Last night's viewing - The Challenger, BBC2; Paul Hollywood's Bread, BBC2
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Tuesday 19 March 2013
Those of us who can remember the 1986 Challenger disaster – the Nasa shuttle that exploded just 73 seconds after seven smiling astronauts waved to the world and took off for space – will recall the shock and bewilderment that followed this much publicised flight. The doomed moment was caught on television, including the suddenly silenced crowd of well-wishers down below who stared up at the plumes of smoke as the shuttle disintegrated. The astronauts included a school teacher making her first trip to space, and their bodies were recovered from the Atlantic after a protracted search that only extended the sense of national anguish.
The Challenger, a one-off drama based on the true story of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr Richard Feynman (played by William Hurt), reconstructed his investigations into how the disaster occurred. The title not only referenced the shuttle, but also Dr Feynman's pivotal role in challenging the establishment to expose the failings that both Nasa and the American military had tried to conceal. Hurt played the doc with an endearing mix of beady-eyed suspicion and shaggy-haired warmth: he was a loving family man who, we learned, was dying of cancer that had been contracted during his war work into nuclear power in the 1940s. He accepted a place on the Washington inquiry committee reluctantly, but once there, became unstoppably determined to find the true cause of the disaster despite various degrees of cover-up and obfuscation. "I didn't want to be on the commission, but now that I am, I have every intention of finding out what went wrong," he said, with a jutting chin that showed he meant every word.
The drama began a little sluggishly and with some over-familiar tropes. Characters spoke in slogans, signposting Dr Feynman's quiet heroism and Hurt, the maverick science lecturer, was shown giving a rousing talk to his wide-eyed students. So far, so Dead Poets Society. Yet after the rocky start, it really began to fly. Much of this was down to Hurt's performance. Tension took hold as he began sniffing around the Nasa space centre in Alabama, tearing away from other committee members after realising there was something fishy going on. Some epiphanies came rather too unsubtly – Dr Feynman realised the cold temperature might have had something to do with the Challenger calamity after pouring out a glass of ice water and staring at it intently – but Hurt's fine acting, along with that of his gentle Yorkshire wife (Joanne Whalley), who collaborated in typing up his findings, meant that even these moments were pulled off with aplomb.
So Paul Hollywood is not only giving Nigella Lawson a run for her money in the sex-symbol-of-the-stove stakes, but now he is going it alone without the ever-fragrant Mary Berry by his side in Paul Hollywood's Bread. It's not the same without the peculiarly appealing chemistry that runs between them. And it's certainly more blokeish. We saw him kneading, pummelling and throwing dough around in macho fashion ("It's a great workout… I use all my body weight"), as he stated the show's raison d'être: "Making a loaf of bread is much more satisfying than buying it."
That's all well and good, Paul, but how many of us actually dusted down our ovens after seeing him bake? Don't the ever increasing number of TV cookery shows just make us want to eat and so add to the expanding waistlines of our obese nation? Recurring images of Hollywood eating with telegenic relish and murmuring sweet nothings of pleasure as he masticated, certainly made the programme feel like it was designed to make us salivate – first and foremost. Perhaps this is supposed to engender the urge to cook, though it didn't work for me. Hollywood declared that bread could be a staple in every meal, cooking various loaves for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner – a veritable carb-fest. Gwyneth Paltrow would surely not be amused.
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