Last Night's TV: Out of the Frying Pan, BBC2 Damages, BBC1
A dish with all the wrong ingredients
Thursday 27 May 2010
We've been missing Raymond Blanc in our house since his recent cookery series came off the menu, so it was good to see him back on screen for the last episode of Out of the Frying Pan, in which James and Ali, recent graduates of The Restaurant, have been demonstrating their ability to get flustered and ratty in a wide variety of social settings.
Monsieur Blanc was notionally the "mystery guest" at a tasting James and Ali were running for two potential clients, an enigma briefly strung out by one of those Question of Sport shots that carefully exclude the face, though you'd have to have been born on Wednesday to actually be surprised by the reveal. Challenged to come up with something innovative in just 30 minutes, James had unwisely decided to deliver a top-end version of surf and turf, serving scallops and venison on a plate dotted rather haphazardly with risotto and caviar. Raymond was on hand to give his verdict. "Ah see no criminess," he protested, pointing accusingly at the grittily unmelted rice. "Ah know you are mush better thzan thzat." Had this been the real world the potential clients would presumably have coughed politely and said "We'll get back to you".
As it was television they naturally persisted, giving James and Ali a budget of £1,500 for a 20-head dinner intended to thank sponsors and friends of a Henley food festival. Surprise us with the nibbles, the clients said – but let's not have conventional canapés. The surprise they got was that there weren't any nibbles at all, James and Ali having encountered another of the "crossed wires" that have been a worryingly consistent feature of their operation. James also proposed to ignore a specific request for an intermediate course, including river fish, on the grounds that he was scared to cook it. Fortunately, a mentoring chef tactfully hinted that doing what the customer actually wanted was something of a business basic.
Terrifyingly, James had also decided to be adventurous with his dessert – producing a tarte tatin made with apples and parsnips, which was to have blue cheese crumbled over the top just before serving. A daring taste combination under any circumstances, the challenge of the dish for the cautious diner was further enhanced by the fact that semi-melted Stilton looks oddly like gangrenous flesh. Wisely he did a test-run first. Unwisely he listened to Ali after he'd done it. "It's bizarre... but in a good way," said his partner, whose dread of offending people is sweet but perhaps not always helpful in a business setting. He very nearly fainted when he had to tell the musician he'd hired to provide entertainment that he'd changed his mind about the style implications of a rack of electronic keyboards. In fact, I suspect that Ali isn't really psychologically suited to the job at all: "I feel the same stress coming to me that's come on the last couple," he muttered, "and I can't stand it." It's a bit as if a chronic claustrophobic had set his heart on making it big in the world of potholing.
There was, fortunately, quite a lot of charitable leeway around when it came to summing up, the tone being set by Raymond Blanc. "Don't think you are regressing," he reassured them, after a bit of a cock-up with serving the rib of beef (James carved as if he was about to feed a husky pack). "You are PRO-gressing." I think I might have taken that as a kindly way of telling me that I still hadn't got to my destination, but James and Ali (for all their fluster) are glass-half-full types and beamed with pleasure. Would you really have wanted to hire them to feed your own guests, though, on the basis of the last six weeks of mishaps and eleventh-hour saves? I doubt it, frankly, however diverting it might be to watch them serve other people.
Damages finally concluded with an episode so complicated that I'm still not sure I can work out who did what to whom. Part of the problem is that the flashbacks and flash-forwards are now so densely interwoven that you need time-codes on individual scenes as a way of establishing that what you're looking at is a consequence and not a cause (or vice versa). Add to that their tendency to have dead characters suddenly crop up and talk to live ones, and a plot that, even in its proper order, is as tangled as a bag of charger cables, and the chances of full comprehension are minimal. The bullet points – if you've been clinging on for revelation – were these. Patty was sideswiped by her own son, just a little miffed that the woman he loves (and who is carrying his child) is facing several years in jail on a child abuse charge. Patty's remorse and grief can be traced back to the miscarriage she deliberately induced back in her youth, when a baby would have put a crimp in her burgeoning legal career. And Tom Shayes was killed by Louis Tobin's son, who arrived to find him already thoroughly pinked through the abdomen by another heavy and finished him off by holding his head in the toilet bowl. Oh, and Lily Tomlin's character took a long drop into the West River in a nicely understated long-shot, which you initially took to be just a bit of television landscape, until you noticed the plummeting dot and the big white splash. Large mysteries remained, including the unsolved crime of how we'd all been persuaded that these factitious enigmas required our weekly attendance.
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