TV blog: Simply Nigella and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 29 October 2015

Benjie Goodhart takes a sideways look at some of the week's television including Gino’s Italian Escape and My Psychic Life.

Simply Nigella, Monday 2nd November, 8:30pm, BBC Two

So, there’s this TV cook, Nigella Lawson. You’ve probably heard of her. I have, because she’s been in the papers quite a lot. I’ve  never seen any of her programmes before, because I’m never likely to make spiced pumpkin seed and halloumi lamb on harissa and  chickpea couscous. I pretty much grind to a shuddering halt at fish fingers.

Anyway, she’s back with a new series, about food “that makes me feel good not just when I’m eating it, but when I’m cooking it too.” I agree. I always feel good when I have a microwavable curry heating up and I’ve got my feet up in front of the telly.

We see Nigella at a local shop, talking to the camera as she fills her basket. She’ll probably get home and discover she’s bought some denture-grip, a tin of brass polish and a bag of kitty litter. With a couple of garlic cloves and some soy sauce, she’d doubtless still turn it into something divine.

It’s a complex business, all this cooking. You have to be a culinary genius to keep up. Take her first recipe – mashed avocado on toast. You have to… hold on… I could do that. I don’t even need to watch her make it. I could do that already. Not that I ever would. Sounds weird. Particularly the way she makes it, with stuff like ‘breakfast radishes’. What kind of a monster has radishes for breakfast anyway?

Then there’s a cinnamon prawn stir fry (looks yum!) and lamb ribs, which she cooks with nigella seeds (bit narcissistic, that!) These she feeds to her half-sister and family, tucking in and telling them how good it tastes (are you allowed to do that, if you’ve cooked it yourself?). 

Then there’s an apricot and almond cake (all cake is good and must be worshipped) and finally a warm spiced chickpea and cauliflower salad. Chickpeas have added nothing to the human experience in all of history. I like salad as much as the next man (especially if the next man is actually a Bengal Tiger) but if you tried to serve me this for a meal, I’d punch you. Not you, Nigella. You’re lovely.

Joanna Lumley Elvis and Me, Wednesday 4th November, 9pm, ITV

Okay, I don’t want to come across as a punctuation Nazi, but in all of the press material I’ve read, this programme title has no colon in it. It makes it sound like I’m about to tell a story about me, Joanna and Elvis, which seems unlikely, as Elvis died when I was four. 

Anyway, I think what they mean is Joanna Lumley: Elvis and Me. This, you see, is what the programme’s blurb describes as her “very personal journey” into the story of Elvis. 

It’s very personal because, um, she liked Elvis. Obviously this sets her apart from all the other girls growing up in the 50s and 60s.“I wish I could have met him,” opines Joanna. Not that it was ever likely. “I know I would have loved him. And I hope – and think – he would have loved me.” Um. What? Is it just me, or is that a fairly extraordinary statement to make?

Anyway, Joanna starts off by visiting Abbey Road, where the London Philharmonic Orchestra are in recording a new album with… um… Elvis. Turns out, if you’re a big enough star, death is not the end, just a minor career hiccup. Priscilla Presley is also there, looking like a cross between Michael Jackson and a wax doll.

Then it’s off to America, and a big red Cadillac for Joanna to cruise around in topless (the car, not Joanna). Her journey takes her from Elvis’ birthplace in a shack in Tupelo to his rather more ornate, if spectacularly tasteless, Graceland palace.There are some genuinely fascinating insights here, and the interviews with some of Elvis’ childhood friends are oddly touching. What emerges is a portrait of a young man who – while driven, sexy and supremely talented – was, at heart, a humble, polite and decent kid. 

My Psychic Life, Wednesday 4th November, 10pm

The start of this programme contains a stat that is enough to make your hair stand on end. “Almost half of Brits don’t believe you can talk to the dead.” Eh? Excuse me? Say what? So more than 50 per cent of people in this country DO actually believe you can talk to dead people? Actually, I suppose I believe you can talk to the dead as well. You can talk to them all you flippin’ well like, but you’ll be waiting a while for a response. Being dead sort of precludes operating in the real world – unless, of course, you’re Elvis, on the point of another album release.

This programme looks at various clairvoyants/mediums/spiritualists/shysters/delusionals as they apply their unique gift/con vulnerable people blind. There’s David, a clairvoyant with terrible dyed hair and a dyed beard. Which is unfortunate, as his day job is hairdressing. I hope he’s better at channelling the spirits, although I doubt it somehow. David is camper than John Inman riding a My Little Pony through Disneyland, so it’s a surprise to meet his wife.

