Thursday, 23 October 2014

Downton Abbey (Part 2)

Bettys, that well-known Yorkshire tea-room institution, put in a bit of a cameo on Sunday's episode of Downton Abbey. Apparently. I didn't see it. Because I don't watch Downton Abbey any more. Not since they killed off Matthew. And it got silly. (Or too silly. It was always silly.)

Keeping with the theme of factual inaccuracy on Downton, Bettys' Facebook page (which I "like" in the eternal hope of free cake) was quick to point out two errors. One was to do with an apostrophe (the shop still had one in 1924), and the other was a basket of Fat Rascals in the window, which weren't made or sold or even heard of at the time. Though as Bettys actually supplied the said Fat Rascals, you can't blame Julian Fellowes for this one.

Here is a snapshot of a delicious Bettys pink champagne afternoon tea, consumed to celebrate my 40th birthday. Bettys may be expensive, but always worth the compulsory queue. The pastry on their Yorkshire curd tarts is sublime. The raspberry macaroons on the menu this summer were to die for. And the cafes are so much more child friendly than the posh pinnies could ever lead you to imagine. (There is evidence: my daughter is devouring her own slice of cake in the background.)

Friday, 17 October 2014

Downton Abbey

Oh, please someone, make it stop. Julian Fellowes, you may now be in the House of Lords, but you are never going to be a Lord of the Manor or have your own footman, so please, PLEASE, take your wish-fulfilment fantasies out of our lives and leave us all in peace. There, I've said it. Even though I haven't officially watched Downton Abbey since they killed off Matthew, I can't believe ITV is still milking it quite so pathetically. It was once reasonably entertaining, then it sank to mildly diverting, and now it's just got plain silly. I for one cannot wait until the property is either burned down by an angry tenant farmer, bombed to smithereens in the Second World War, or sold off to the National Trust.

I caught some of an episode on Sunday, purely by accident. I couldn't work my friend's Sky remote properly, right? And that's the story I'm sticking to. They made me do it, mister. Honest. This is Season Five. It is ten years since the start of Series One. However, nobody looks any older (although Lady Mary is now paler than a circus clown and skinnier than the proverbial rake). And nothing really has changed, apart from more characters having sex with people they shouldn't. The Earl of Grantham is still under the illusion that everybody in the village loves him, his family and his estate. Occasionally some firebrand socialist is allowed to shout at dinner, but Lord G still has the authority to throw them out. Even though 1920s dresses are surely much less fiddly than Edwardian gowns, the Crawleys still can't put their own clothes on or brush their own hair. Mrs Patmore has resisted every new-fangled kitchen gadget on the market, and still prepares dinner as though it is a banquet in a medieval castle, with the butlers doubling as jesters. Daisy is still only allowed to do the washing up. And for some reason (her acerbic one-liners being the only good thing in the script, probably), the Dowager Countess still hasn't died of old age.

There are ridiculous numbers of characters, split across upstairs and downstairs, and ridiculous numbers of subplots. But it is hardly going to be the great ensemble piece of Fellowes' Oscar-winning Gosford Park without the late, great Robert Altman at the helm. Downton's secrets are so obvious they are screaming out from the screen. Didn't anybody notice Lady Edith having a baby? Did the family raising it think the stork brought it? Is Alfred Hitchcock supposed to have named his most famous psychopath after a murderous butler? The linguistic and factual inaccuracies continue (unintentional pun) unabated: characters "get shafted" while driving cars yet to be designed past TV aerials, UPVC conservatories, double-yellow lines, and get home to listen to music that hasn't been composed yet. Fellowes would, though, apparently describe me as "socially insecure" for pointing out that he hasn't learned to Google things properly.

It's supposed to be set in Yorkshire, as characters regularly wander off to Easingwold, Ripon and the Ainsty Hunt, but it isn't filmed anywhere near. Julian Fellowes clearly has bad memories of his schooldays at Ampleforth so won't venture north of Oxford. Apparently he wanted Gosford Park to be filmed at Highclere and wasn't allowed, so he stamped his foot and demanded it was used for Downton instead. But the servants are at least all made to speak with the official television Bad. Generic. Northern. Accent. Which is just as well as otherwise, from the scenery and weather in the background, you'd never guess they were meant to be in Yorkshire at all.

This is a genuine Yorkshire stately home,
but ironically it's been rather overused for Evelyn Waugh novels set in Wiltshire
Now, unlike the Crawleys, I properly live in Yorkshire, although my estate is a somewhat more modest one. But thanks to National Trust and Historic Houses membership, I get to nose round Yorkshire's castles and manor houses on a regular basis. Being perpetually in the company of a four-year-old child, I am especially familiar with their adventure playgrounds, hide-and-seek topiaries, cafes, miniature railways, fountains, ice-cream vans, opportunities to see Santa and summer exhibitions of Axel Scheffler drawings. As far as I am aware, Downton Abbey doesn't have any of these. Yet.

