Yay for Val McDermid, the star of this year’s Christmas University Challenge. Wasn’t she great? I really must read her books.

Rather less Yay for To Walk Alone, the programme about the Brontës which I was looking forward to. I thought two hours rather long and only lasted one. Shot in the dark and inaudible apart from Jonathan Pryce, who is a real Actor. I never have liked Charlotte Brontë but if I’d previously had a favourable view, this programme would have changed it. OK, her life wasn’t a bundle of laughs but that grim face (plus the fact that I couldn’t understand a word she said)! Didn’t they ever smile?

Yesterday evening I caught up with Nigella Lawson’s programme about Anna del Conte, The Cook who Changed our Lives. Anna del Conte is ninety one and still cooking! Her book The Gastronomy of Italy influenced countless chefs yet she has never become a household name.

Portrait of Pasta (see above) is dated 1976, which must be when I bought it. Half the book is a history of pasta and instructions on how to cook it; the other half, recipes. These begin with ‘Recipes from the Past’. My copy has many pencilled annotations where I’ve commented on recipes I tried and I see that one was the old Roman dish ‘Horace’s chickpea, laganelli and leek soup.’ There’s a bookmark for Bucatini alla Carbonara.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara became a very popular dish in Italy after the second world war. This is presumably because it was loved by the Allied Troops since it combines their old favorites (sic) bacon and eggs.’
I seem to remember that a bean and pasta dish was a favourite during our vegetarian phase. Over the years I amassed quite a library of cookery books. There have been many purges but I’ve always held on to Portrait of Pasta.

By the end of the TV programme we didn’t really know much more about Anna del Conte. I’m grateful to her for her excellent, totally reliable recipes and glad she’s getting public recognition.

picture BBC

The first episode of the Christmas two-parter was shown yesterday and some viewers may be confused.
explanation and massive spoiler )
RIP Andrew Sachs. There was much more to him than Fawlty Towers but it’s what he’ll always be remembered for. ‘I know nothing’ is his most famous line, from the episode with wonderful Joan Sanderson as the grumpy deaf woman (Communication Problems). I’m also fond of ‘she go crazy’ (The Psychiatrist) and the scene where he climbs into a laundry basket, saying, ‘I stay here, is nice’ (The Kipper and the Corpse). Timeless.
The BBC’s Love to Read season means lots of programmes about books on television and radio. I can’t possibly watch or listen to them all. Here’s a few I’ve managed.

On Sunday I watched a programme in a series I seem to have missed: Books That Made Britain. This one was East Anglia: The Scene of the Crime. It was introduced by Martha Kearney and the poor woman had little to do but walk about on windswept beaches putting in noddies for her interviews. The question was: why has an area with a low crime rate been the setting for so many fictional murders? The best answer came from one of the authors, who said that seeing a beautiful scene, he had to put a mutilated corpse in it. As Martha Kearney said, not what would occur to most of us but the point was the contrast between peaceful beauty and horrid murder.

I will leave aside my indignation that there was no mention of Margery Allingham, who set so many of her stories in Suffolk. This programme was boring; half an hour really dragged. Sorry, but I don’t find comments from members of a book group at all interesting or enlightening. The author interviews were better. A good wheeze would be to watch this with the sound off, just to see those incredible East Anglian skies and the mysterious, crumbling coastline. Absolutely beautiful to look at. I kept thinking of David Copperfield and the wreck scene but there was no mention of it.
Several other episodes are still available to watch and rather than give up on the series, I’ll try Rye.
even more )

I was absolutely furious yesterday evening to find that the borefest which is Autumnwatch had taken over the schedules for the entire week and there would be no University Challenge or Only Connect. My favourite programmes! All was not lost because I had the second episode of Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes to look forward to. This is a brilliant little series. In the first episode Marr looked at detective fiction. Last night’s episode, about fantasy writing, was even better, I thought. Phew, it was so fast and so dense I could hardly keep up.

I’m a bore about fantasy, thinking that once you’ve read Tolkien you don’t need to read any more. It’s often been pointed out to me that there are many different forms of fantasy and Andrew Marr convinced me that this is true. I now have to read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, for example. This series (BBC 4 of course), is television for intelligent viewers and shows what TV can be at its best. Next week: spies!

