Last Night's Television - Glee, E4: Delia Through The Decades, BBC2

Compliments to the chef

Reviewed,Brian Viner
Tuesday 12 January 2010 01:00

For those of us who slightly worship Delia Smith, those of us whose copy of her Complete Cookery Course is so battered and stained it might be a medieval relic, the last couple of years have tested our devotion. I refer not so much to the occasional histrionic outbursts at Carrow Road, home of her beloved Norwich City FC, but more to her astonishingly ill-conceived 2008 TV series on cheating at cooking.

In that series, you will recall with a shudder, Delia advocated the use of tinned mince and frozen mashed potato to make a shepherd's pie, among other culinary blasphemies. Indeed, it was all so weird that I have a theory that the whole thing was a gigantic mickey-take, as if Delia had tired of her image as mother hen to the nation, and had decided to put out the biggest imaginable load of nonsense to find out if people would take it seriously. It was like Eric Clapton making a new album playing only the kazoo, or Eddie Izzard going on tour telling only knock-knock jokes: a provocative test to see whether her reputation was strong enough to survive.

Delia Through the Decades shows that, unequivocally, it has. Not many people get a career retrospective in the form of a five-part primetime series on terrestrial telly, and while famous cooks raise digits at one another all the time, not many of them get only thumbs up, rather than two fingers. Here, Nigella Lawson summed up Delia's appeal nicely: "She's like a home-economics teacher who wants her class to do better." A home- economics teacher who had a funny turn a couple of years ago but is now back in full control of her spatula and her sieve.

It was in the early 1970s that Delia – waved off by her secondary-school headmistress with "if you'd worked a bit harder you could have been a secretary" – emerged as an unlikely TV star. At the start, we embraced her because she was the antithesis of the ghastly Fanny Cradock, but her remarkable longevity, as this programme showed, owes something to her resolutely unfashionable style. She doesn't date because she wasn't all that modern in the first place. If Nigella makes love to the camera, and Jamie Oliver treats it as his best mate, for Delia it's always been more like the vicar, to be treated with genteel formality. I remember a wonderful comedy sketch in which Ronni Ancona portrayed Delia as an embittered old lush, as the Nigellas, Jamies and Ainsleys took centre-stage. "You'll all come back to me in the end," she slurred. And we have.

All the finest comedy is based on a slightly tweaked version of the truth, and Glee is another good example. I know we only get the best of American TV over here, but even so, most of the invention and originality currently seems to be travelling across the Atlantic from west to east. Later this month, praise be, comes series three of Mad Men. Meanwhile, last week saw the start of Nurse Jackie, Scrubs on amphetamines, and Glee is High School Musical on steroids, a beautifully judged parody of all those shows in which the most muscular jock dates the prettiest cheerleader.

Glee revolves around the singing group at William McKinley High in Anytown, Ohio, which is run by an idealistic modern-languages teacher, Mr Schuester (Matthew Morrison). Practically every character is a cliché – the bullying games teacher, the picked-on camp kid, the budget-fixated head – but then that's the whole point, and it's written, performed and directed with the same zest as if it were all in earnest. My 14-year-old son didn't like it much, but that's because he's too young to see it for the pastiche that, gloriously, it is.

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