Newby Hall near Ripon,
 which Tour de France sports commentators claimed was Castle Howard
As for travelling anywhere near the world of Downton Abbey, I once stood next to Dan Stevens (who played Matthew) at the W7 bus stop outside Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End. I have walked past the Peter Pan statue in Hyde Park, where Lady Mary dumped her latest beau on Sunday night, numerous times. I have nearly fallen (but not been pushed) under a bus in Piccadilly Circus (bad wine at an office Christmas party). And from now on, that's as near as I will care to go. Please, someone, make Julian Fellowes stop. Not in a murderous Bates kind of way. Just take his pen and his ITV contract away.

Nunnington Hall, near Helmsley.
Cheeky peacocks and miniature rooms.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014


"It was drowsily warm,
with dozens of bees
lazily buzzing
through flowers and trees..."
(Lynley Dodd, Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack)
Cambridge's answer to Endeavour Morse is apparently a ginger-haired vicar called Sidney, although he has ended up being an amateur sleuth by accident. Grantchester is adapted from a set of novels by James Runcie. James is the son of Robert, who was of course Archbishop of Canterbury and who - more importantly - used to have a parish in Cambridge. While Robert (if I may refer to the Archbishop in such familiar terms) never ended up fighting crime on the banks of the Cam, James nonetheless drew some of Sidney's character traits and background story from his father's life.

So it's a shame the telly programme's a bit rubbish really. The sets and costumes may be an accurate representation of the 1950s, but the language is straight out of the noughties, and it's all a bit racy for post-wartime Britain. "Are you a virgin?" Sidney is asked over dinner by an overly confident female psychologist, who seems rather ahead of her time. "Is that why you drink?" she continues. It's true that Sidney does knock back quite a lot. It's something to do with the war, and doomed, frustrated love, but a virgin, he says, he most definitely is not.

Then (because you can't have an Oxbridge murder mystery without a Geordie copper) Robson Green turned up, and I actually groaned out loud. In last night's episode, his extreme fishing involved retrieving a corpse resembling Millais' Ophelia from a canal. Since Sidney knew the family involved (he'd had dinner with them the night before), DI or whatever he is Robson then let him do the rest of the work, the lazy bastard. Sidney ended up scrabbling under sofas and breaking and entering into rooms at King's College, which is hardly fitting for a man of the cloth. King's Parade seems to be our one token shot of Cambridge, since most of the series is filmed in Hertfordshire. Though the church in Grantchester is the real one.

Sidney, lacking a wife, is looked after by Raquel from Only Fools And Horses, She makes a fruitcake bribe for the archdeacon so that he will let them employ a very camp curate. I had a sudden flashback to Mrs Doyle offering cupcakes with "cocaine in them" to Father Ted. Mrs Maguire pines horribly for her "Ronnie", killed in the war. She has a keen eye for a "criminal brow" and makes the camp curate shave off his pencil moustache.

Anyway, it's all resolved quick as you like. It wasn't - as everyone believed - Johnny Johnson, the "jazz fellow" with a past, but rather the overconfident female psychologist, who had been having an affair with Ophelia's husband. There was blood on the stairs. It all ended in a dance, and Sidney quoting Corinthians.

Grantchester's most famous modern resident (when he's not in prison) is Jeffrey Archer, but don't let that put you off. The village is a pleasant stroll or ambitious punt along the river from the centre of Cambridge, and is worth visiting for its wonderful tea garden, the Orchard. The house that owns the garden once belonged to Rupert Brooke, a much better writer than Jeffrey Archer could ever be. I've only been the once to the Orchard, but have nearly made it twice more, thwarted on each occasion by the weather suddenly turning nasty and the garden closing early. There could be nothing nicer on a sunny day than slumbering in a deckchair under its blossom trees, reading a book, sipping tea or fruit cordial and sampling heavenly traditional sponge cakes. Sydney would prefer a sherry though. Just watch out for the wasps.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On Meth Cooking and Madison Avenue

With only The Great British Bake-Off and Our Zoo catching my attention of late, I have been busying myself with a couple of box sets which had finally been shipped out to us by Lovefilm after a few years of waiting: the first season of Breaking Bad and the third of Mad Men.

Breaking Bad was as wonderful as everyone claims - it had us gripped from the first moment, a crazy, nude-apart-from-a-respirator campervan chase across the New Mexico desert. Brilliant scientist Walter White, who has begrudgingly ended up a dull Chemistry teacher in an indifferent high school, is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, despite never having smoked a cigarette in his life. Somehow he has to afford the medical treatment his family (a pregnant wife and partially disabled son) insist he try, even though it is likely to fail. And he needs to be able to leave them a financial legacy for when it does. Walter is too proud to accept a hand-out from a wealthy friend and one-time academic associate (who seems to have made his money from one of Walter's brainwaves anyway). So Walter begins cooking meth, therewith entering a seedy criminal underworld for which he has not even a smidgeon of the wherewithal required to succeed. And yet... Time after time, his scientific knowledge saves the day. His meth is the best on the market. His weaponry is an arsenal of chemical explosions and lethal gas clouds. He knows how to dissolve a body in acid, even if his dippy high-school dropout assistant doesn't listen to his instructions. Walter's moral code is painfully considered and unconventional. He proves you can be a good guy in the guise of a bad guy. And he can get away with stuff simply because to the world (and his Drug Enforcement Officer brother-in-law) he is still that dull Chemistry teacher. You can't help but love him, and I sincerely hope it's not another few years before we get sent Season Two.