I see the critics have been raving about this new series starring Robbie Coltrane as an ageing, much loved comedian who is accused of rape. I was less impressed. I found it slow (four episodes!) and the music and shots clichéd. What will keep people watching is the big question: did he do it? Because this is no easy, ‘he’s obviously innocent, how will he prove it' story. The more I think about Robbie Coltrane’s performance, the more brilliant it seems. He’s like a giant façade of a man, who reminded me of Archie Rice in The Entertainer: ‘I’m dead behind these eyes.’ After an hour on screen, we still know almost nothing about this man. And there’s enough unsavoury history behind him (his wife must stay with him because she’s a Catholic) to make it just possible that he is guilty.
So it will be interesting to see whether or not we should sympathise with a character who is not very attractive.

I watched this delightful little film yesterday evening and enjoyed it so much that I stopped knitting in order to concentrate and try not to look at the subtitles. Michel is a prosperous dentist. Out shopping one pleasant Saturday he finds a rare jazz record he’s been looking for forever and can’t wait to get back to his lovely apartment to play it. Everything conspires against him. His neurotic wife wants to confess something. His son imports a large family of ‘illegals’ into the attic. His guilt-ridden ex-mistress keeps phoning, as does his mother. The cleaner makes a racket. The Polish (only he’s not) builder crashes about then causes a flood which brings a neighbour round to complain. And so on. This clip gives some idea of the farcical chaos which ensues.

Handled differently, this could have been a dark tale about betrayal, identity and middle aged angst but here all is light, sparkling froth. I loved it and have rather fallen for Christian Clavier.

I’ve now binged on all ten episodes of the first season of The Man in the High Castle. It was quite a treat; beautifully shot and acted. For those who don’t yet know, this series is based (loosely, they say), on the novel by Philip K Dick. We’re in a dystopian 1962 in which the Axis powers have won the war. The United States is divided into Nazi and Japanese zones, plus a so-called neutral zone. The eponymous MINTHC is collecting films which look like old newsreels and show an alternative ending to the war. People die to get hold of these films and pass them on, to either the resistance or those in power.

One of the unsettling things about the series is the lack of black and white morality. You’d think: Nazis and Japs = bad; resistance fighters = good. In fact, some of the Nazi and Japanese officials become quite sympathetic characters while the resistance people are either as ruthless as those they oppose or, unfortunately, dead boring. The heroine, Juliana, is passed one of the films by her sister, who is then shot. Dear Jules feels she has to pass the film on again, no matter who gets hurt in the process. The chief victim is her boyfriend Frank, who is so dull that you can’t imagine what Juliana sees in him or care very much what happens to him. Then there’s mysterious Joe Blake (seen above, no hat), a Nazi agent. Or is he? We still don’t know for sure by the end. Loyalty, trust and honour are hard to find.

For me, the stand-out performance of the entire series was by Burn Gorman (above, with hat). Now you can all shout at me for not knowing already what a good actor he is but I’ve never watched Torchwood, Game of Thrones or anything else he’s been in. He plays a gun-toting character known as The Marshall, who is a psychopathic nutter. Although he only appears in two episodes, I found images from the scenes he was in impossible to get out of my head.

I don’t think this series could have been made if Twin Peaks and The X-Files hadn’t come first. This is for people who don’t mind watching a film which has them wondering what on earth is going on. I now want to read the book.

Saturday evening, knitting to do and absolutely nothing I could possibly want to watch on any of the dozens of Freeview channels available. So I turned to Amazon and The Man in the High Castle. I watched two episodes back to back and was gripped by it. I’ll certainly be watching the rest. I’ve read some very cynical comments about Amazon’s venture into TV series but if they’re all like this, I’m in. The Guardian liked it.

Photo BBC. Edward Fox unrecognisable as the Fool. He was also in the 1983 film .

I still have strong memories of the original film of The Dresser, which starred Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, so my expectations of this production were high.

