For someone with a particular interest in Russia, I haven't been as assiduous a viewer of the BBC2 series, Putin, Russia and the West, as I should have been. I did, though, go to a preview of the final programme, New Start, which is about foreign policy, and was amazed to find a little knot of protesters outside the venue, Pushkin House in Bloomsbury. It never struck me that the sort of painstaking documentary series made by Brook Lapping and produced by the redoubtable Norma Percy – of which this is the latest – could possibly be seen as biased or propagandistic in any way at all, certainly not enough to prompt a demonstration.
As Percy explained a bit wearily in a question-and-answer session afterwards, Brook Lapping's films are designed to examine how decisions are made at particular moments in history and how things looked to the key players. Such is the production company's reputation now that most of those players, up to and including national leaders, agree to speak on camera, confident that the editing will not distort what they say.
To Percy's regret, the series was unable to secure an interview with Putin, so it had to rely on the testimony of others, and on an abundance of television clips and Kremlin transcripts. I don't think it suffered from that. There is enough of Putin on the record to convey a reasonable impression of the man.
The problem, it turns out, is that some UK-based Russians felt that the series was too kind to Putin – despite clips in which he would have come across to most British viewers, I suspect, as crude and pretty ruthless. The protesters object that his KGB background and his role in re-starting the war in Chechnya – among other negatives – were not given the attention they merited and his opponents were not given enough of a voice.
Percy's argument – that her films are about the exercise of power by the power-holders, not about public opinion – cut no ice with the detractors, who continue to press their case in print and at open forums. But I have to say I'm on her side. She does a particular thing, and she does it very well, and if some Russians feel it's unbalanced, they can find plenty of Putin-portrayals more to their liking elsewhere. Yet I can't help feeling, too, that it's good that some Russians abroad feel strongly enough about their country to protest about a mere TV documentary, and I hope that Norma Percy, the unassuming producer of so many authoritative documentaries over the years, will accept her unaccustomed notoriety as the ultimate accolade: proof that her work really matters.
Slow food can't be on every menu
If you go into your local supermarket and notice a small, dark-haired woman behaving oddly – picking up packaged goods, examining them from improbable angles, putting on her glasses, and finally fiddling with the sticker, while trying to look as though she's not – it could very well be me. And what I'm trying to find are the cooking instructions and, specifically, how long it's all going to take.
For some reason, the makers or packagers have taken to putting reams of promotional and nutritional information on the upside of the packet – in tiny print – while burying the equally tiny cooking instructions on the bottom or, more and more, on the reverse of the label, so you have no idea about preparation time or method until you get it home.
In many years of returning from work to cook an evening meal, I've become a dab hand at what can be cooked from a standing start in 20 minutes. So it's frustrating to discover that the meatballs, say, that you've just bought, will take 45 minutes in a pre-heated oven – and that dinner is more than an hour away. Said dish is then consigned to the freezer for another time, and it has to be omelette – and apologies – yet again.