Last Night's TV: Town with Nicholas Crane/BBC2
The Rattigan Enigma by Benedict Cumberbatch/BBC4
There are almost no chains in Ludlow, said Nicholas Crane. There's no McDonald's and no Burger King, no Topshop or Next. I wonder what else it doesn't have. Is there a Starbucks? A Caffè Nero? A Boots? Everywhere has a Boots, surely. I bet it has Hobbs – or if not Hobbs, then at least Whistles or Jigsaw or something similarly ladylike. L K Bennett, maybe. Kate Middleton shops there.
It does have a Tesco, I know that much: a giant great one, the only supermarket in town. It's big and brick and ugly, though not as ugly as it could have been, presumably, since the good people of Ludlow spent a decade haggling over its appearance. Initial plans to build outside the centre were thwarted amid fears that it would draw too many people out, create an alternative hub. And so they built it where the old city walls would have been, out of red brick to ensure a sense of "harmony" with the rest of the town. Even the roof has been carefully thought-through, its curve intended to reflect the rise and fall of the horizon.
I'm not sure any of this actually works. It still looks, after all, like a Tesco, the brickwork less medieval, more naff office block. And the curved roof might mirror the hills, but it also echoes architecture's more tedious attempts to embrace the avant garde: all funny shapes and odd windows. Still, there aren't many places, reflected Crane, that would go to such trouble, which would put up such a David and Goliath struggle. Whether or not it was worth it is a different question – the fact is it says something about the perseverance of Ludlowthians. It's this perseverance, presumably, that has seen this moderately sized town thrive in the modern age of cities. With a population of 10,400 people, it sits more than 40 miles from the nearest motorway or airport. Plonked right in the middle of the Shropshire countryside, the legacy of Norman efforts to keep an eye on the Welsh, it retains a bustling sense of itself, having happened upon the profitable, tourist-attracting cult of Foodyism with its slow-food movement and two – count 'em – Michelin-starred restaurants.
Crane is on fine form in Town with Nicholas Crane. The prospect was a little dubious: a kind of down-sized version of Andrew Marr's Mega-cities, a look, in Crane's words, at "how we learned to be urban". It all sounded a bit geography trip, as the Radio Times put it, the sort of educational broadcast that makes one feel guilty for turning over. In a way, it was. But it was also rather pleasant, a kind of gentle meander through a prettier place. Ludlow looked delightful, with its fortnightly market and its castle and its extravagant medieval church, built to reflect the town's self-image as the well-to-do "Capital of Wales". It still has its weekly livestock market, crammed full of farmers from miles around. And it still has the original town structure, if not the city walls, thanks to the preservation of the medievil burgages. It's terribly genteel, all this, a little too much so, you might speculate, since the almost half the town's population doesn't, in fact, live in the gourmet-boutique-lined avenues but on a 1930s council estate on the outskirts. Wandering around, Crane met a young unemployed man, bright as a button. What did he want to do when he found work? "I'd like to be a chef," came the reply, Ludlowthian through and through.
Speaking of genteel, you couldn't get much more so than The Rattigan Enigma by Benedict Cumberbatch. Both public school boys – Harrow, no less – both housewives' favourites, it's difficult to see how much more niche the BBC could go.
And yet, esoteric though it was, The Rattigan Enigma was a fascinating human drama. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his merits as an actor, Cumberbatch was an exceptionally compelling narrator, and Rattigan's story given every inch the pathos it deserved. Scholarship boy, secretly gay, yearning for recognition. We saw how he rose to prominence on a wave of popular plays – The Winslow Boy, The Deep Blue Sea, The Sleeping Prince – only to be dismissed by critics as writing conservative, middle-brow crowd-pleasers. For all his riches, the reputation sent him into a spiral of depression, and he spent the 1960s abroad, returning only once to receive a knighthood from the Queen. Gratifyingly, the tale got a happy ending – in the form of Cause Célèbre's rave reviews. If only Rattigan – and his critics – could see how much of his work is being performed this year.
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