TV blog: Escape to Costa Rica

Benjie Goodhart / 27 April 2017

Fabulously ornate cakes and a trip to a natural paradise are Benjie’s top TV picks for this week. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.

Escape to Costa Rica, Sunday 30th April, 7pm, Channel 4

Ours is a troubled world. Global warming, social divisions, extremism, man’s inhumanity to man, and The Only Way Is Essex. It would be easy to abandon hope for this tiny blue marble of ours. Except that, tucked away in a remote corner of Central America, something extraordinary is happening.

Costa Rica – impoverished, unheralded, modest little Costa Rica – is only years away from becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country. And you know what else? It consistently comes top of the Global Happiness Index (and they don’t have TOWIE – coincidence?)

In this visually gorgeous three-part series, scientist, writer and traveller Gaia Vince goes to Costa Rica to find out how it might be setting the template by which we could all live in the future. Now, I know what you’re thinking: No amount of visual gorgeousness can compensate for hours upon end of being lectured about the importance of sustainable farming and green electricity. But thankfully this is far more than an exercise in worthy, slightly depressing eco-telly.

Thanks to a mixture of Vince’s enthusiastic charisma and Costa Rica’s indisputable loveliness, this is actually a rather joyous experience. It helps that Vince has taken her family with her for the trip (including two very cute toddlers) and that she embarks on some remarkable experiences. Lest you think that she’s got a cushy number – a lengthy holiday in the Caribbean with her family – there is the small matter of crocodile hunting.

This being Costa Rica, the crocodiles aren’t hunted to turn into particularly expensive designer handbags to be carried by women with fur coats and Chihuahuas. They’re hunted to move them to somewhere else, to allow for sustainable fish-farming. But nobody has told the crocodiles, who still seem a tad resistant to the idea. Vince joins a croc-catching team. It’s not a job I’d fancy. The method of catching these vast, prehistoric carnivores is to wade, waist-deep, along the shallow, murky lake they inhabit, until you basically walk into one. Yep. Vince is told that if she feels a crocodile against her legs, she has to stand still and raise her hand. What in the name of all things human would make you want to stand still if you felt a croc against your legs?

Vince’s adventures see her conducting experiments way, way up in the rainforest canopy, as well as overnighting in a tree-house with a difference in the cloud-forest, and meeting some frankly absurdly cuddly orphaned sloths. Almost as cuddly is the Costa Rican president, who she gets to interview about the country’s remarkable direction. 

This, then, is TV that is both eye-opening and entertaining, and there are aspects of life in Costa Rica from which we could all learn. That said, it can’t work as a universal template. You’re never going to get a sustainable eco-tourism programme in Leicester, and hydro-electric power is unlikely to be of much benefit in Mali. But it’s a pointer in the right direction, and heaven knows, we could use it.

Exploring Costa Rica with Saga

Extreme Cake Makers, Monday 1st May, 5:30pm, Channel 4

Later this year, The Great British Bake Off is to start a new life on Channel 4. GBBO’s move from one public service broadcaster to another seemed to trigger a visceral trauma in the national consciousness.  Now, Channel 4 is faced with the unenviable task of placating an outraged nation.

Watch our interview with Prue Leith

Top priority, quite clearly, is to establish themselves as the baking channel. “We LOVE baking,” you can hear them cry, with all the sincerity and passion of a US businessman donning the strip of whichever ‘soccer’ team they’ve just bought, and claiming to have been a lifelong fan. Anyway, step one in the big, sugary, yeasty, self-raising relaunch of C4 involves this new daytime series, Extreme Cake Makers.

The title is undeniably exciting. I had visions of daring bakers trying to perfect a tray of fairy cakes whilst bungee jumping off a bridge to a hard rock soundtrack. But that’s not the way the baking world operates. In this case, ‘extreme’ simply means very ornate, skilful and ambitious. So Shakespeare was an extreme writer, and Mozart an extreme composer.

No matter. The show, as it happens, is rather lovely. As with many daytime shows, there are no bells and whistles – all expense is spared, right down to dispensing with such fripperies as an actual presenter. Instead, the programme merely follows the progress of three bakers, as they construct an extraordinarily lavish and, ideally, very beautiful cake.

Episode one sees Nastassja baking a two-tiered, indigo-and-gold tropical extravaganza, complete with an absurdly laborious feather boa made from edible paper. She’s creating it for her musical hero, someone called Natalie, whose work I have never heard of, which means she is probably quite cool.

Meanwhile, Eloise is making a spectacular four-tier cake that will hang upside down like a chandelier, to go on display in a shop that sells prom dresses. Her cake includes edible sequins, edible glue, and edible lace made from starch and glucose. If that doesn’t get your mouth watering, nothing will.

Finally, there’s Phil and Christine, who are making an absolutely humungous charity cake, in the style of a Wallace and Gromit contraption. It seems to be as much a feat of engineering and carpentry as baking, but the result is suitably spectacular. Bizarrely, though, we are told that, having made the cake, the couple have to transport it ‘120 miles to the north, to Bristol,’ which means they made it in a secret lair far out under the English Channel. After raising thousands of pounds for charity, the cake is distributed around the children’s hospital at Bristol.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 29th April

Snooker: The World Championship, 10am, BBC Two: If it seems to you that snooker has been on the BBC almost non-stop for the past fortnight, it’s probably because snooker has been on the BBC almost non-stop for the past fortnight. That said, we’re in the home straight now, with the semi-finals set to conclude. The final will finish on Monday evening. Be strong.

Monday 1st May

Britain’s Biggest Hoarders, 8pm, Channel 4: New series in which experts spend three months treating sufferers who just can’t seem to get rid of stuff, no matter how seemingly insignificant or meaningless. Strangely compelling.

Tuesday 2nd May

Great British Menu, 7:30pm, BBC Two: More of the nation’s top chefs compete to see whose rosemary-and-pistachio encrusted Angel Delight blancmange with artichoke and fennel coulis is the best. The winners will create a banquet to celebrate 140 years of Wimbledon.

Horizon, 9pm, BBC Two: The admirable science strand meets three sufferers of psychosis and/or schizophrenia, to look at what might be causing their debilitating conditions, as the experts consider a radical rethink in how to treat patients.

Wednesday 3rd May

Trust Me, I’m a Vet, 8pm, BBC Two: A team of vets gives the best and most up-to-date advice on how to keep a healthy hound, a robust rabbit, and a blooming… um… a blooming badger…?

Madeleine McCann: 10 Years On, 9pm, BBC One: Reporter Richard Bilton, who covered the story from the start, looks back at a tale of unbridled sorrow and asks what happens next.

Thursday 4th May

The Truth About Stress, 9pm, BBC One: Fiona Phillips investigates stress, which the World Health Organisation has called the great epidemic of the 21st Century. Can it, in some ways, be good for us? And how is it best managed?

Friday 5th May

Britain Today Tonight, 10pm, Channel 4: Comedian, actor and prankster Kayvan Novak’s brand new series, a spoof news show with a host of outlandish characters.

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