Dean is another clairvoyant, and shares David’s campness and fondness for fake tan. He’s trying to break into the big time, the glamorous showbiz city that never sleeps and makes dreams come true. Blackpool.

Then there’s tragic Shelley. Shelley is 43, and lives with her mum and one of those hideous bald cats. She and mum are doing a spot of spring cleaning – casting the evil spirits out of their home. Only it doesn’t work, because soon afterwards, Shelley encounters a spirit who says to her: “Fear me, for I shalt have no mercy upon thy soul.” They talk flowery like that, do ghosts.

David finds his hairdressing is getting in the way of his career as a clairvoyant. Personally, I find my reluctance to take money off people on false pretences is getting in the way of my career as a clairvoyant. He also reveals that he’s been contacted by Michael Jackson. Why is it that famous dead people have nothing better to do than contact spiritualists all the time? 

Hopefully David will put him in touch with Elvis, and they can collaborate on an album. David is off to visit an agent in London. One of his spirits tells him “You’ve just got to reach for your star, David.” Somebody had better check – are any of S Club 7 dead?

Gino’s Italian Escape: Islands in the Sun, Friday 6th November, 8pm, ITV

What, ultimately, is the purpose of a cookery show? Is it to teach us how to cook? (Personally, I’ve never found it that difficult. How many TV shows do you need to watch before you can understand the phrase “Remove sleeve, pierce film”?) If so, Gino D’Acampo’s newseries of his Italian Escape is fairly hopeless. It teaches you how to buy a whole pig from a Sardinian farmer, and then roast it whole over a naked fire, flavouring it with fresh Sardinian herbs. All very useful if you live in a semi in Droitwich.

If, however, your aim is to entertain, then ITV are on to a winner. This is the third series of the amiable chef’s Great Escape, and will see him dividing the six episodes between Italy’s two great islands, Sardinia and Sicily. Sardinia is D’Acampo’s home from home – and his love for the place is palpable. 

Mind you, it’s not difficult to see why. Everything’s better there, from the verdant, rolling hills and unspoilt coastline to the fabulous architecture and, yes, the cuisine. 

D’Acampo buys a whole pig direct from a local farm, which may have been chosen by the producers for the quality of pig, or the convenience of location, but I suspect had more to do with the attractiveness of the farmer’s wife, who gets to do all the talking. She doesn’t look like any of the farmer’s wives from All Creatures Great and Small, that’s for sure.

The pig, when it is prepared, looks spectacular (and gains the approval of the farmer’s wife, who’s popped round for dinner, as you do. I often invite the cashier at Sainsbury’s round when I’ve finished my shopping). D’Acampo also visits a local restaurant, to examine the two types of local cuisine – the rich and the poor. “I’m a big fan of poor cuisine,” he says. Me too. Remove sleeve, pierce film.

The Jewel in the Crown, Box Set

TV is all about fads. Programme ideas drift in and out of fashion with seemingly little logic. Today, TV is obsessed with formulaic police dramas, talent shows, and orange-tanned youths jumping in and out of bed with each other. Back in the early 1980s, the vogue was for classy, expensive, intelligent and sumptuously-filmed period dramas set in India. (And we call time’s march ‘progress’). 

On screens large and small back then, we had The Far Pavilions, Heat and Dust, Gandhi, A Passage to India and the jewel in the crown, er, The Jewel in the Crown. 

This epic 13-hour adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels was a masterpiece, one of ITV’s finest ever dramas. The story takes place in the last days of the raj, against the backdrop of the Second World War and an increasingly powerful Indian independence movement. 

A British-educated Indian is falsely accused of rape, sparking a series of events that will echo down the years and affect the lives of many of the protagonists. An epic tale of passion, race, politics, class and identity, the series made stars of both Charles Dance and Art Malik, but the drama’s broad storyline meant that the focus never stayed on one character. 

As a result, uniquely at the 1985 BAFTAs, all four of the nominations for best actress went to cast members, with Peggy Ashcroft winning. Tim Pigott-Smith, in splendidly unpleasant form as a racist British army officer, won the best actor gong, with nominations also going to Malik and Dance. 

Other cast members included Geraldine James, Saeed Jaffrey, Susan Wooldridge, Judy Parfitt and Om Puri. Rich in historical detail, filmed on a sumptuous scale with majestic photography, and evocative of a far-off country in a bygone age, this is TV-making at its most ambitious and extraordinary, a show not withered at all by the ravages of time.

The Jewel in the Crown is available on Amazon for £29.95

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