Ronald Harwood’s play is about a touring theatre company run by ‘Sir’ putting on King Lear in wartime, while air raid sirens go off. ‘Sir’, an ageing ham, seems unfit for the performance and is cajoled and bullied onto the stage by his long-time dresser, Norman. So there’s a play within a play, Lear inside The Dresser. The BBC production (by Richard Eyre) was lovely to look at: beautiful photography, perfect costumes and atmosphere. It was very stagey: a play filmed for television rather than a television play.

I have to say that Ian McKellen stole the show with his nervy, fidgety, vulnerable yet at times cruel performance as Norman. Anthony Hopkins somehow failed to shine as ‘Sir’. I did find myself in tears at the end, but that was due to Lear. Top quality TV and what we pay the licence fee for.
Everything was gloomy yesterday evening. Then I watched Sir András Schiff play Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Only on BBC4 would you get seventy five minutes devoted entirely to one man playing one piece on the piano. To say it was sublime is an understatement; I knew as I was listening that I couldn’t begin to appreciate the complexities of the music. It’s available to watch again on the BBC iPlayer.

A rather good little piece in The Guardian here.

A little heads up about a good programme you may have missed. I love French music so Je t’aime, the story of the French chanson was a must-watch for me. It was shown on Friday evening on BBC4 (where else?) and clashed with HIGNFY. I caught up with it on the iPlayer yesterday evening and wasn’t disappointed.

Petula Clark, no mean chanteuse herself, was the presenter. There were people I’d never heard of, people I’d thought must be dead, people (Juliette Greco, Jane Birkin) who look amazing for their age. Everyone from Charles Aznavour to ZAZ agreed that in French music the lyric is more important than the tune; naturally the French think that their songs are more intellectual and better than any others. Plenty of informed, intelligent comment and lots and lots of music. Interesting that the French refer to ‘the Anglo Saxons’, lumping British and American music together as if it were the same. Hmm, it’s a POV.

I’d never seen Charles Trenet performing before. Here's his most famous composition, La Mer.

Last week I took delivery of my Amazon TV Fire Stick but didn’t try to set it up until yesterday. I pre-ordered the gizmo when it was on offer at £19.00 (usual price £35.00), which is pretty good considering that it’s a one off payment. I wanted this because I wasn’t making the most of my Amazon Prime film and video streaming. I also wanted to be able to see BBC iPlayer programmes on a big screen.

My first problem was that I simply couldn’t open the remote control to put the batteries in. Of course I thought, ‘You duffer! Why are you so hopeless?’ Then I Googled the problem and found that it’s quite general and one that people consider a design fault. The suggested solution (from users, not Amazon) is to use a little knife. I did. It worked. First problem overcome. Connecting everything was easy. Then came:

Problem two. I’d previously watched a couple of YouTube videos about set up. Watching these guys, they just plugged everything in and the Fire Stick logo appeared on the screen instantly without them fiddling with their TV sets. This didn’t happen to me. The instructions say: ‘Select the appropriate HDMI input’. It took me a while to work this out (my TV manual was useless and I did say this was for dummies) but all you do is select AV using your TV remote. Yes, it seems obvious, but there may be other people out there for whom it isn’t. As soon as I’d done that, it was all systems go. It found my BT hub quickly, and I entered my wireless code when prompted. It knows at once who you are and asks if you want to use that account or change it. You have to wait a while for ‘updates’ (already?) then you get the cheery chappy introductory video.

After that I had a play. Downloaded the iPlayer app, which didn’t take long, and experimented. It’s easier to find a programme than it is on the PC. You go to ‘find a programme’ and see an alphabet grid. If you click on say, ‘G’, all programmes beginning with G are listed, so you don’t have the faff of typing in a whole programme name. I selected Gardeners’ World, just to try it out, and in no time I was watching Monty. Easy to stop any time you want to and the back button is your friend.

