of his office infuriated by their prudish response to his creative work. To make good the damage he'd done, he submitted to another interview with the Wall Street Journal, this time pitching himself as hard as he usually pitches his ideas. It is not enough to make great ads about polish, he belatedly seems to have realised. You have to be prepared to put a layer of Glo-Coat on yourself.
In The North on a Plate, a cultural historian called Andrew Hussey – born Liverpool, now resident in France – set out to import the untranslatable French notion of terroir – the way that the spirit of a place is infused into its foodstuffs – back to England. He wasn't a foodie, he confessed, just someone interested in the intersection of food, history and politics. He began in his home town, visiting a local café to sample their version of lobscouse, a meat and potato stew of Scandinavian origin that proved so popular with Liverpool's residents that its name eventually became theirs, too. I'm not convinced that a dish that can be made in a hundred different ways – and originally came from somewhere else altogether – does really demonstrate the quality of terroir, but then the specific taste and quality of the foods discussed here didn't seem to matter to Hussey as much as their backstory. He also visited a chippy in Blackpool, a pie shop in Wigan and potato fields in Ormskirk, part of whose terroir derives from their enrichment with night soil from Liverpool. "A long time ago," added the potato farmer hastily, when this was mentioned, clearly anxious that his current customers might think twice about eating scouser-fertilised spuds. Then he went to investigate tripe, a dish whose limited visual charm was not enhanced by footage of a tripe-dressing works in action. The smell of tripe being processed, we were told, has been likened to a "cross between hot cowpat, petrol and earwax". It doesn't taste anything like that bad once it's been cooked, though, and it seemed rather feeble of Hussey to refuse to sample a slice of honeycomb tripe, drizzled with vinegar. Not terroir, I think, so much as terror.
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