Preview: Indian Summers, Sunday 15th February, 9pm, Channel 4
Can this be right? A costume drama? On Channel 4? Whatever next? An arts show on Channel 5? Opera on Sky Sports One? Songs of Praise on Hot Mummas XXX? What is the world coming to? If I’m watching a drama on Channel 4, I expect either a suicidally-depressing political thriller, a suicidally-depressing look at the ravages of poverty/drink/drugs, or something with lots of swearing, gratuitous sex and explosions. All of which may or may not leave you suicidally depressed.
This? Well, this is different gravy. Indian Summers is a new ten-part series looking at the beginning of the end of the Raj in 1930s India, and it is fabulous. You will not see a more visually sumptuous, colourful, stunningly shot, aesthetically mouth-watering drama this year. Or, quite possibly, ever. I cannot stress this enough. It looks simply staggering. Every frame could be a Raja Ravi Varma (thank you Google) painting.
But this is more than just an exercise in visual artistry. Everything about this drama oozes class. The brilliantly researched script combines the historical, the cultural and the personal with a marvellously subtle touch. And because it’s a ten-part drama, the plot, and the characters, are allowed time to grow, without our being bashed over the head with hideous plot jumps and exposition dialogue.
This feature-length first episode picks up the action as the British who govern India are moving to their summer retreat, the hill town of Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are far too many characters to try and explain here, but they are all beautifully written and cast.
At first look, this is a very old-fashioned drama. All the stiff collars and tea wallahs, and the characters hide-bound by convention and class, put one in mind of The Jewel in the Crown. But it is modern, too, in its sensibilities, and its willingness to tackle the unpalatable. One of the lines uttered by Julie Walters is breathlessly risqué (and very funny).
Oh, did I not mention Julie Walters? Yep, the doyenne of British acting is in it too, as imperious and untouchable as ever. She’s like a quality kite mark for British drama. Our Jule in the Crown, if you will. Not to be missed.
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Review: Heston’s Recipe for Romance, Monday 9th February, 9pm, Channel 4
At the time of writing, Valentine’s Day is still two days away. Plenty of time for me to put into practice my plan for this year’s romantic endeavours. Operation Cupid 2015 involves buying a card (birthday/Xmas/bereavement, it doesn’t matter, Tippex works on all of them), a slightly wilting bunch of carnations (if you leave it until after 5pm on the day itself, they’re normally on offer) and, if she’s really good, a romantic meal (The Happy Inn Chinese Takeaway and a Chuck Norris movie – result!) After dinner, I might let her massage my corns.
It could be worse, though. I could have taken her for the romantic meal cooked by Heston Blumenthal in this engagingly bonkers programme, in which the culinary wizard joined experts from the worlds of science and psychology in an effort to develop a meal so astoundingly romantic that the sample couples involved would end up having each other for dessert. What he produced was a meal, and an experience, so unpleasant-looking, I’d have rushed home with a gargoyle-made-flesh if would have got me out of there any quicker.
The starter was an undoubtedly clever dish, involving things that looked like other things, melting hearts etc. But the reality is that it was made of white chocolate, chicken fat, scallops, caviar and fish veloute. As if that wasn’t revolting enough, diners were then made to feed each other. Yuk! What could be less romantic than having someone looking deep into your eyes while attempting to shovel a globule of chocolate and chicken fat into your slavering maw, and spilling it down your Man at C&A suit from 1987 (I like to make an effort on Valentine’s Day).
The main course was simply an exercise in weirdness. It was an apple, made of pigeon pate, with a super-hot chilli skin, served dangling from a tree, with a real snake writhing around beneath it. The logic for this was that the heat from the chilli skin and the shock of the snake would bring the diners closer together through a shared experience of pain and fear. Why not just kidnap them in an unmarked transit van and torture them with electric cables for a week?
Dessert admittedly looked quite cool, in that it featured popping candy, and I have a mental age of seven. But the spritz pumped into the room, which one diner said smelt like cooking fat, and the napkins scented with the body odour of each man in the room, seemed like malodorous errors.
At the end of the whole thing, the diners were, predictably, all luvvie-duvvie (particularly one revolting, snogging young couple with seriously smug hair). Heston saw this as confirmation that his elaborate plan had worked. I saw it as confirmation that the guests had had wine.
Go to page two to read a review of The Gift and a preview of The Great Comic Relief British Bake Off.
Review: The Gift, Tuesday 10th February, 9pm, BBC One
We’ve all got regrets from our past. For example, I’d like to apologise for the events of September 18 2010, when I got married. An awful lot of women were heartbroken that day. My wife. Her mother. Her sister. It was brutal.
