This must be the week, I’m supposing, to celebrate Britishness, or at least Englishness, in all its splendour. Combined with the regular rolling news footage of English football fans getting tanked up and beaten up by Russians (sadly, we no longer even lead the world in soccer violence), last night we were treated to a reminder of who the English would like themselves to be, factual and fictionalised: inventive and traditional, timeless and ingenius, as well as drunk and disorderly.
The factual came in the one-off Britain’s Most Spectacular Backyard Builds, which followed the progress of three utterly pointless contraptions from conception through gestation (10 weeks and £2,500 worth of that) to joyous birth. Sara Cox, professional presenter, and architect Piers Taylor it was who guided us around the minds of these lovable tinkerers, and the inventors pretty much stole the show, and rightly. My favourite piece of gear, though not the winner, was a grand breakfast-making machine held together mainly by a sense of humour and made for their wives by friends Pete and Merv (who must under no circumstances be victims of a spoonerism). Remarkably, these two old codgers were brought together by those very same wives, presumably because the girls felt that a British male occupying a shed alone, though an honourable calling, was not quite as much fun as two of them sharing their slightly odd tastes. I mean in a nice, inventing sort of way.
Anyway, they did indeed create a Heath Robinsonesque piece of kit, both mechanical and electronic, that would boil an egg to the correct consistency, toast bread, make tea, complete with “jiggling” mechanism for the tea bag, and deliver a newspaper (after a fashion). The sweet-dispensing merry-go-round was the judges' favourite, and it too was a superbly crafted jeu d’esprit, if you will, built by Nick and Carolyn for their six-year-old granddaughter and her chums. It was only by comparison with these outstanding examples of the British gift for improvisation that Stewart’s sci-fi robot, made out of car air bags and complete with guns to fire foam pellets, was made to look a little ordinary. With minds like this at its disposal, Britain has little to fear from leaving the European Union.
“Snobbery with violence” was how Alan Bennett, more national conscience than national treasure in my view, once characterised the crime fiction of the inter-war era, which now supplies us with so much peak time “period” drama, either directly or as inspiration. It derives from the way that the only characters in the detective stories or novels of the time that had any intelligence or wit about them were drawn from the middle and upper classes; the lower orders were walk-on, one dimensional inarticulate figures unworthy of development or detail.
Well, I have to say that the third episode of the new Agatha Raisin series does tend uncomfortably towards the snobbish, even though the literature it is based dates back only to the the early 21st century (by Marion Chesney, as the pseudonymous MC Beaton). For the avid fan of such televisual sedation, there are plenty of Cotswolds village scenes in places that ought to be called Chipping Snobbery. There’s also the wonderful Ashley Jensen, who continues to play the titular amateur detective just right, i.e. slightly off-centre (and as she did in the pilot Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death back in 2014). I’ve never quite seen so much designer kitchen porn in a detective series, but maybe I get out too much.
Set in the present day, however, I’m sorry to say that the Raisin oeuvre lacks the usual complement of Morris Oxfords, Imperial typewriters and steam engines we’ve come to expect in such viewing, but there we are. I confess I enjoyed “The Well Spring of Death”, even so, and chose to discount a couple of crucial plot lines that didn’t quite have the structural integrity required of them, including the Raisin love interest. I couldn’t help wondering if Raisin’s next Cotswolds corpse will be the apparent career suicide of a Conservative prime minister. And he seemed such a nice man.
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