Any videos and music which you already have from Amazon are listed for you and once you’ve downloaded any apps you want, they’re in your app library. So, quite user friendly and very good value, is my verdict.
Wimsey with Harriet

Fans of Dorothy L Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey will already be aware that the Drama Channel is showing the original 1987 drama series starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. I’ve been recording the lot in order to save them on discs. I need to do this because some of our own discs (recorded from an ITV3 re-showing) have become corrupted. This is a shame, because my husband was so clever at this sort of thing that he could record a series and take out the advertisements, something I’ve never found out how to do. It’s also well worth doing, since DVDs of each story currently cost £29.99 on Amazon, so the whole lot would set you back £90.00.

So, as well as watching the Drama episodes as they appear, I’ve been checking the old discs. And what a surprise I got! I found the first two episodes of Strong Poison to be hopelessly corrupted. The third, however, is perfect and is vastly superior to what we’re getting from Drama. The colour, clarity of picture and sound quality are all much better *and* there are more scenes! Yes, fellow viewers, the Drama channel is short-changing us with this series, presumably in order to fit more advertisements into the allotted time. Not that it stops me watching, of course. For me, Edward Petherbridge is just perfect as Lord Peter.


Naturally, watching the programme made me want to read the book again and I did a very silly thing. Wanting to find out if it were available cheaply for the Kindle, I clicked the wrong button by accident and bought it by mistake. Duh! I have two other copies!
Oh dear, this journal is turning into an obituary column but I was really sorry to hear just now that Warren Clarke had died. He first impressed me with quite a small part in The Jewel in the Crown. I never watched Dalziel and Pascoe but have fond memories of Sleepers (with Nigel Havers) and Nice Work, based on David Lodge’s novel. Rather creepy that he will still be seen posthumously in a new Poldark.

Photo BBC

When I was teaching, I once set a class of young boys the task of writing about certain events in the seventeenth century as they might be reported in a newspaper. One effort began with the striking headline:

My sweet lads. They couldn't spell but they could have made as good a fist at writing historical drama as those responsible for yesterday’s first episode of ITV’s The Great Fire. The hero, Thomas Farriner the baker (Andrew Buchan), was completely modern in looks and speech. The one convincing character was the fictional Lord Denton, played by Charles Dance; the only actor who managed not to look a complete idiot in a wig. Really, it was laughable. And why must all historical dramas impose modern sensibilities on the past? Downton is the worst culprit but it’s true of all of them.

I enjoyed Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death when I read it way back. I see I didn’t write anything about it, due to having a broken wrist at the time. I’m currently hobbling about with Achilles Tendonitis; what is it about this book?

Sidney Chambers, the young clergyman who divides his time conscientiously between running a parish and teaching at Cambridge, yet is fond of drink and women, is an attractive character. So I was alarmed when I read the pre-show blurb for Grantchester, based on the first book in the series. ‘Gritty’? ‘ A ‘Ripper Street vibe’? I’ve never watched Ripper Street but it doesn’t sound my kind of thing at all. I just didn’t recognise James Runcie’s book from the description. I watched a recording yesterday evening (fancy putting it on against New Tricks)! There was even a ‘sex and violence’ warning before the programme.

I needn’t have worried. You might just as well put a sex and violence warning before an episode of Miss Marple. Why not sell it as a 1950s period piece about a sleuthing clergyman? Although James Norton doesn’t match the book’s description of Chambers physically, you could believe in him as a man people would confide in. I also liked Robson Green as Geordie, Sidney’s Police Inspector friend. OK, the producers have invented the odd character and altered the continuity of some events but it was all very pretty and I enjoyed it. The book is better and I’m now reading it again. I really must read the next two volumes.


This is fab

Oct. 7th, 2014 08:24 pm

BBC Music - BBC Music - #LoveBBCMusic - Tonight 8.00pm

I've watched it three times already. I can never get tired of this song.
I love New Tricks, however far fetched the stories are. I wondered how the new set up would work but I’m liking Nicholas Lyndhurst as Danny; I love the way he knows everything. Yesterday’s episode was particularly good, venturing into the realms of psychogeography. Two murders connected with London’s underground River Fleet and a spooky trip into the sewers were just part of the fun. All that stuff about the river demanding blood? I was expecting Peter Ackroyd to get a credit at the end! See my review here of London Under.


Nicholas Lyndhurst, photo BBC



January 2017



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