Tv blog: Tomorrow's Food plus other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 19 November 2015

Benjie Goodhart on some of the week's must-see television including Capital and The House of Hypochondriacs.

Tomorrow’s Food, Monday 23rd November, 9pm, BBC One

BBC One has a new series about food technology. I KNOW!! Thrilling, huh? I’ve not been this excited since my wife suggested a  Saturday trip to IKEA, Croydon branch. Except that this show actually isn’t half bad. Like me in the IKEA restaurant faced with a plate of meatballs, it crammed in an awful lot in a small window of time.

Presenter Dara O’Briain is the BBC’s go-to guy for science (along with Prof Brian Cox, of course) on the basis that having a comedian talk about science might trick people into thinking they’re watching a laugh-riot rather than something about fat molecules. 

O'Briain is at the marvellously-named Thanet Earth, looking at the various ingenious methods of growing fruit and veg (and, thrillingly, a plant that will, in a roundabout way, provide both chips and ketchup).

Dr Shini Somara is in Shanghai, looking at two very modern restaurants: One staffed by robots, the other a multi-sensory gastronomic experience. Nothing original here, Heston’s already done the multi-sensory thing.

Chef Angela Hartnett looks at how the US Military is trying to find a pizza that can last three years in 27˚ heat (they already have them in the UK. I’ve waited three years for a pizza to arrive, and when it’s done so, it’s been hovering just above room temperature…) 

She also investigates whether a wine decanter that sends sonic waves through a bottle of ‘cheap supermarket plonk’ could make it taste better. 

To her astonishment, it seems to work. I’m not letting my wife see this bit. The ‘cheap supermarket plonk’ is what I buy her. 

Grocer Chris Bavin is in Australia, looking at robot farming. His meeting with an expert includes the following exchange: “This is the Weedhunter. What’s it doing?” “Right now it’s looking for weeds,” comes the response. Right now? What’s it doing later? A game of darts down the pub?

The success of the programme is that it moves fast. You get enough detail to be informed, not so much as to get bored. There are items on fat-busting seaweed, pizza vending machines, miracle berries that make sour taste like sweet, electronic tastebud stimulation, and cloud-seeding in Texas. Fast, fascinating and fun.

The House of Hypochondriacs, Tuesday 24th November, 8pm, Channel 4

Channel 4 loves putting people together in a house. Over the years, we’ve had transgender people (My Transsexual Summer), terminally ill people (My Last Summer), unsupervised children (Boys and Girls Alone) and the dangerously fame-hungry, deluded and self-obsessed (Big Brother). In this programme, Dr Christian Jessen takes four hypochondriacs and puts them into a house together. 

It’s a rather nice house, actually. They always are. I wish someone would make a programme “House of Middle Aged, Bald TV Bloggers”. I’d love a little break in a flash London pad.

Except, in the event, only three of them come. And then, fairly early on, one of those three leaves. They were a whisper away from having to call it The House of a Lonely Hypochondriac.

The three housemates are encouraged to stop worrying by spending time in a hospital, which seems to me to be likely to make things much, much worse, on a “Here’s what you could have won” basis. It seems as likely a cure as sending a gambling addict to Vegas with £100 grand in cash.

The film is certainly a stark eye-opener into the reality of living with chronic hypochondria. It is a hugely debilitating condition that completely dominates the lives of those featured. 

It’s easy to laugh and sneer at sufferers, but they are simply people whose health concerns (we all have them) have gone way, way out of control – the extent to which it’s almost difficult to believe at times. Ironically, these are indeed very unwell individuals, just not in the way that they think.

So the film is certainly not lacking in interest, and in terms of de-stigmatising the condition, it does a fine job. You cannot help but feel sympathy for the sufferers here. But in terms of solving their problems, the solutions seemed glib and half-baked, and the assertion, at the end of the programme, that the housemates were on the way to being cured rings hollow. 

What they need is a good dose of therapy, not a nice house in London and some TV-friendly exercises.

Capital, Tuesday 24th November, 9pm, BBC One

When I was young and growing up in affluent west London, South London was a place on the map marked “Here be dragons”. Or, at least, “Here be the occasional housing estate and not as many gourmet artisan butchers as one would like”. 

But times change, maps change, and south London (indeed London as a whole) has changed beyond recognition. 

This is the subject of this new three-part drama from BBC One, Peter Bowker’s adaptation of John Lanchester’s book of the same name. Over the years, Pepys Road in South London has gone from an average, urban, lower middle class street to a place of almost unfathomable value, where relatively ordinary houses are worth well north of £2 million. 

The residents there are a diverse mixture of those who bought before the housing boom, or rent modest rooms on the street, and their super-rich neighbours with wet rooms and nannies and weekend retreats in the Cotswolds.