But some people really do go through life consumed by regrets so real and livid they can’t get beyond them. BBC One’s new series, The Gift, aims to help ease their regrets by righting the wrongs of the past. It’s sort of a cross between Surprise Surprise, Who Do You Think You Are, and the sob story bits from X Factor. It’s hackneyed, derivative, sentimental… and really rather marvellous.
In the first episode, Matt Baker helps a former soldier, Patrick Provis, meet a member of the army helicopter crew who defied orders to help rescue him from certain death after an IRA mortar attack. The pro who defied protocol to save Provis from the Provos. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a provost involved.
In the other story, Mel Giedroyc helps 74-year-old Grace Bates track down an old flame whose heart she broke almost 60 years ago. When Grace met Hermann, a German immigrant, in 1956, the two fell instantly in love. But Grace was engaged to someone else. She decided to break off her engagement, but in her nervous immaturity got drunk first, and slept with her fiancé. Of course, because it is always the way in these tales, she fell pregnant. A heartbroken Hermann never saw her again, and moved to America soon afterwards.
For Patrick, still struggling to come to terms with the events of the mortar attack, and his extensive injuries, all these years later, he feels the need to thank the man who gave the order to save his life. It just so happens that that man is an extraordinary, charismatic, successful Hollywood producer, Alex Cary, whose modesty and humility when meeting Patrick is awe-inspiring. It is impossible not to be moved as the two share a pint and a chat.
Grace is desperate to say sorry to Hermann. But you can tell she also has a sense of unfinished business. She wants more than a conversation. She wants to pick up where she left off. After much sleuthing, Mel finds widower Hermann, a kindly, gruff man, and he agrees to come to England to meet Grace. Of course he forgives her, but he’s not ready to pick up a romance that ended in 1956.
But it was never really about him, but about what he represented. The life she could have had. Instead, she was stuck in a loveless marriage, consumed by thoughts of what might have been. In the end, she doesn’t need his forgiveness. She needs her own, for messing up her life, through a drunken decision made as a teenager.
This message has been brought to you by the Department of Amateur Psychology at the University of Tajikistan.
Preview: The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, Wednesday 18th February, 8pm, BBC One
I loved the last series of The Great British Bake Off, right up until the moment my friend, the contestant Kate Henry, was cast aside from proceedings like a melting baked Alaska. After that… well, I didn’t really watch, to be honest. It just wasn’t the same.
So I was a little nervous about tuning in to the Celebrity version which is taking place to raise money for Comic Relief. I needn’t have worried. It turned out that this series is absolutely full of friends of mine as well. Hurrah!
Not real friends, you understand. I’ve never actually met any of them. But when you spend as much time as I do watching telly, and you find you frequently eschew social occasions so you can catch Masterchef, you end up with a situation where your best friends are eight-inch-tall, two-dimensional figures with surround-sound voices and excellent dental hygiene.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this programme. Mind you, I’d probably say that even if I loathed it. It’s raising money for charity. What would I say? “Don’t watch this, it’s garbage. And yes, I’m sorry, children of Kampala, but you can’t have a new school. I had my (non-existent) reputation as a TV critic to think about, so what if you wanted to become a doctor.”
Happily, this second episode in the four-part series skipped along with great good cheer. The celebrities featured were Jonathan Ross (who I know irritates a lot of people, but I find really charismatic), Gok Wan (see Jonathan Ross description),and Abbey Clancy, who I’d quite happily watch reading the phone directory. For China. And a YouTube video blogger called Zoella. For those of you unfamiliar with video blogging, it involves annoyingly trendy young things wittering on about their holidays, their make-up, their shoes, and what they’re having for tea, combined with perky music, jumpy editing, and an unfathomable amount of whooping. Only it’s much worse than it sounds. (That said, Zoella does seem very sweet.)
This episode sees the four cooks make cupcakes, profiteroles, and a showstopper bake, involving a marble cake based on a building that inspires them. (At this point, I’d have started searching the architecture annals for a building that resembled a badly-made marble cake.) The show combines some pretty impressive bakes with some unmitigated disasters, none more so than Jonathan’s profiteroles, which look like Yorkshire puddings coated in bird droppings. He also tries to grill his cakes. Even I know you don’t do that. They should be boiled.
I won’t tell you who wins, partly because I wouldn’t anyway, but also because I wasn’t allowed to see the end of the show for that very reason. It’s like the identity of JFK’s assassin, only more secret. But I don’t think it was Jonathan Ross. In either instance.
If you want to do something lovely, text BAKE to 70005, and you’ll be donating £5 to Comic Relief.