Tales of the City: An English idyll - or idle fancy?

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The Independent Online

Summer arrived at the weekend, so I left town to roar up to Cambridge and drink beer in the sunshine and talk to brewery types in the run-up to the Cambridge Beer Festival, which celebrates its 30th birthday on Monday. Perhaps under the influence of that ale-swilling trendsetter Madonna, I've rediscovered the huge, mislaid pleasure of flooring pints in elderly pubs with horse brasses around the fireplace and bosky gardens full of irises. After 15 years of wine bars and media clubs, it's time one started to relax in the contemplation of Abbot Ale and Wadsworth 6X, pointing out to fascinated strangers the polished-rosewood colour of one's favourite brew, the aromatic harmony of hops and barley, the slice of white bread that seems to be disintegrating at the bottom of the glass... It's a sign of maturity. It's a sign that you appreciate your heritage. It's a sign that you're pushing 50.

Aaaanyway, there I was driving about when, quite by accident, I turned down an unmarked path and found myself in the village of Grantchester. I'd never been there before. I knew the name from Rupert Brooke's poem "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester", and that the titular clerical retreat is now owned by Jeffrey Archer. On Sunday lunchtime, the village looked gorgeous. On the sign outside the Rupert Brooke pub, the gilded poet gazed down on patrons, his eyes penetrating the most unpatriotic heart. In the courtyard garden, a portly local farmer in a black waistcoat shared his appreciation of Sian Lloyd with two chums. A waterfall made of three cooper's barrels gurgled and chuckled. There were coachlamps on the wall, ivy poking through the trellises, roses blowing in the hedgerows. Down the street, the public footpath takes you into Grantchester Meadow, where you discover the herd of heavy-uddered cows, the buttercups, the picnickers, the river, the cries of straw-hatted girls in punts...

It was fantastic. "I've just walked slap-bang into a little idyll of England," I thought, "the way it might once have been, when Victorian labourers lay just here, by the nettle-beds, chatting up parlourmaids called Daisy and Ethel, and travelling farmhands straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel would..."

Just as I was succumbing, the sun disappeared and the day turned chilly. The girls in the punts reached for their cardigans. The river turned grey with needles of rain. The cattle looked disgusted. I made it, half-soaked, back to the Rupert Brooke, where the florid, waistcoated chap glared at me: bloody tourists turning the meadow into a racetrack, hiring punts left, right and centre, spoiling the neighbourhood.

I picked up the menu, from which Brooke's handsome face gazed coolly at me. Across his forehead were printed the words, "Bar staff cannot except [sic] an order for food outside unless accompanied by a table no." I ordered lunch from the Australian barman and dug out Brooke's Grantchester poem, thinking that a burst of 24-carat Edwardian sentimentality would lift my spirits. And I discovered that Brooke had had few illusions about his fellow men. "For Cambridge people rarely smile/ Being urban, squat and packed with guile," he wrote. "They love the Good; they worship Truth;/ They laugh uproariously in youth;/ And when they get to feeling old,/ They up and shoot themselves, I'm told."

Everything suddenly seemed fake – the ludicrous May picnickers, the self-conscious, £10-an-hour punters, Rupert Brooke finding himself posthumously ennobled as a pub, the hostile locals. That's the trouble with idylls. They start out in realism and end a century later in parody. I decided to stay where I was, out of the rain, and drown my sorrows. Thank heavens for Abbot Ale. The only English thing that doesn't fail you is English beer.

How sharper than a velociraptor's tooth it is

So now we know what makes some movies smash hits. Duh – it's so simple. Someone called Sue Clayton, a London University lecturer in screenwriting, was commissioned by Diet Coke to investigate the things that make popular films popular – and to deduce the combination of qualities that would construct the perfect film. She came up with the following: 30 per cent action, 17 per cent comedy, 13 per cent good vs evil, 12 per cent love/sex/ romance, 10 per cent special effects, 10 per cent plot and 8 per cent music.

What are you waiting for? First chance I get, I'll write a screenplay, kicking off with the 17 per cent devoted to comedy; then I'll start on the car-chase/knife-fight/earthquake combination that will constitute the action segment, before turning my attention to some flirting and shagging...

Actually, I won't, because the portmanteau approach to creativity rarely works. A convention of journalists once tried to devise the perfect headline that nobody could ignore, a splash that would include every appealing element. They came up with: "Teenage surgeon priest in palace sex change mercy dash riddle", which, of course, fails to grab you anywhere by trying to grab you everywhere.

But one bit of Ms Clayton's researches was genuinely helpful. She revealed that Shakespeare in Love had come very close to her definition of perfection. It had just the right amounts, she said, of action, comedy, music and plot. "Had the film made greater use of special effects," she concluded, "its appeal might have been even wider." I couldn't agree more. How dumb of Tom Stoppard (who wrote it) and John Madden (who directed it) not to have included a scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow's face morphed into three-dimensional liquid form, as in Terminator 2, or in which knives sprouted from Joseph Fiennes's knuckles, like in X-Men 2. Come to think of it, Shakespeare's own productions could have been beefed up with a bit of strategic SFX. King Lear's endless banging-on about madness on the blasted heath would have benefited no end from the arrival of a few velociraptors.