One day, out of the blue, the residents start to receive anonymous postcards, saying simply “We want what you have”. Who is sending them? And why? And, as the campaign starts to ramp up, what is going to happen next?

Any drama boasting Toby Jones and Lesley Sharp is almost certainly a sign of quality, and this is emphatically the case here. Jones, in particular, is wonderfully arch as a city trader who feels there could be more to life. 

In the book, his status-obsessed and avaricious wife, Arabella, is one of the great monstrous creations of modern literature, and here she is played with evident relish by Rachel Stirling. 

But this is an ensemble piece, with a large and colourful cast of characters, from a sickly grandmother and her distant daughter, to an asylum seeker working illegally as a traffic warden; a Pakistani family running the local shop to a womanising Polish builder. 

All human life is here, in what is an accomplished and hugely promising opening episode.

The World’s Most Expensive Food, Thursday 26th November, 9pm, Channel 4

In some survey or another published somewhere some years back (forgive me if I’m blinding you with forensic detail) something like 95 per cent of British people identified themselves as middle class. 

Yet if you were to glean your information entirely from Channel 4’s output, you’d be left with the distinct impression that ours was a nation of either monstrously rich, hugely vulgar idiots or grotesquely poor members of an occasionally criminal underclass with no access to dentistry.

I don’t intend this as a criticism. The extremes of society, at both ends, are by definition more interesting. I’d rather watch people holidaying on a mega-yacht than going on a fortnight’s all-inclusive in the Med. So the broadcaster’s recent looks at posh houses and mega-yachts have been fascinating, and this riveting documentary, about absurdly expensive food, is no different.

The film jumps from a man who caters for the needs of yacht owners in the Med to a couple producing snail caviar (not literally themselves, obviously) to a Powys farmer who produces Wagyu beef by massaging his cows and feeding them beer. (I wouldn’t mind being reincarnated as a Wagyu beef cow, only without the whole being slaughtered-and-eaten thing…)

But the undoubted star of the show is Jori White, who is organising a spectacular banquet to celebrate her wedding anniversary. They’re having a dinner party that is going to cost £1000-a-head. Mind you, it is their 17th anniversary, so you’ve got to do it properly. 

She’s using a company who she last used for a party four years ago that people still talk about. Well, 13th anniversaries are big ones, too, of course! 

The evening includes 17 ‘sensory moments’, from a personally-scented towel to rummaging through leaves in search of truffles while listening to pigs oinking. Yes, really.There’s also a hilarious Uzbek businesswoman trying to learn how to pass muster at the top end of English society (I would say a start would be abandoning her number plate: AM 12 FAT) and her brilliantly snooty but winningly self-aware tutor. 

And an Aussie chef who’s decided to stop working on luxury yachts, and whose closing speech on the ethics, or lack thereof, of obscenely conspicuous consumption, should be played on a loop at all yacht dealerships.

Talking Heads: Box Set

No, not the band (although they were pretty marvellous, too!) but Alan Bennett’s incomparable, unique and magnificent monologue masterpieces. Not a lot of TV drama these days makes it on to the English Literature syllabus for GCSE and A Level. Obviously Hollyoaks, and the occasional episode of Monarch of the Glen, but that’s about it.

But that singular honour was accorded to Bennett’s half-hour TV plays, of which he wrote two series, ten years apart. They were wonderful oddities, each episode a self-contained play starring just one person, telling their stories in wry monologues that slowly revealed a devastatingly dark or unbearably poignant conclusion. 

Drama can be a lot of things. It can be spectacular, noisy, effects-laden, with huge explosions, thumping soundtracks, great locations and beautiful cinematography. But at its core, drama is about two things: Good writing, and good acting. Nothing else really matters. Talking Heads had good writing and good acting, and how!

It’s no surprise that Bennett secured the very best actors for these once-in-a-lifetime roles. 

His cast list included Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith (currently starring in Bennett’s new film, The Woman in the Van), Stephanie Cole, Julie Walters, Thora Hird, Eileen Atkins, David Haig and Penelope Wilton, as well as a certain Alan Bennett. Walters, Routledge and Hird starred in both series. So technically, I suppose they were twice-in-a-lifetime roles

Thora Hird, in particular, will forever be associated with Talking Heads. Her down-to-earth, homespun, everywoman quality was perfectly suited to Bennett’s work, and she won Best Actress BAFTAs for both of her performances.It is often, quite correctly, said that there are no decent roles for women of a certain age. 

It is a delightful quirk of Bennett’s writing that, if he was in charge of the world’s celluloid output, there would be almost no work for anyone else. Off you go, Clooney. Don’t let the studio door hit you on the way out, DiCaprio. Patricia Routledge and Penelope Wilton are on their way in, and you’re blocking their trailers. Talking Heads - The Complete Collection is available on Amazon for £9.99.

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