I have never been to New Mexico, and (funnily enough) I have never cooked meth. I was the one cowering at the back of Chemistry lessons, too scared to even light my own Bunsen burner. Caravans are where we spend cheap family holidays, and they are usually reserved for huddling under blankets, reading Julia Donaldson, and playing endless games of Shopping List. The only thing ever cooking is a pan of pasta on the gas stove.
A caravan in a very drug free (unless Calpol counts) corner of Holland
I have however watched a parent die of cancer, and the whole backdrop to Breaking Bad makes me so thankful that my mother's treatment - thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of ultimately unsuccessful hormone-blocking medication and chemo and radiotherapy - was entirely funded by our National Health Service, leaving our family savings intact.


We watched the second season of Mad Men while on holiday in Nice, as some evenings were wet and cold enough to make use of our apartment's DVD player. Our visit to the French Riviera was very much the sort of holiday that pre-dated our daughter's arrival - lingering over long lunches washed down with Provencal rose, exploring galleries of Matisse, Miro and Chagall, lying still on a beach for hours, and buying pungent cheese from local markets. It seems like a lifetime ago.

And thanks to the five years that had lapsed between seeing Seasons Two and Three, I was a little hazy as to what had been going on. But it wasn't long before the various takeover transactions, sexual obsessions and murky behaviour came back to me, and the third season was - as ever - a delightful watch. At first, not much seemed to happen other than the usual vast amounts of smoking and drinking in offices and kitchens, and me wishing I looked as good in a dress as Christina Hendricks. There was a new British contingent in the office, but otherwise, same old, same old, and nothing wrong with that. But suddenly several slow-burning plotlines unfolded to a significant finale, when long-suffering Betty Draper finally showed her philandering and mysterious husband Don the door, and the ad men of Madison Avenue had to steal their way out of soon-to-be sold down the river Sterling Cooper to set up the new, hopefully upriver Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, operating out of a hotel suite. The tipping point for these events was the Kennedy assassination. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard that news. Unless, like me, you weren't born yet. My generation remember where they were when they found out Diana died instead.

But it's not really about the plot on Mad Men. It's the comments on society that fascinate me. The treatment of women, both at work and home: no divorce rights, the expectation that you stop work as soon as you get married, let alone have your first child, and the assumption that if you are appointed to a position that is something other than secretarial, you will fill it for less pay and have most of your suggestions ignored. The treatment of men during childbirth, banished to the hospital waiting room. The treatment of women during childbirth, for that matter: sent comatose by medication while flat on their backs, with their doctor armed with forceps. The racism, covert and overt: you have a African American maid, and while she may be paid and you tut a little when horrific events unfurl in Alabama, it's quite possible that it's "just not the right time" for the Civil Rights Movement. The attitudes towards disability: a leading light in the company gets his foot severed in a stupid workplace accident and is instantly written off as never being able to work again, whereas now he would sue the company's ass off and they would at the very least be obliged to make the office wheelchair accessible. The closet, frustrated nature of homosexuality. The lack of connection between smoking and lung cancer, or risks during pregnancy. Lucky Strike is Sterling Cooper's biggest client, whereas nowadays you wouldn't even be allowed to advertise tobacco products.

So today, yes, in Britain, women may succeed in advertising (though not necessarily at equal pay to their male counterparts), and there is no sitting around all day drinking on sofas - or at least not on the office sofas. And all smoking will be done outside on the street. But there is so much competition between clients and colleagues that the stress levels are probably enormous. I had a housemate in London who had a job in advertising, and she loathed it so much that she would vomit every single morning before she set off to work, unable to deal with the pressure to create copy to ridiculous deadlines and keep up with her zany, quirky contemporaries, who were all baying for her job.

Did I walk down Madison Avenue in New York in the autumn of 2002, my only ever visit to the city, another trip that feels a lifetime away? Well, I must have done, because the Whitney Museum of American Art is situated on a corner of it, and we spent a whole afternoon there. The Whitney exhibits art that would have been utterly contemporary at the time of Mad Men, Andy Warhol in particular. Plus a vast collection of Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper paintings, all housed in a giant concrete cube. A wonderful place. But there was no sign of Don, Roger, Pete, Peggy or Joan on the street outside. Nowadays, the advertising agencies synonymous with Madison Avenue have largely moved out, just like the newspapers on Fleet Street in London. As Bob Dylan would sing only a month after the close of Mad Men's Season Three: the times, they are a-changin'.